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May 2005 unrest in Uzbekistan

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In May 2005 unrest in Uzbekistan reached a head when Uzbek troops fired on a crowd of protesters, killing perhaps 300 on 13 May.

Protesting Uzbeks had at first demanded that 23 local businessmen charged with being members of a banned Islamic group, Akramiya, be freed. However once this had been met they began to order that the government free all of those who are jailed on suspicion of belonging to the organisation.

Map of Uzbekistan

Table of contents

Before May 10, 2005

Prior to May 2005, protests within the tightly-controlled nation had become increasingly regular. After years of relative calm, ordinary Uzbeks, frustrated by a number of social and economic problems, began to challenge the government's authority.

The first major demonstration occurred in November 2004. The city of Kokand in eastern Uzbekistan saw unprecedented riots, with protesters throwing stones and torching police cars after the government brought in new restrictions on trade. Thousands filled the main bazaar, where one eyewitness reported that the city's mayor climbed on a market stall to address the crowd but was drowned out by furious shouting. Conflicting reports spoke of between 2,000 and 20,000 participants.

The protest was sparked by a law that placed new restrictions on trade, making it illegal for traders to use intermediaries or middle-men. If traders buy goods abroad, they must sell them personally without the use of any other retailer. They must also have a special government licence. The government said this legislation would keep prices down, but many feared that tens of thousands of businesses would collapse.

In March 2005, 500 angry farmers took over a police station and burned two police cars. They claimed that the authorities unfairly took possession of their profitable farm, leaving them impoverished.

On May 3 2005, a small protest took place outside the U.S. embassy in the capital Tashkent. About 60 people forced their way through tight security where they called for justice. Nearly all those involved were women with small children. This was seen as a measure to prevent arrest. The negative publicity such an event would cause, outside the embassy of Uzbekistan's most crucial ally, far outweighed the disobedient behaviour of the protesters. They were demonstrating against similar issues which had effected the March protests.

May 10 : Andijan protest

On May 10 reports from the BBC claimed yet another demonstration had occurred, this time in the city of Andijan. At least 1,000 people gathered to demand justice for a group of 23 young businessmen accused of "Islamic extremism." The protesters, mainly relatives of the defendants, videotaped the demonstration which police did not interrupt. Prosecutors claimed the group they were allegedly involved in, Akramiya, was similar to the banned extremist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. However many critics have claimed the trial targets independent businessmen. Scores of demonstrators lined the streets around the courthouse, with women on one side and men on the other. The protesters were reportedly dressed in their best clothes, with the scene peaceful and good-humoured.

The incident was not, however isolated. By the second day, the demonstration swelled to over 4,000 residents of the city. Prosecutors had asked for prison terms ranging from three to seven years for 20 of the accused, offering to free the remaining three. A relative of one defendant told uznews.net "We are ready to do anything in order to free our innocent brothers."

May 12 and 13

Government loses control

On the night of 12 May, armed men stormed a military garrison and prison in the city seizing weapons and releasing around 4,000 prisoners. Nine people were reported to have died during the uprising. A representative of the rebels later told an opposition website that the attack was carried out by relatives and supporters of those charged with involvement in Akramiya. The following day, 13 May, numerous international news organizations reported that rebels, including the 23 defendants, were holding the regional administration building in Andijan. An opposition group reported that rebels had unsuccessfully tried to seize the National Security Service headquarters in the city. One of the protesters occupying the regional administration building told Radio Free Europe that their only demand was the release of all prisoners accused of involvement in Akramiya. "[The authorities] should release those guys who were imprisoned under slander, including [Akramiya founder] Akram Yuldoshev". The man went on to say that government negotiators, led by Interior Minister Zakir Almatov, refused to meet the demand, instead offering them a chance to exit the country. The press office of the Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that "intensive negotiations" had so far proved fruitless. "The militants, taking cover behind women and children, are refusing any compromise," the statement said.

