The first trial of suspects accused in a May uprising in the eastern Uzbekistan city of Andijon was set to begin today amid controversy over how many died in the turmoil and whether the government was responsible for hundreds of deaths.
Uzbek First Deputy Prosecutor General Anvar Nabiyev named 15 defendants in the case last week. The charges against them include murder, hostage-taking, terrorism, attempted overthrow of the government, prison escape and membership in banned extremist organizations, Nabiyev said in comments reported by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
An additional 106 people were arrested, but 50 of them “repented” and were released on parole, Nabiyev said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a report released Monday, accused Uzbek authorities of conducting a massive crackdown aimed at concealing the truth of the violence. Detained suspects are being forced to give false testimony confirming the government’s version of events, the report says.
The Uzbek government has placed the death toll in the May uprising at 187, saying 94 alleged militants, about 35 police and soldiers, and nearly 60 civilian protesters were killed. It has said that all the civilians were killed by militants, not government forces.
Human rights groups, however, have said hundreds died, with estimates ranging from 300 to 700. The groups have charged that most of the dead were unarmed demonstrators killed in the crackdown that ended the daylong protest. The government of President Islam Karimov has rejected calls for an international investigation.
In a report to parliament this month, prosecutors described the Andijon revolt as “a carefully planned action by destructive outside forces.” The opposition Free Peasants Party called that report “a primitive lie” based on false confessions coerced from detainees.
Until recently at least, the Bush administration has considered the nation of 26 million an important ally. The U.S. has maintained an air base there since 2001 to support military and aid operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Uzbekistan gave notice in July that the United States must leave the base by early next year.
Many of the basic facts of the uprising are acknowledged by the Uzbek government as well as its critics. The clashes began in the predawn hours of May 13 when gunmen staged a series of attacks, first on police and military units, where they acquired additional weapons. They moved on to a prison and freed many inmates, in particular a group of Muslim businessmen who were facing trial on charges of religious extremism -- an ill-defined crime in Uzbekistan, where 88% of the population is Muslim.
The gunmen took over a government building on Andijon’s Babur Square, where they held hostages. As the day progressed, thousands of residents streamed into the square, which resounded with anti-government speeches. Late in the day, the protest was crushed by troops and police.
Beyond these points, however, the government’s account differs sharply from that presented by human rights groups and Western media.
Local rights activists and journalists who were in Andijon have generally said that most of the protesters were unarmed and were gunned down by security forces both in the square and on nearby streets. They describe the prison break as a local outburst triggered by the frustration of relatives, friends and colleagues of the jailed businessmen who believed they had been unjustly imprisoned.
Authorities not only deny that security forces shot unarmed civilians, but also charge that the uprising was a long-planned terrorist attack prepared at bases in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
“Extremist forces were in fact openly trained in Kyrgyz territory and then used to attack the neighboring country, Uzbekistan,” Nabiyev said Thursday, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
Vyacheslav Khan, deputy secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council, said Friday that Nabiyev’s allegations were “absolutely groundless.”
The Human Rights Watch report released Monday describes what it calls “coercive pressure for testimony, which the government is using to rewrite the history of what happened on May 13.”
“Police detained, severely beat and threatened people to coerce them to sign false confessions of belonging to extremist religious organizations and bearing arms while participating in the May 13 protest, to name others at the protest, to incriminate others in violence or to say that they witnessed violence at the demonstration,” the report says.
Accounts of beatings to obtain forced confessions were given by suspects who were detained and then released, the report says. To protect interviewees from retaliation, the report does not use their names.
“The interrogators were drunk and weren’t wearing shirts. They took us into a room one by one and were asking: ‘Where did you hide the weapon that you had? While you were here we inquired with your neighbors and they said you had arms,’ ” said one detainee quoted in the report. “They put me against the wall into a spread-eagle position and started beating -- on the arms, on the legs and on the genitals. It did not matter whether you said anything or not, the beatings continued. They did not pay attention to any pleas for mercy.”