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Executive Summary

On May 13, 2005, Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed people who participated in a massive public protest in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. The scale of this killing was so extensive, and its nature was so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre.

The government has denied all responsibility for the killings. It claims the death toll was 173 people— law enforcement officials and civilians killed by the attackers, along with the attackers themselves. The government says the attackers were “Islamic extremists,” who initiated “disturbances” in the city. Uzbek authorities did everything to hide the truth behind the massacre and have tried to block any independent inquiry into the events.

A Human Rights Watch field investigation in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan recreated a comprehensive account of the events of May 13 and 14 in Andijan, presented in this report. Our findings clearly demonstrate the Uzbek government forces’ undeniable responsibility for the massacre.

While the government’s efforts at sealing off the city and intimidating people from talking about the events to outsiders have made it exceedingly difficult to establish the true death toll – and reveal an attempt to cover up the truth – Human Rights Watch believes that hundreds were killed. Eyewitnesses told us that about 300-400 people were present at the worst shooting incident, which left few survivors. There were several incidents of shooting throughout the day.

The May 13 killings began when thousands of people participated in a rare, massive protest on Bobur Square in Andijan, voicing their anger about growing poverty and government repression. The protest was sparked by the freeing from jail of twenty-three businessmen who were being tried for “religious fundamentalism.” These charges were widely perceived as unfair, and had prompted hundreds of people to peacefully protest the trial in the weeks prior to May 13.

The businessmen were freed by a group of armed people who, earlier in the day, raided a military barracks and police station, seized weapons, led a prison break to free the businessmen, took over the local government building, and took law enforcement and government officials hostage.

The attackers who took over government buildings, took people hostage, and used people as human shields, committed serious crimes, punishable under the Uzbek criminal code.1 

But neither these crimes nor the peaceful protest that ensued can justify the government’s response. It is the right and the duty of any government to stop such crimes as hostage-taking and the takeover of government buildings. However, in doing so, governments are obligated to respect basic human rights standards governing the use of force in police operations. These universal standards are embodied in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.2 The Basic Principles provide the following:

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. … Whenever the lawful use of force … is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall … exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.3

The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and preservation of human life respected.4

As the subsequent sections of this report will show, Uzbek forces did not observe these rules. According to numerous witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, there were many instances on May 13 when government troops on armored personnel carriers and military trucks, as well as snipers, fired indiscriminately into a crowd in which the overwhelming majority of people—numbering in the thousands—were unarmed. While some testimony indicates that, in one shooting incident, security forces first shot into the air, in all other incidents no warnings were given, and no other means of crowd control were attempted.

After troops sealed off the area surrounding the square, they continued to fire from various directions as the protesters attempted to flee. One group of fleeing protesters was literally mowed down by government gunfire. The presence of gunmen in the crowd, and even the possibility that they may have fired at or returned fire from government forces, cannot possibly justify this wanton slaughter.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than fifty people in a refugee camp in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and in Andijan itself who participated in the demonstrations and witnessed the violence, marking the most comprehensive research into the events done so far by any nongovernmental or media organization.

The government sought to justify its acts by casting the events in the context of terrorism, and has claimed that all of the dead were killed by the gunmen, and has stated that the organizers of the protest were Islamic “fanatics and militants” who sought to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. This is unsurprising. For nearly a decade, the Uzbek government has cast nearly all of its domestic critics as “terrorists,” “extremists,” and “Islamic fundamentalists.” The government has faced serious incidents of terrorism and insurrection, but it has also used threats of terrorism to justify essentially banning nearly all political opposition, religious or secular. Human Rights Watch research found no evidence that the protesters or the gunmen had an Islamist agenda. Interviews with numerous people present at the demonstrations consistently revealed that the protesters spoke about economic conditions in Andijan, government repression, and unfair trials—and not the creation of an Islamic state.

This report documents the government killings on May 13 and the government attempt to intimidate witnesses in the aftermath. The report places the events of that day against a background of Uzbekistan’s worsening human rights record, its brutal campaign against Islamic “fundamentalism,” and rising impoverishment, and explains how all three have affected the Fergana Valley in particular.

The Uzbek government has launched a criminal investigation into the events in Andijan, but as of this writing there is no indication that it will include an examination of government forces’ use of lethal force against unarmed people.

The Uzbek parliament has created an independent commission of inquiry into the Andijan events whose mandate includes “a thorough analysis of the actions of government and [law enforcement, security and military] structures, and a legal assessment.5” But given evidence to date that the government has sought to cover up its troops’ use of indiscriminate force, and the pressure it has put on people not to talk about what happened, it is reasonable to assert that this commission will be subject to political pressure and therefore lack credibility.

Finally, given the government’s overall poor human rights record, and in particular its record of impunity for human rights violations, it is unlikely that any government-led investigation would be credible. This makes an independent, international investigation, led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, imperative for the establishment of a true record of the killings and the start of an accountability process.

The Uzbek government has rejected an international investigation, saying that it is groundless. Last week the foreign minister said the government would allow foreign diplomats to monitor an investigation under way by the Uzbek parliament.6 But given the government’s lack of credibility on investigating abuses, this is not enough to guarantee the integrity of the investigation.

While the present report demonstrates the government’s use of excessive lethal force, questions about the precise death toll and the units responsible for the killings remain unanswered. A thorough investigation into the killings must therefore include ballistic, forensic and crime scene investigators, and must have unhindered and independent access to hospital, morgue, and other officials records.

We call on the international community, including the United Nations, the European Union, and the governments of the United States, Russian and China, to ensure that such and investigation is launched.

[1] The procurator general has launched criminal investigations into terrorism, attacking the constitutional order, premeditated murder of two or more persons, the organization of a criminal band, mass disturbances, hostage taking, and illegal possession of arms and explosives. See “General Prosecutor Gives Press Conference,” The Times of Central Asia [online], May 19, 2005.

[2] Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Eighth U.N. Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, 27 August to 7 September 1990, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 at 112 (1990).

[3] Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, principles 4 and 5.

[4] Ibid., principle 5.

[5] “The Formation of an Independent Commission to Investigate the Events in Andijan,” Resolution of the Legislative Chamber of the Oili Majlis [parliament] of Uzbekistan, May 23, 2005. June 2, 2005). “The commission has been entrusted to conduct careful investigation of all circumstances of Andijan events, deep and all-round analysis of their development, revealing the reasons and conditions that led to tragic events on 13 May of this year, revealing basic relationships of causes and effects of these events, and also those forces which are behind these criminal acts those led to human casualties. The deputies have charged the commission to carry out the all-round analysis of actions of the government and the law enforcement agencies, to give them legal assessment, and also regularly inform the parliament and the public on the course of investigation, including through mass media.”

[6] Aziz Nuritov, “Uzbekistan Rejects International Probe,” Guardian Unlimited, June 2, 2005.

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