Order restored

Later that day Uzbek soldiers, who had sealed off the city, moved in to quash the protests. Eyewitnesses claim they cleared protesters from government offices before opening fire on demonstrators outside. Amid chaotic scenes people in the main square threw themselves to the ground to avoid being shot, as rebels and government forces exchanged fire. Men, women and children were also reported to be attempting to flee the area in panic. A correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, in Andijan, said that at least five people, and perhaps many more, were killed when the army opened fire. Galima Bukharbaeva said there was "a mass of dead and wounded." "At first, one group of armoured-personnel carriers approached the [city] square, and then another group appeared," she added: "They opened fire without mercy on everyone indiscriminately, including women and children. The crowd began to run in all directions. We dove into a ditch and lay there for a while. I saw at least five bloody corpses. The rebels who are holding the provincial administration opened fire in response. They intend to stand to the end! When we got out of the ditch, we ran along the streets into the neighbourhood and now we're looking for a place where there's no shooting. But shots can be heard everywhere..."

On the streets of Andijan, some protesters called for the resignation of President Karimov, who was reportedly overseeing troop operations at a command centre close to the city's airport.

Tashkent shoot-out

On the same day as the unrest, the US embassy reported that a would-be suicide bomber was shot outside the Israeli embassy in Tashkent. The man was apparently carrying wooden objects that appeared to be explosives, according to a police official who wished to remain unnamed. The victim was identified as an unemployed ethnic Russian, who had a history of mental illness and had served time in prison. The man was allegedly wearing a military camouflage vest fitted with mock-ups of explosives. As he approached the embassy, he began shouting. Security guards ordered him to lie down, but when he refused, opened fire, hitting him with at least 10 shots. Police then sealed off the street where the Embassy is situated.

Government and international response

The government-controlled media within the country broadcast only brief statements regarding the crisis. In its news bulletins, Uzbek State TV said "an armed group of criminals" had attacked the security forces in Andijan. "The bandits seized dozens of weapons and moved on to attack a correctional colony, setting some convicts free". Describing the rebels as "extremists", they claimed that nine people had been killed and 34 wounded during the clashes. The local radio station had reportedly been taken off air. Authorities also blocked foreign TV news channels, including CNN and the BBC.

Russia expressed concern about events in the Central Asian republic, but the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the unrest was an "internal affair". The White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the authorities should show restraint in Andijan, however the people of Uzbekistan desired a more democratic government, but through peaceful means. He added that the US was concerned about reports that terrorist suspects had been released from prison. The White House response has been noticeably muted. It is a very delicate situation for George W Bush, the Bush administration has received much support from the Uzbek president in the 'war against terror' in nearby Afghanistan, but does not want to be seen as supporting a ruthless and highly repressive non-democratic regime.

Kyrgyzstan, the scene of a recent uprising against the government, closed its border with Uzbekistan, as did Tajikistan. Kazakhstan has also reportedly increased border security.

Aftermath

May 14

Despite the violent crushing of the protests, the following day thousands reappeared to demonstrate. Huge crowds shouted "killers, murderers" and again demanded the president step down. One spoke of the previous days events to the Associated Press: "People were raising their hands up in the air showing they were without arms but soldiers were still shooting at them."

Additionally on May 14, thousands seeking to flee the country stormed government buildings in the eastern frontier village of Korasuv, 50km east of Andijan. They reportedly torched police offices and cars, before attacking guards on the Kyrgyz border. Authorities in the neighbouring republic are said to have turned 6000 Uzbeks away. Uzbek army helicopters were seen circling overhead.

May 15

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said that "there had been a clear abuse of human rights" in Uzbekistan.

Andijan has been blocked off from the outside world. There is disagreement about the number of dead within the city.

The local inhabitants of Karasu are rebuilding the bridges to Kyrgyzstan after their destruction by Karimov's forces.

Quotations

  • "The people have risen up" – Valijon Atakhonjonov, the brother of a defendant involved with the trial, May 13 2005.
  • "We are believers, nothing more" – Unnamed man describing himself as one of the rebel leaders, denying links to Islamic extremism.
  • "In Uzbekistan, nobody fights against women, children or the elderly," – President Karimov denying that he had given any orders for the army to shoot unarmed protesters.
  • "He said: 'We don't care if 200, 300 or 400 people die. We have force and we will chuck you out of there anyway,'" – Kabuljon Parpiyev, referring to comments allegedly made by Uzbek Interior Minister Almatov during negotiations
  • "To accept their terms would mean that we are setting a precedent that no other country in the world would accept" – Karimov referring to alleged demands by rebels – that all followers be released from jails in the Fergana Valley.

See also

Wikinews has news related to this article:
Category:Uzbekistan

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