New York Times
May 30, 2005
MOSCOW, May 29 - In the strongest statement by American officials since Uzbekistan carried out a bloody crackdown this month against a revolt and demonstration in the city of Andijon, three United States senators on Sunday called for an international investigation into the violence. They also issued a stern rebuke to Uzbekistan's authoritarian government.
The statement by the three Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Sununu of New Hampshire, came amid new details of the conduct of the Uzbek security forces during and after the violence, including claims that injured victims have disappeared from hospitals and that troops had fired on a civilian ambulance during the crackdown, killing three medical workers inside.
The accounts further undermine the insistence of Islam A. Karimov, Uzbekistan's president and an American ally in counterterrorism efforts, that his troops operated with precision, and that armed men behind the revolt were responsible for the civilians deaths.
Uzbekistan now says 173 people, including 36 government troops, died in the uprising and crackdown on May 13. The government attributed the increase from the previous count of 169 to the deaths of 4 more soldiers from injuries suffered that day.
Human rights groups, opposition parties, survivors and relatives of the dead have said at least several hundred civilians were killed by troops who fired rifles and machine guns into dense crowds.
Speaking in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, where the senators met with members of four opposition parties, the delegation called the crackdown "a tragedy," and suggested that given Uzbekistan's long record of repression and human rights abuses, the bloodshed was not surprising.
"History shows that continued repression of human rights leads to tragedies such as the one that just took place," Senator McCain said. He later added, "When governments repress or oppress their people, sooner or later, if they have no avenue of expressing their desire for freedom, violence takes place."
The statement, made in the presence of the American ambassador to Uzbekistan, was a significant shift in tone. The three senators, all supporters of the Bush administration's antiterrorism efforts, did not characterize the gunmen or escaped prisoners who initiated the revolt as militants or terrorists, as some American officials have.
Uzbekistan has repeatedly described the men it fought as international Islamic terrorists, a characterization rejected by witnesses, who said the gunmen were local men who had been pushed to violence by the unrelenting repression and corruption of Mr. Karimov's government.
Mr. McCain said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security organization with 55 member nations, including Uzbekistan, should conduct an independent review. The European Union, the United Nations, NATO and several Western governments have also called for an outside review, a proposal Mr. Karimov has rebuffed.
The United States, balancing its interests in the region with accounts of an ally's indiscriminate use of force, has been gentler, saying any investigation should be transparent and have international participation, but also making it clear that it intended to continue cooperating with Uzbekistan on counterterrorism.
The reception of the senators was chilly; neither Mr. Karimov nor members of his government met the group.
The senators suggested that the attitude was unwise. "We recognize that this is a difficult time for the Uzbek government, but this kind of isolation and refusal to interact with a visiting delegation, I think, is counterproductive," Mr. Sununu said. "It certainly places a strain on the Uzbek-U.S. relationship."
Uzbekistan has said that it will conduct its own parliamentary investigation, but that the investigation will work from the premise that the uprising was "a planned and well-prepared terrorist act organized by international radical-extremist groups," according to statement released by the Uzbek consulate general in New York.
As the senators increased the American pressure for a more open-minded investigation, more details of the violence emerged.
A photographer working independently for The New York Times met with relatives of two men, a doctor and an ambulance driver, who they said were killed in their ambulance by Uzbek troops as the vehicle neared a checkpoint on May 13.
The accounts gave a measure of support to similar accounts from survivors in a refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan, who have insisted that injured people were killed by troops and that medical care was severely limited.
Among the three who died in the ambulance, relatives said, was Dr. Odiljon Ahmedov, 42. Two of his brothers said they had been told by the ambulance office that he had been killed when troops fired on the vehicle. "This is a crime," said one of his brothers, Arip Ahmedov.
Dr. Ahmedov's remains were accompanied by a certificate, numbered 22, his brothers said. The photographer had seen certificates that accompanied bodies, bearing numbers as high as 378, suggesting that the death count is higher than Uzbekistan says.
The ambulance driver and a nurse were also killed, according to the driver's nephew, who said the fire was so intense that the driver's remains were almost unrecognizable.
"We could not even follow our Islamic customs of burial because he wouldn't stop bleeding," he said. "We had to wrap him first in plastic bags and then wrapped him in the proper white sheet."
Several families in Andijon said victims who made it to hospitals on May 13 had since vanished, apparently into custody. Members of one family said their relative, whom they called Ibadulo, has been missing for a week. They had brought him food at the regional hospital, but they have now been told he is no longer on the list of those registered there.
Two days ago, his wife spent a day waiting for information on his whereabouts, but received no news. "We wait," she said. "That is all."
In Kyrgyzstan, where more than 500 survivors of the crackdown crossed the Karadariya River on May 14, Kyrgyz officials and the United Nations were preparing to create a safer and more sanitary refugee camp.
The status of the refugees remained uncertain. On Friday, Kyrgyzstan's deputy prime minister, Adakham Madumarov, said the survivors would be allowed to stay. But other officials have sent mixed signals, and at least one has proposed repatriation.
Uzbekistan has made it clear that it would like to prosecute the refugees, noting in the statement from the consulate in New York, for instance, that among those who crossed the river were "more than 400 were males who took part in unlawful activities."