Rights Group Calls Deadly Uzbek Crackdown a 'Massacre'

By C. J. CHIVERS

New York Times

June 7, 2005

MOSCOW, June 7 - Uzbekistan's crackdown on a prison break and mass protest last month has been labeled a massacre in a report by a prominent human rights group, which says responsibility for many of the deaths lies with the Uzbek government.

The group, Human Rights Watch, based in New York, issued the report on Tuesday, providing the most extensive independent review to date of the failed uprising in the northeastern Uzbek city of Andijon.

Drawing from interviews with more than 50 witnesses, it corroborates and expands upon previous reports of a brief armed revolt that became an antigovernment protest, which the authorities broke up with rifle and machine-gun fire.

The report also provides accounts from two witnesses of Uzbek troops moving among the bodies on the street the morning after the crackdown, shooting wounded people who had survived the night. "There was a systematic effort to slaughter," said Kenneth Roth, the organization's executive director.

The violence in Andijon on May 13 has fueled renewed worries about the stability of Uzbekistan, a repressive post-Soviet state that is an ally of the Bush administration in the fighting in Afghanistan and other counterterrorism efforts.

With the release of the report, Human Rights Watch renewed calls by several international organizations and Western governments for an independent investigation.

Uzbekistan had flatly refused to allow such an investigation in the weeks after the crackdown but has since signaled it might offer limited cooperation. State Department officials say they are not yet sure what degree of cooperation the Uzbek government would consent to.

Human Rights Watch also urged the United States to suspend negotiations for a long-term American presence at the Uzbek air base, situated near the Afghan border, unless Uzbekistan accepted an investigation. "There is something unseemly, to say the least, about negotiations for a base agreement with a country that has just massacred hundreds of its own citizens," Mr. Roth said.

Also on Tuesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Geneva-based aid organization, announced that it still had not yet been able to get access to those injured and arrested in the crackdown, in spite of repeated attempts.

The committee noted that many Uzbeks still do not know whether their missing kin are dead or injured or were arrested or fled. It said a response from the Uzbek government "has become urgent."

The Uzbek government has shown flashes of intransigence toward Western organizations in recent weeks. On Monday the United States Peace Corps announced that it had suspended its program in the country after the Uzbek Foreign Ministry denied visas to the corps' volunteers.

Uzbekistan, strategically situated but economically underdeveloped, has been racked by ruinous economic policies, corruption, clan rule and harsh restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and conscience. The United Nations has criticized it for its extensive use of torture.

Since the crackdown, it has defended itself with a mix of defiance and blame directed at the armed men who raided the prison.

Human Rights Watch said those men, whose number it estimated at 50 to 100, had committed serious crimes. But it said the government response was indiscriminate and out of proportion.

The report echoed another independent report, written by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which found no public evidence that the revolt was led by Islamic extremist groups or had religious aims.

The Uzbek president, Islam A. Karimov, has insisted, without providing public evidence, that the uprising was carried out by international terrorist groups that seek to create an Islamic state. Human Rights Watch said it found no evidence of the president's assertion.

"The protesters spoke about economic conditions in Andijon, government repression and unfair trials and not the creation of an Islamic state," the report says. It described the crowd as shouting "Freedom!" and not "God is Great!"

Spokesmen for Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry did not return several phone calls on Tuesday.

Mr. Roth said an investigation would be important in part because many details of the uprising remained unknown, including the number of victims, the identities of all the armed units present at the crackdown and the nature and origin of orders given to troops who fired into the crowds.

Human Rights Watch did not estimate the number of dead, and avoided endorsing opposition accounts of as many as 745 dead civilians, which have not been independently verified. But it dismissed the official Uzbek claim of 173 dead, writing that "hundreds" were killed on one street alone.

The report also noted Uzbek efforts to restrict the flow of information about the crackdown, and to intimidate and harass witnesses.

Fears for the safety of witnesses have intensified since a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent's report last month of being led by a local guide to a mass grave outside Andijon; the next day, the radio service said, the guide was fatally stabbed.

There have also been broader fears about safety for Westerners in the country. Last week, the American Embassy in Uzbekistan authorized the departure of nonessential embassy staff and family members, citing new terrorist threats.

On Tuesday, the embassy expanded the warning, advising embassy personnel not to send their children to school for the rest of the school year.