Uzbek President Islam Karimov has rejected calls for an international inquiry into a bloody crackdown on protesters in the town of Andijan last week that left up to 750 dead. Washington has close links with Uzbekistan despite the country’s notorious human rights record. We speak with a researcher with Human Rights Watch, the editorial director of Antiwar.com and we go to Andijan to get a report from the ground. [includes rush transcript]
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has rejected calls for an international inquiry into a bloody crackdown on protesters in the town of Andijan last week. Human rights groups say as many as 750 people were killed, while the government claims just over 150 died.
The bloodshed took place last Friday in eastern Uzbekistan when between 60 and 100 armed men stormed the local prison to free 23 businessman believed to be unjustly accused of religious extremism. They also released some 2,000 other prisoners.
Thousands of demonstrators then assembled in Andijan’s town square to protest Karimov’s repressive government. Soldiers soon arrived and opened fire on the crowd, shooting indiscriminately. Even the local police begged the soldiers to stop shooting. In the end hundreds of bodies — including those of women and children — filled the square. A mass of survivors fled the square towards the border of Kyrgyzstan where witnesses say Uzbek troops fired on them once more. Some reports put the final death toll as high as 750.
Uzbekistan is one of the Bush administration’s closet allies in Central Asia despite the country’s notorious human rights record. The US has an airbase in the south of the country which provides logistical support to operations in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, the head of US Central Command–General John Abizaid–said that operations were being scaled back at the base as a "prudent move." But he said this was not intended to be a political message of disapproval to President Karimov.
Torture and police brutality are widespread in Uzbekistan. The country has no independent political parties, no free and fair elections, and no independent news media.
Uzbekistan is also believed to be one of the destination countries for what is known as "extraordinary rendition" where detainees are transferred by the US to countries known to practice torture.
Last year Human Rights Watch released a 319-page report detailing the use of torture by Uzbekistan’s security services. It said the government was carrying out a campaign of torture and intimidation against Muslims that had seen 7,000 people imprisoned, and documented at least 10 deaths, including one man who was boiled to death in 2002.
AMY GOODMAN: We are joined now by the Senior Researcher on Central Asia for Human Rights Watch, Acacia Shields. On the line from California, Justin Raimondo is with us, the editorial director of the website Antiwar.com. But we’re going to start with Acacia Shields. Talk about your reports and what you found in Uzbekistan.
ACACIA SHIELDS: Well, what we found is that the government of Uzbekistan has been engaged in a concerted campaign to arrest independent Muslims, Muslims who practice their faith outside of government controls in independent mosques or with independent Imams and that with those arrests have come horrific cases of torture and coerced testimony.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Peter Boehm right now who is on the line with us from Uzbekistan, a freelance reporter. What is happening today, Peter?
PETER BOEHM: Well, Amy, the situation has come back to normal, as it was yesterday and the day before yesterday, the day — in the daytime. People are moving around normally. Cars are around. People are on the markets, and shops are open. It was only in the night that some two days ago there was still shooting and in the night it’s still very insecure. There are no people on the street. There’s a curfew. And it seems even the police doesn’t have the situation under control overnight, but besides that, in the daytime, life has come to normal.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Peter there was indications that at the border there were problems near Kyrgyzstan in terms of people fleeing in that direction. Any word on that?
PETER BOEHM: Yes. I have been yesterday to a place called Karasu, which is right on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border. It has two parts. One part of Karasu is on the Uzbek side, and the other part is on the Kyrgyz side. Up to the day before yesterday, this was — the local people had to chase away the Uzbek authorities, the Uzbek administration. They administered the small town of 25,000 people by themselves. There were probably several hundred protesters had stormed the administration’s buildings there. They had stormed the customs office there. They had rebuilt two bridges over the river to Kyrgyzstan, which the river is the border to Kyrgyzstan, and they had administered themselves, and in the night to yesterday, the Uzbek security forces went into the place back again, and they are in control of this place, Karasu, and refugees are on the Kyrgyz side, and I couldn’t go to the Kyrgyz side, so I cannot tell you a lot about the refugees. But they are, yes, there are refugees on the Kyrgyz side.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened last Friday, how the whole violence unfolded?
PETER BOEHM: Well, it’s as you said, in, as you said before, it seems to have been triggered by this trial against 23 businessmen. There were protests basically every day, the supporters of these 23 businessmen. In the end, there were 4,000 people standing every day in front of the courthouse. And these 23 men were to be, they were already found guilty, and they were to be sentenced, and then overnight, armed men — armed men stormed an army barrack and a police station, took perhaps weapons, then went on to storm the prison, released the 23 businessmen, released 2,000 more prisoners, and then went on to occupy the building of the regional administration. Then demonstrators, protesters gathered around this building or rather on a large square in front of this regional administration building, and they started to denounce the government. The demonstrators were not, they were not shouting any inflammatory, Islamic prose, they were just protesting against the economic situation and they were talking about their grievances against the government.
