(Geneva) –The US, EU, and other governments should speak out about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan on the 10th anniversary of the Andijan massacre and renew their calls for accountability, Human Rights Watch said in a video released today.
On May 13, 2005, government forces opened fire on thousands of mostly peaceful protesters in the central square in the town of Andijan, a city in the Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan. The protesters had gathered to speak out against poverty, unemployment, and government repression, and to call on the government to respond to their plight.
“Fear still hangs over the people of Uzbekistan,” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They live with the knowledge that simply for speaking out, they can be shot and killed with impunity.”
Earlier on the day of the protest, armed men had freed 23 local businessmen who had been sentenced for “religious extremism,” and took over local government buildings. As the thousands of protesters gathered, government forces in armored vehicles and snipers fired indiscriminately on the crowd of civilians, blocking off the square as people attempted to flee, killing hundreds. Government troops then moved through the square and executed wounded people where they lay.
In the video, Lutfullo Shamsuddinov, a human rights defender from Andijan, describes seeing government forces using machine guns from armored personnel carriers and soldiers with assault rifles lying on the ground to fire at protesters attempting to flee. “It was impossible,” he says. “There was screaming, the women especially were crying, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!’ And the shooting continued for about half an hour. Half an hour! And then it was clear, even clear to the soldiers themselves, that there was no return fire.”
Although the troops killed hundreds of people, the government admits to a death toll of only 187. It says that 60 of those were protesters killed by the gunmen and that the rest were gunmen killed by government forces.
Vasila Inoyatova, head of the Tashkent-based human rights group Ezgulik, says in the video that “There was mourning in every house. When there is a funeral in Uzbekistan, people mark it by sitting outside on benches for three days. The benches were all lined up end to end; endless benches.”
Following the massacre, the Uzbek government rejected all efforts to allow an independent inquiry and sought to rewrite the history of that day, unleashing a ferocious crackdown against any attempts to expose the truth about the brutal killings or seek accountability. Authorities have targeted for persecution, harassment, arrest, and ill-treatment anyone suspected of participating in the protests and witnessing the killings, even going after people who fled the country by pressuring their relatives who remain or coercing them to return to Uzbekistan.
Over the last decade Uzbekistan has also become increasingly closed to all independent scrutiny. Numerous domestic human rights activists and journalists have been imprisoned or forced to flee, and the government kicked out all independent media and international human rights and other nongovernmental groups.
Earlier in 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed many Uzbeks, most of them outside the country, who expressed fear about speaking on the record about the massacre, citing threats from the authorities to themselves and family members who remain in Andijan. They told Human Rights Watch that their relatives are still regularly called in for questioning. Some of their relatives reported being forced to sign statements that those who fled abroad after the massacre are terrorists.
Nasiba (not her real name), the wife of an Andijan refugee abroad, told Human Rights Watch that over the decade since the massacre, security officials have interrogated her monthly, including about her husband’s whereabouts, and threatened to force her into prostitution in retaliation for her husband’s alleged participation in the protest.
Nasiba also said that her children were ostracized at school and the family was forced to move due to the relentless harassment. Several of Nasiba’s male relatives were imprisoned directly following the Andijan massacre. Another was jailed within a day of his return to the country following assurances by Uzbek authorities that he would be “forgiven” his alleged participation. Nasiba told Human Rights Watch that this relative died in police custody 20 days later and that she saw marks of ill-treatment on his corpse, including bruising on the face and hands without fingernails.
“They said, ‘If you flee, we’ll catch you, and you’ll rot in prison, you’ll spend the rest of your life in prison,’” she says in the video. “I was so scared I didn’t tell anyone. By 2014 I couldn’t take it anymore.” She recently fled Uzbekistan.
The US and EU, which have relied on Uzbekistan’s military cooperation because it borders Afghanistan, imposed sanctions after the massacre, but allowed them to lapse, eventually softening their stance on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.
The US and EU should set a timeline for the Uzbek government to undertake concrete human rights improvements, and make clear that specific policy consequences will follow if it does not, Human Rights Watch said. These should include targeted, restrictive measures such as visa bans and asset freezes against government officials and entities responsible for grave human rights violations including torture, arbitrary extension of sentences for people imprisoned on politically motivated charges, violations of religious freedom, and forced labor.
UN Human Rights Council members, including the US and EU governments, should also show their concern about Uzbekistan’s abysmal record and persistent refusal to cooperate with UN monitoring bodies by creating a dedicated position for an expert to ensure sustained scrutiny and reporting on the human rights situation in the country.
“A UN rapporteur on Uzbekistan would provide accountability and signal to the people of Uzbekistan that Andijan and other human rights abuses will not go unnoticed and will not be forgotten,” Swerdlow said.