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Crackdown in Uzbekistan

May 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Uzbekistan. First, a series of reports filed by Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News. They begin last Friday when troops opened fire on thousands of demonstrators in an eastern city. They had stormed a prison to free hundreds of inmates.

JONATHAN MILLER: Still photographs are all we’ve got so far. In the hours after the jailbreak, protestors torched cars and a theater while the rebels who’d sprung around 4,000 prisoners from Andizhan jail occupied a government building and took local police hostage.

Nine bodies lay in pools of blood in the streets. By midday, thousands had gathered in the main square in support of the as-yet-unidentified rebels. After Uzbek troops opened fire leaving more dead and injured, many of these people scattered and fled.

There’d been peaceful protests for months in Andizhan over the trial of 23 Muslim businessmen accused of being Islamic extremists. On Saturday, as the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, washed his hands of responsibility, they were washing blood off the streets of Andizhan.

Karimov blames outlawed Islamists. Local people say soldiers shot men, women and children like rabbits. Uzbek security forces making their presence felt on the streets.

The 300,000 people of this leafy, relatively prosperous city though, now fearing mass arrests, the purge that follows failed rebellion. The Uzbek authorities have tried to stop these graphic pictures getting out. But this is the evidence of what local people say was a massacre.

SPOKESPERSON (Translated): These are only a few of the bodies that you can see in front of you. Yesterday at 8:30, armored personnel carriers arrived here. Women were sitting here. They killed more than 100 women and children with their machine guns and cannons. They were killing people who were on the roof with grenade launchers.

JONATHAN MILLER: Some of the hundreds of bodies which had been laid out in an Andizhan schoolyard on Saturday were buried on Sunday. For President Karimov, there is a real Islamist movement active here. This has allowed him to excuse repression as a necessary part of the war against terrorism.

The movement shares the goals of the Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, an underground Islamist group still active in Central Asia, which seeks to create a greater Islamic state spanning Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and China’s Muslim Xinjiang Province.

Uzbek armed forces occupy Andizhan’s streets now. Eyewitness say army units turned into death squads last Friday, but the government insists no civilians were killed. Foreign diplomats and journalists were flown into Andizhan from Tashkent this morning.

They were told their security was at risk as some of those freed in the jailbreak, which kicked off the rebellion are still on the loose. They’d come to investigate, to see things for themselves, having pressed for permission to do so.

They sped through empty streets. They were prevented from speaking to anyone; the whole tour lasted just two hours. Despite specific requests, the diplomats were not taken to the school compound where eyewitnesses told Channel 4 News that men, women and children were shot down like rabbits.

Karimov is yet to reclaim the rebellious border town of Kara-Suu in the East.

By first light, Uzbek interior ministry troops had been all over the rebellious border town for a couple of hours. There was no resistance despite brave talk from local leaders that they’d put up a fight. The army quickly established control over bridges.

Townsfolk were still able to cross the river into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. But on the Uzbek side, soldiers in full combat gear lounged around, relaxed. If locals are fearful of purge and punishment, they aren’t letting on.

“We didn’t have any terrorists here,” this resident insists. “So who torched local government buildings then,” he’s asked. “Oh, just some local disagreements,” was the answer.

“Everything’s fine here, really,” said this man.

Reality: The atmosphere is edgy. Few will talk. “Even walls have ears,” one said. “We’re scared.”

From the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, ominous confirmation of a job done: Kara-Suu is stable, a state security spokesman said. So Uzbekistan’s short-lived rebellion is now over.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: So what’s behind the event that unfolded this past week in the former soviet republic of Uzbekistan, now central Asia’s most populous state?

To assess that, we’re joined by Daniel Kimmage, a central Asian analyst at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S.-government funded overseas broadcast outlet. It has reporters on the ground in Uzbekistan.

And Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, an organization that analyzes political developments in central Asia. Welcome to you both.

Dan Kimmage, starting with you, from what your own reporters have told you and other news reports that you’ve assessed, what really sparked this unrest, this past week in Uzbekistan?

