Uzbekistan forced confessions to justify massacre of protesters

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The Independent Online

Human Rights Watch reports that witnesses of the massacre in the eastern city of Andizhan and relatives of the victims, have been rounded up and jailed for between 10 to 15 days on fabricated charges. "They are severely beaten and tortured until they sign statements confessing to being members of radical Islamic groups," a researcher for the group who has just visited the central Asian region said.

The authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov has refused all calls for an international inquiry into the worst massacre of civilians by an army since China's 1994 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Despite eyewitness accounts contradicting the government version, the Uzbek authorities continue to insist that the army was forced to act on 13 May to put down an attempt by radical extremist Muslims to overthrow it. Human Rights Watch fears that the jailing and coercion of "hundreds, or even thousands" of people is a deliberate tactic aimed at bolstering the government's case. It appears that some have been so intimidated that they have readily confessed to having been manipulated by the radicals.

The "uprising" began when a group of 30 locals attacked a police station in Andizhan and seized weapons that they used to attack a military garrison. There, they killed unarmed prison guards as they released up to 2,000 inmates, including 23 prominent local businessmen accused of Islamist extremism. As the unrest spread, the attackers occupied administrative buildings and called their relatives and supporters into the centre of the town.

But, according to witness accounts at the time, the insurgents were not Islamist radicals as claimed by the authorities, but largely devout Muslims following the teachings of a jailed former mathematics teacher called Akram Yuldashev.

Later, the protest grew into a rally of thousands of people voicing their anger about growing poverty and government repression. The gathering of some 2,000 people, which included women and children, was brutally suppressed by the Uzbek military.

"No one would question the government's legitimate right to investigate the raid on the jail, the killing of government officials and those events. What is in contention here is what happened after that," said Rachel Denbar, the deputy director of Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. The group is calling on the European Union to make good on a threat of sanctions against the Uzbek government. EU foreign ministers threatened to partly suspend a co-operation agreement with Tashkent, and to consider a ban on military exports unless the Uzbek government agreed to an independent, international investigation by 1 July.

When that did not happen, the EU ministers on 18 July expressed "profound concern" as they called for an EU special representative to travel to Uzbekistan. He has not been admitted.

The issue of the Uzbekistan massacre is not on the agenda of the next foreign ministers' meeting on 1 September. A Foreign Office spokesman denied that this was letting President Karimov off the hook. "We are working through the United Nations and other regional organisations to establish an independent inquiry," the spokesman said.

Ms Denbar said it "wants to make the EU and the US pressure the Uzbek government to accept some kind of transparency". She added: "They are literally getting away with murder. There's not been a serious international challenge to their version of events."