Europe and Central Asia

Uzbekistan: Andijan Crisis Aftermath

Background Document

On May 13, the Uzbek government violently dispersed thousands of demonstrators in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan, killing hundreds and wounding more. Estimates of the casualties range from a government figure of 169 dead to as many as 745, claimed by an opposition political party. At least five hundred people fled Uzbekistan to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, seeking refuge from persecution and from threats to their safety in their home country.

The killings mark some of the worst political violence in Central Asia since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

The protests highlight long pent-up public grievances about worsening poverty, government corruption, and the government's long-standing repression of people who practice Islam outside the boundaries of the Uzbek government's tight control of religion.

With a population of 26 million, Uzbekistan is the largest country in Central Asia. It is one of the most repressive to emerge from the former Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan's broader human rights record
The Uzbek government is known for its abysmal human rights record. Elections are empty exercises. There is no independent Uzbek media or genuine opposition parties. The authorities harass, intimidate, and sometimes imprison and physically abuse human rights defenders, and in recent months tightened restrictions on civil society groups. Human Rights Watch has documented the extensive use of torture in police custody and in 2003, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture characterized torture as "systematic" in Uzbekistan.

The authorities rarely allow public assemblies that protest government policy. Human Rights Watch has, in recent years, documented numerous cases in which police in the capital, Tashkent, used violence to disperse small groups of peaceful demonstrators protesting government corruption, torture, and other human rights violations. In some instances, police have detained participants before they could arrive at protest sites.

After the Andijan events, Uzbek authorities have detained, harassed, and attempted to intimidate human rights defenders in Andijan, Tashkent, and other parts of the country.

Camgaign against Independent Islam
The Uzbek government has stated that the Andijan protests were organized by "religious fundamentalists." Protesters' grievances, however, appeared to focus on a wide range of issues, including poverty and corruption. While the protests appeared not to have religious content, demonstrators did voice their anger about the imprisonment of other people on religious charges.

For more than 10 years, the Uzbek government has imprisoned thousands of people on charges of religious "extremism" or "attempt to overthrow the constitutional system". The government justifies this policy and its tight control over religion as necessary in the fight against terrorism.  

Uzbekistan has endured acts of terrorism. In 1999 bombings of government buildings in Tashkent killed more than a dozen and wounded many others. The country also faced incursions in 1999 and 2000 by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group that was based in Afghanistan.

But thousands of people in prison on religious charges are not implicated in or even charged with any violent act, let alone terrorism. Those imprisoned include people who attended mosques not registered with the government, who were followers of imams who fell out of favor with the authorities, or who belonged to unregistered religious organizations.  Police and security agents have tortured many people to compel them to confess to being members of "fundamentalist" groups, and have harassed and threatened their families. Courts have handed down prison sentences of up to 15-20 years, following grossly unfair trials.  Prison conditions are widely believed to be harsh, overcrowded and unhygienic, and prison authorities commonly beat or otherwise ill treat inmates. Deprived of key wage earners, families of religious prisoners are often left destitute.

While the campaign against independent Islam has certainly intensified in the years since the 1999 terror attack, it dates at least to the mid-1990s (link to 1996 report By that time, the government had outlawed the country's secular opposition parties and driven its leaders into exile; the  religious community, however, remained an unregulated source of social authority, which the government feared for its potential as a political catalyst.

Today, the chief targets of the government's arrest campaign are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a nonviolent organization that seeks the reestablishment of the Caliphate in traditionally Muslim lands. Several countries have banned the Hizb ut-Tahrir; Germany did so due to the anti-Semitic content of the group's literature. Other targets include "Wahhabis," a pejorative term used by the Uzbek government to suggest people are "fundamentalists" and not as a reference to actual believers in Wahhabism as practiced in Saudi Arabia.

The arrests of the 23 people in Andijan suggest how arbitrary the government's definition of "extremism" can be. The government has claimed a link between the 23 men and Hizb ut-Tahrir, which the businessmen vehemently deny.

Why Andijan
Andijan is in the Fergana Valley, a densely populated, impoverished region of Uzbekistan. During the late years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan's Islamic revival was most strongly felt in the Fergana Valley, where people are especially pious. Social and ethnic unrest hit the region in 1989; in 1991 the government put down, without bloodshed, an attempt by Islamic activists to usurp local authority in the Fergana Valley city of Namangan.

The government imprisons people on religious charges throughout the country, but arrests have happened on a massive scale in Tashkent, the capital, and in certain cities of the Fergana Valley. Human Rights Watch began documenting these arrests in the Fergana Valley in 1996.

While grievances about poverty and repression are acute in Andijan, they are widely felt throughout the country.

Uzbekistan's international partners

Uzbekistan has been an important ally for the United States in its global campaign against terrorism.  The United States has a military base in southern Uzbekistan to support its operations in Afghanistan and has provided aid and training to the Uzbek military, as well as counterterrorism assistance. The State Department has acknowledged Uzbekistan's poor human rights record and pressed the Uzbek government to institute specific democratic and human rights reforms.  But the U.S. government has not spoken with a single voice on this issue.  In July 2004, the U.S. cut U.S. $18 million in direct assistance to the Uzbek government over human rights concerns. (The funds were allocated under a 2002 supplemental appropriations act for fighting terrorism). But several weeks later, during a visit to Tashkent, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said publicly that he regretted this decision, while annoucing $23 million in new Pentagon assistance to Uzbekistan under another program not subject to human rights restrictions.  The U.S. Central Intellience Agency has also reportedly "rendered" prisoners to the Uzbek security services, even as the State Department has denounced torture by those very same services.  These mixed signals cannot be lost on the Uzbek government.

In April 2004 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) decided to stop direct lending to the Uzbek government due the latter's failure to make sufficient progress on a set of economic and human rights benchmarks the bank had set. The bank had held its annual meeting in Tashkent in 2003.

The European Union has a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan (PCA), under which Uzbekistan receives about 16 million Euros, though little of this is in direct government-to government assistance. While the PCA has a human rights clause, the EU to date has rejected conditioning any assistance to Uzbekistan on human rights compliance.

Human Rights Watch's Recommendations :

  • The government of Uzbekistan should allow an independent, international investigation to investigate the violence in Andijan. The team should include experts in forensics, crime scene investigation, and ballistics. It should be organized under the auspices of the United Nations and should include the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions.

  • Until such an investigation is completed, the U.S. government should not engage in any further discussions with Uzbekistan about making permanent its military base in Uzbekistan and the European Union should suspend is Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan.

  • The government of Uzbekistan should hold accountable those military and security forces responsible for the excessive use of lethal force in relation to the Andijan events.
    until an international, independent investigation has been conducted.

  • The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should deploy an observation mission to Uzbekistan to help prevent future clashes or even armed conflict in the region.


    Uzbekistan's broader human rights record

    Camgaign against Independent Islam

    Why Andijan

    Uzbekistan's international partners

    Human Rights Watch's Recommendations

    More HRW Documents on Uzbekistan

    Human Rights in Uzbekistan Photo Gallery