DANIEL KIMMAGE: The immediate spark was the trial of 23 businessmen in Andijan, prominent local businessmen, on charges that they are involved with an Islamist extremist organization, which they deny.

And it appears that the initial violence which involves storming a prison and releasing the prisoners, including these 23 men, was perpetrated by their supporters. So that was the immediate spark.

This takes place against a backdrop of a very difficult social and economic context in the region. So that’s more the — there may be more than one spark at work here.

MARGARET WARNER: The subtext. And Glen Howard, what is known now almost a week later about what really happened in the square? Once they’d had the jail break — take us from the jail break to the demonstration in the square last Friday.

GLEN HOWARD: Well, what happened was basically the demonstrations began after the people were released from prison, they gathered there it was an extremely volatile situation after they stormed the prison, releasing about 2,000 prisoners –

MARGARET WARNER: A lot more than the 23 businessmen.

GLEN HOWARD: Exactly. And what happened is many of these people after they had also gone to an armory and they seized large amounts of arms, about 300 Kalashnikovs and large amounts of ammunition. But what happened is that some of these people started mixing with the demonstrators.

MARGARET WARNER: Who had been will there a while, right?

GLEN HOWARD: They have been there demonstrating. President Karimov had flown out to the region; he had apparently met there the day before.

And what begins after that is still unclear. The problem with this unrest and the whole tragedy of what occurred is we’re still trying to separate fact from fiction over what transpired.

Many human rights people were there, prominent western organizations were based in the region reported eyewitness reporting said that the Uzbeks who sent their special forces from the police started firing immediately.

MARGARET WARNER: On this crowd.

GLEN HOWARD: On this crowd. And then what responded — what the Uzbeks came, countered to that is many of these demonstrators were armed, and so they were firing back.

And so with these demonstrations it became very, very difficult to separate what really transpired. But we do know that there were large amounts of casualties, we don’t know exactly how many yet and we’re still trying to understand the situation.

It’s been complicated because the Uzbek government has not been fully transparent, forthcoming in trying to help western diplomats understand what happened there.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Dan, there’s a basic difference still between the government’s version, — first of all, didn’t they twice change the numbers of people dead and isn’t there still a pretty wide gulf between what they say the number killed and the number that others have said?

DANIEL KIMMAGE: There’s a huge discrepancy, not only in the numbers but also in the circumstances. So the official number now on the Uzbek side is 169 people killed.

There’s an unregistered opposition party in Uzbekistan that has gathered the names of 745 people who were killed in the violence. And this is an enormous discrepancy. The second discrepancy is the version because the official Uzbek version is that the quote unquote terrorists were responsible for this solely.

Whereas the, we have a lot of eyewitness accounts that corroborate each other that do indicate that government troops may have fired on people.

MARGARET WARNER: And is President Karimov still denying that any civilians at all were killed?

DANIEL KIMMAGE: I believe the official counsel is that thirty-two police, five civilians and the rest are terrorists, essentially yes.

MARGARET WARNER: So let’s go to the root causes, and Glen Howard, address first of all, to what degree is this driven, as President Karimov says, by some kind of Islamic movement, Islamic fundamentalist movement, religious extremism, politically motivated Islam?

GLEN HOWARD: Well, it really dates back, Uzbekistan in the capital has suffered several terrorist attacks; there were several explosions as recently as last July, there were a group of suicide bombers tried to attack the U.S. Embassy and Israeli embassy.

Much of this has been borne out of the very authoritarian tendencies of President Karimov; he has zero tolerance for any type of Islamic movements there. But then again Uzbekistan has one of the lowest per capita incomes in all central Asia.

The region where this violence occurred is also very, very highly underdeveloped. There were large numbers of Uzbek militants who were aligned with al-Qaida prior to 9/11. The U.S. found many of these people there as in Afghanistan.

And so many of these movements, it tends to be overplayed by the Uzbek government, but there is something, there are some relations in between some of these organizations, there definitely was in the case of al-Qaida ties between Uzbek militants and al-Qaida.