Then, it seems, early evening about 1700 local time, a crowd of some 2,000 people started to walk away from the regional administration building. In the crowd there were armed men — the armed men, but there were also women and children, and there were other unarmed civilians, and this crowd of 2,000 walked along a boulevard, and until or up to a place where two armed personnel carriers and soldiers were blocking this road, and then the shooting started and, in the end, a large part, we have to fear, by what eyewitnesses say, in the end, a large part of this crowd who had walked towards the soldiers was lying dead on the street, and you know, the shooting went on for two hours without stopping, and then the whole night, the shooting went on. And even eyewitnesses who maintain that some of the soldiers went up — and this was supposedly happening early morning — that some of the soldiers followed injured people and killed them before taking them up and putting them on lories and taking them away.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Boehm is reporting to us from Uzbekistan. Again, we’re on the line with Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com, and in studio with Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch. Juan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Justin, I’d like to ask you, in terms of the relationship of the United States government to the Karimov regime, and also how this particular massacre and the situation there might affect ongoing U.S. policy there.
JUSTIN RAIMONDO: Well, you know, I think you have to understand why the people were there for a month demonstrating every day, because basically these 23 businessmen were arrested because they’re businessmen, and they employ most of the people in town. So that when the cops came and arrested these guys, took them away and charged them with being part of this Islamic clique, which doesn’t exist, everybody was unemployed. So, that’s why people broke in armed, took over the town, and basically freed the people, freed their employers. So, I mean, basically what you have here is a rebellion against socialism in Uzbekistan. And you have a neo-communist regime, which is being attacked by people who are in favor of free enterprise, and then you have the Bush administration, which is saying, well, on the one hand, you know, he’s a bad guy, this Karimov, but on the other hand, you know, these guys are not so good, either, and it’s very ambiguous. You know, Richard Boucher is saying, well, we have to, you know, see what’s happening, and it’s, you know, it’s not like all the other color-coded revolutions. But the irony is that ideologically, you would think that the Bush administration would be right behind this.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what is happening within Uzbekistan, Acacia Shields, reporting on someone who was boiled to death. What is the situation and the issue of the U.S. using this country to send prisoners to be tortured? What evidence do you have of this?
ACACIA SHIELDS: Well, our evidence is really of the torture of Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, and that we found to be systemic. We found not only this one case of a person being boiled to death, but the use of electric shock, the use of beatings, suffocation. So, there’s no doubt, and everyone knows it, that the Uzbek government’s record is atrocious. I think —
AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t this the country that Donald Rumsfeld recently went to and said, "I’m happy to be here?"
ACACIA SHIELDS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, you know, the U.S. government has had a very close relationship with Uzbekistan for a long time, and I think it’s important right now, as President Karimov attempts to paint what happened in Andijan as a reaction to terrorism as part of his policy of counter-terrorism, to watch how the U.S. government reacts to that, because the U.S. government has given President Karimov a lot of leeway over the years when he justifies his policies of abuse in the name of counter-terrorism?
AMY GOODMAN: How?
ACACIA SHIELDS: The U.S. government gives substantial aid to Uzbekistan, and even when there has been criticism from the Congress, criticism from the State Department, regarding Uzbekistan’s record, the Bush administration has still held firm in its support, and more importantly, the U.S. military has come in and given supplemental aid when other aid was cut, as a way to really to compensate and show that no matter what the record is, the U.S. military supports Karimov?
JUAN GONZALEZ: And is that because of its strategic military importance, vis-a-vis other countries in the region, or is that because Karimov is opening the country up to foreign investment or U.S. investment?
ACACIA SHIELDS: I don’t the economic motivation is key for the U.S. decision to really invest in Karimov. I think that it really has been a decision that Uzbekistan is the bulwark for U.S. security policy in the Central Asian region. It was a buffer against Afghanistan for the U.S., when the Taliban was in power, and now is the location, obviously, of U.S. troops. So it, really is a security motivation.
AMY GOODMAN: And the response, Justin Raimondo, of the U.S. government to the latest killings of what’s believed to be more than 700 people?
JUSTIN RAIMONDO: Well, I mean, it’s just astonishing. You know, if this had happened, in say, you know, like Belarus or in Russia, or in China, you would have Condi Rice who would be screaming. Bush would personally condemn it, but Bush has said nothing. And you know it’s interesting, this whole revolution is economically based. It has nothing to do with Islam. It has to do with economics. You know, the other guy mentioned something about, well, you know, it’s U.S. investment. Actually, Karimov has banned imports. This is what really sparked the whole thing in November. There was a rebellion in a nearby town of Kokand and it was based on the fact that Karimov and his cabinet passed a law saying that nobody can sell any produce, any imports unless they have personally imported them physically. So, you have to understand, I mean, this brought economic life in the entire Fergana Valley to a standstill. This is the real reason for the upsurge in Uzbekistan, which is why I’m saying it’s a free market revolution, but Bush, Mr. Free Market, is not supporting it. And he’s not supporting it because the state interests of the United States are opposed to the official ideology of the United States. So, it’s very interesting and ironic.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Acacia Shields. What is Human Rights Watch calling for? First of all, how many people have been held in prison, do you believe are political prisoners there?
ACACIA SHIELDS: Well, we include religious prisoners in that number, and we believe that up to 7,000 have been arrested and convicted during the course of the government’s multi-year campaign. Right now we’re calling for an independent investigation, access to Andijan. There really hasn’t been access. We’re afraid that the Uzbek government is engaged in a cover-up. And I think the point is very well made that when you look back at the events in Tiananmen Square, and this may well be of that scale, there was much more international outcry. There has to be some insistence that the international community get in there.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch; Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com; and Peter Boehm, speaking to us from Uzbekistan.