Following massive demonstrations on Friday and Saturday in eastern Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the Uzbek government may again use excessive force against demonstrators and unleash a broader crackdown on peaceful protesters and dissidents.

With the possibility of protests continuing, Human Rights Watch called on the government not to use lethal force to disperse demonstrators. “International law is very clear on the use of excessive force,” said Holly Cartner. “It’s the government’s duty to maintain civic order but it is also obligated to uphold the law.”

According to press reports, government troops violently dispersed demonstrations on Friday in the city of Andijan, opening fire on crowds of protesters numbering as many as 10,000 on the city’s main square. The death toll is unknown, but eyewitnesses estimated that as many as several hundred were killed and many more injured, including unarmed civilians.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to apply non-violent means to the degree possible before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the rules require law enforcement officials to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved. Law enforcement
officers should minimize damage and injury and respect and preserve human life.

At a press conference in Tashkent on Saturday, Uzbek President Islam Karimov blamed the violence on “terrorists” and Hizb ut-Tahrir, a non-violent group that supports the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. His statement raises concern that, following a pattern established over several years, the Uzbek government will proceed to suppress peaceful religious dissidents and political opponents, including human rights defenders, labeling them “Islamic extremists.”

“The government can’t use the war on terrorism to justify shooting demonstrators,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “This isn’t about terrorism. It’s about people speaking out against poverty and repression.”

According to media accounts, the protesters were calling for freedom, justice, and an end to the economic hardship felt by many in the region. The demonstration was reportedly sparked by a smaller protest against the ongoing trial of 23 local businessmen.

According to reports, on Friday morning a group of gunmen broke into the Andijan prison and released the 23 defendants and as many as 2000 other prisoners; the gunmen then took over the local government building. The government has stated that 10 troops were killed but did not clarify the circumstances. After the troops fired on demonstrators Friday afternoon, the protests dispersed, only to reconvene on Saturday.

The 23 businessmen are charged with “religious extremism” for their alleged membership in a nonviolent minority religious group. Some of the defendants are apparently linked to Akramia, an Islamic group named for its founder, Akram Yuldashev. Yuldashev, who is from Andijan, was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment in 1999 on charges of anti-constitutional activity. Akramia instructs its followers to live according to Muslim principles and in particular to donate some of their income to help needy Muslim families.

Hundreds of families in Andijan rely on the businesses owned by the defendants for employment and their livelihoods. On May 10 the defendants’ supporters, who numbered between 700-1,000 staged a peaceful protest outside the city court, where the trial was taking place, demanding their release. On Friday, thousands of others with grievances against the government converged on the main square.

The government of Uzbekistan has severely limited avenues for civic participation and the peaceful expression of dissent. There are no independent media, the government has refused to register opposition political parties and there are tight restrictions on civil society groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern over reports that the Uzbek government had imposed an effective information blockade on Andijan by ordering journalists out of the city and prohibiting local media from reporting on the situation.