But much of that seems to have been borne out of the social policies of President Karimov, the highly under developed, the economic state of Uzbekistan, and his own policies. But President Karimov does are a tendency to — his instincts are with the West and he’s someone that can — has shown that he’s susceptible to U.S. pressure.

MARGARET WARNER: Go back to the Islamic factor, though, and the others, Dan Kimmage. Just how poor is Uzbekistan? What is the lot in life of people who live there?

DANIEL KIMMAGE: I think more important than how poor it is, and it is very poor, is the perception that people have who live there. And their perception is that they are poor and that there is not a great deal of hope in the future.

And that’s what creates such a dangerous situation. It’s when people’s perceptions are that they don’t see improvement; they don’t see hope for the future, and I think Uzbekistan has reached that stage.

MARGARET WARNER: And is there any, is any dissent allowed? Is there any legitimate political outlet for their dissent or unhappiness?

DANIEL KIMMAGE: In the political system, not really. There are occasional demonstrations where there has been some give and take, but the political system doesn’t really have, as Secretary of State Rice said, pressure valves.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So then we saw in mid-week this unrest also spread to this border town that we saw at the end of that montage of taped pieces, called Kara-Suu, and then the government put that down. Do you think, Glen Howard, that we’re going to see it spread either elsewhere in Uzbekistan, or has the crackdown put a lid on it?

GLEN HOWARD: I think for the time being it’s put a lid on it. But the long- term problem is Uzbekistan’s economic development. And the country has a semi market economy and has to open up more to make more adjustments with the West.

But it is a very unstable region. The part of Uzbekistan where the rioting and the unrest occurred is also a region that borders Kyrgyzstan to the east, another central Asian country that’s been rocked by violence, had its own tulip revolution, a very unstable region. And the problem with this is that this region traditionally and historically in Uzbekistan has been a place of unrest.

The rioting began; it’s been borne out many times before in Uzbekistan. And so it’s a long term problem that they are not really dealing with.

MARGARET WARNER: And the U.S., it’s fair to say, has a lot at stake?

DANIEL KIMMAGE: Well, the U.S. has a lot at stake because it was Uzbekistan exemplifies the challenge that the U.S. faces, which is maintaining anti-terror cooperation, while also advancing reforms. And Uzbekistan is a textbook case of this; it’s an enormous challenge, so yes there’s a great deal at stake.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, then explain that because we didn’t explain it in the setup. I mean, Uzbekistan allowed the U.S. to, what, come in and use an old former Soviet base, was that it?

DANIEL KIMMAGE: Uh-huh.

MARGARET WARNER: During the war.

DANIEL KIMMAGE: Well, Uzbekistan played an important part in allowing the U.S. to support operations in Afghanistan, and at the same time of course there is now a great deal of pressure to work toward democratization. So this is all of the tension in this policy in this one case, of course.

MARGARET WARNER: Glen Howard, the New York Times today had an editorial pretty sharply criticizing the administration for being slow to express dismay over the civilian loss of life. Do you think that was a fair criticism? How did the Bush administration’s response compare say to the European?

GLEN HOWARD: Well, I think the Bush administration as Condoleezza Rice said today, secretary of state, said that they’re still trying to get the facts on what happened there and trying not to overreact to what happened on the situation on the ground where they don’t know very little themselves because they can’t send anybody there to see it.

I think the European reaction has been pretty much probably a little bit stronger than the U.S., but the U.S. has a lot at stake in Uzbekistan and they traditionally have tried to work behind closed doors and put pressure on the Karimov government to try to make changes, and they feel that that can work better in the long run than it can by merely coming out and denouncing the government.

And, moreover, they have a very important air base, Khanabad, in Uzbekistan which is the largest air base in all of central Asia, and if the U.S. lost that air base, we’d have to resort to the Arabian Gulf.

I mean, we have no other alternatives for this type of important base that can provide major humanitarian relief operations to Afghanistan, which is also still unstable, and as well as Kyrgyzstan, a neighboring country to the east.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you, gentlemen, both.