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The government of Uzbekistan is trying to block information about the killings of hundreds of people in Andijan on May 13, Human Rights Watch said today.

A Human Rights Watch researcher who went to Andijan found new evidence of government measures that prevent the public from learning the full story about the killings and the government’s use of force.

Human Rights Watch urged the United States not to engage in any further discussions with Uzbekistan about making permanent its military base there, and called on the European Union to suspend a major trade agreement until the Uzbek government allows an independent, international inquiry into the May 13 killings.

“The Uzbek authorities are trying to shut Andijan off from the world,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They’re going to succeed unless other governments insist on a full international investigation, and soon.”

Nearly two weeks after the shootings, Andijan residents whom Human Rights Watch contacted clearly feared government retribution for speaking about the events. A woman who was wounded and lost two family members on May 13 told Human Rights Watch:

“I am so scared, I don’t want anything, I don’t want any justice. Don’t tell our names, don’t say you came to our house – just say you heard about what happened to us from other people.”

Several people told Human Rights Watch that police had warned them not to talk to journalists or other “outsiders.”

One person told Human Rights Watch:

“Last night there was an [identification] check throughout the neighborhood. Several policemen were checking the documents in every house. They warned us, ‘If the journalists, correspondents come – you should not tell them anything, otherwise we will find you.’”

The same person warned Human Rights Watch not to go to the local cemetery where there were reportedly visibly fresh graves, because “there is an informant sitting near the gates watching for any strangers who come to the cemetery.”

Andijan remains essentially closed to journalists and human rights investigators. Police have either forced foreign journalists in Andijan to leave or threatened them and their support staff. Police have warned taxi drivers not to take foreign passengers to Andijan. Any traveler to the city must first pass through numerous checkpoints and undergo thorough searches.

Last week, President Islam Karimov rejected United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan’s proposal for an international investigation, saying that a two-hour tour of Andijan for foreign diplomats and journalists that took place on May 18 was adequate. On Monday the Uzbek parliament announced the creation of a commission to examine the Andijan events. Human Rights Watch welcomed the move, but emphasized the importance of a truly independent, international investigation.

“Because there’s already been so much government pressure on people not to talk about what happened, it seems reasonable to question the independence of a parliamentary commission,” said Cartner. “What’s needed is an investigative team that can’t be pressured. The U.S. and the E.U. have to drive this message home to the Uzbek government.”

The U.S. and Uzbek governments have been engaged in discussions on a formal, long-term agreement that would allow the United States to maintain its military base in southern Uzbekistan. The United States currently uses the Uzbek base rent-free; a formal arrangement would provide the Uzbek government considerably greater financial benefits. In July 2004, the U.S. government cut most direct government-to-government assistance, including military aid, to Uzbekistan because of the country’s poor human rights record. The U.S. Defense Department, however, has continued to provide some counter-terrorism assistance to Uzbekistan. Under U.S. law, this aid would have to be suspended if the units receiving it were found to have participated in gross human rights violations, such as any unlawful killings in Andijan.

The European Union’s Partnership and Cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan provides for 16 million euros in indirect assistance.

“The U.S. and the E.U. have to make clear that there will be real consequences for a cover-up if there is no independent investigation, and they have to set a deadline for it to take place,” said Cartner. “They have to say that a cover-up is unacceptable.”

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