Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan: Focus on Andijan following May unrest

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ANDIJAN, 8 June (IRIN) - One of the central streets of the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, Navoi Avenue, is deserted these days. One can see only a few idlers on either side of the road. The movement of vehicles along the street is suspended. The road from the Avenue to the city's main Babur Square is blocked on both sides.

"The roads have been blocked since the [government] security forces violently suppressed protests in Andijan on 13 May," a 30-year-old woman crossing the street told IRIN.

A group of women, working moving bricks near the city school close-by, told IRIN about recent violence in the city. The school building was badly damaged during the shooting and doors were broken.

"It was good that at that time children were not at school, otherwise how many of them could have been lost?" a 20-year-old woman told IRIN refusing to give her name.

Their comments came almost four weeks after Uzbek security forces reportedly fired indiscriminately at thousands of unarmed protesters in the Babur square. They killed up to 1,000, according to local rights groups but the Uzbek government claimed the death toll was 173.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international rights watchdog, said in a new report on the Andijan violence issued on Tuesday, that the killing of unarmed protesters by the Uzbek government last month was on such a large scale and so unjustified, that it amounted to a massacre.

The report, titled "Bullets Were Falling Like Rain": The Andijan Massacre May 13, 2005", is based on 50 interviews with victims of and witnesses to the 13 May killings. It details the Uzbek government's indiscriminate use of lethal force against unarmed people, describes government efforts to silence witnesses and places the events against the background of Uzbekistan's worsening human rights record.

FEAR DOMINATES ANDIJAN

An armoured troop-carrier (ATC) and armed military men guard the regional security department building. Flak jackets, helmets and machine-guns in the hands of police patrolling the streets, create fear and alarm amongst local residents.

A news-stand seller from Andijan, a woman of about 45, told IRIN that many people that came to the city's main square on 13 May found death there. Like many other local residents she declined to be identified, fearing government persecution.

"The security agents are arresting everyone who is said to have spoken to journalists or rights defenders. I have four children to look after," she said justifying her fear of identification.

"After the bloody firing in May we are afraid even of the sight of soldiers. So many people who were only demonstrating against poverty and the deteriorating economic situation were killed," she claimed.

Witnesses interviewed in Andijan by HRW clearly feared government retribution for speaking about what happened. HRW reported that people said they had been explicitly warned by local law enforcement officials not to talk and insisted that HRW not release their names or any details that may allow the authorities to identify them.

To get to the Babur Square one needs to pass through many traditional residential neighbourhoods or 'makhallyas' as the main streets are closed to traffic. Drivers do not hide their annoyance.

"The main road is blocked, only soldiers and cops can move freely there. And we have to go via makhallyas, which causes inconvenience for the population," said a minivan driver who did not want to be identified.

Several policemen guard the street near the Detskiy Mir department store. People are afraid to cross the road, which is blocked by military lorries. Eyewitnesses of the firing at the Chulpan Cinema, where according to some reports hundreds of unarmed civilians fleeing the attacking government forces, may have been killed, spoke of what they saw that tragic day.

WITNESSES AND SURVIVORS TELL THEIR STORIES

"Firing in movies is one thing and firing in real life is absolutely another thing. How many people were killed! Among them were small children, adults and guys," a 60-year-old woman selling sunflower seeds near the cinema told IRIN.

Lutfilla Shamsutdinov, head of Andijan regional branch of the Uzbekistan Independent Human Rights Organisation (UIHRO), a local rights group, told IRIN that he saw those tragic events with his own eyes.

"I was nearly shot. About 200 people were killed in [front of] my eyes. Soldiers were shooting from ATCs, they did not spare even wounded people," he claimed.

In the city centre, one can see the destroyed building of the provincial state administration. Armed policemen, military men and ATCs are everywhere on the streets. Inhabitants of the old part of the city say they cannot forget the 13 May events.

"Three of my sons were killed there. My eldest son had just returned from the army. My children, who went out to buy bread, were killed by soldiers," a broken-hearted woman said.

Mokhidil, a 35-year-old woman, dressed in deep blue, the colour of mourning amongst local women, and wearing a black scarf, said that she was in mourning for the innocent people killed that day.

"None of my relatives was killed. But I saw bodies of small children and 18-20 year-old guys. I can't believe that. I will never forget that day. That day should be declared a mourning day but cartoons, movies and concerts were shown on [national] TV that day as if nothing had happened," she said.

ANDIJANIS WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH

One young Andijan resident complained the authorities were concealing the truth about the recent tragic events from people. A local journalist agreed saying that rumours going around were because of the authorities' attempt to stop people from finding out what had happened.

"There are rumours now that in Bagishamal 2-3 bodies were buried in nearly each of 100 graves," he said.

Juravoi, a 55-year-old witness to the alleged mass burial of Andijan victims, was killed by unknown assailants on 28 May not far from his house. Only the previous day, Juravoi had managed to persuade a gravedigger working at a cemetary on Samo Street in the city's Bagishamal district, to show an opposition activist and Gafur Yuldashev, a correspondent from Ozodlik Radio, the Uzbek service of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), about 50 freshly dug graves.

According to the gravedigger, in each of the graves two bodies were buried, a final resting place for around 100 people killed in Andijan during firing there.

"The Uzbek authorities are trying to whitewash this massacre," Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that only a fully-fledged international investigation, with access to official records, could give a true picture of the tragic events in Andijan.

CLAMPDOWN ON JOURNALISTS AND RIGHTS ACTIVISTS CONTINUES

Nasyr Zakir, the Ozodlik Radio correspondent, connects the murder of the witness with the radio interview he gave.

"The person killed recently gave an interview to Ozodlik Radio, in which he said that in Bagishamal several bodies were buried in one grave, so he paid for that," said Nasyr Zakir.

Nasyr Zakir's younger son was beaten-up on 28 May in the eastern city of Namangan by unknown assailants. As a result, 23-year-old Vakhid Zakirov suffered reasonably serious physical injuries.

"My son was beaten because I continuously cover the Andijan events. This way they want to intimidate me," said Zakir.

Local journalists were reportedly warned by the authorities to refrain from covering developments on the ground in a way that differed from Tashkent's interpretation of the events.

Rights activists from the Ferghana Valley said that oppressions against them had increased in connection with the Andijan events. Family members of Shamsutdinov, the rights activist, told IRIN that security officials questioned him, checking both his computer and working papers. His colleague, Saidjakhon Zainobuddinov, has been under arrest at the Andijan city police department since 21 May.

"Saidjakhon Zainobuddinov is accused under clause 139 of the Criminal Code, that is distribution of false information through the mass media. The law stipulates an imprisonment up to three years for this crime," Mavluda Akhmedova, a local lawyer and rights activist, explained.

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