Stan Crooke looks at the background to the recent slaughter of up to 500 people by the Uzbek government during demonstrations in the eastern city of Andijan.
The Uzbek government claims that “only” 169 people were killed by troops in Andijan. Ten of the dead are police officers they say, the rest were all Islamic militants. However a local pathologist reported seeing more than 500 corpses in a makeshift morgue in Andijan. Human rights organisations have also put the figure of civilian casualties at about 500. And an Uzbek opposition party has compiled a list of more than 700 people it says were killed after troops moved in.
If the number of casualties remains unclear, what is much clearer is the sequence of events which led to the slaughter.
Between June and August 2004, 23 Andijan businessmen were arrested and charged with offences relating to subversion and membership of a “religious extremist or prohibited organisation.” The organisation was called “Akramia”.
The businessmen were indeed all followers of Akram Yuldashev, a local maths teacher. In 1999 he was sentenced to nineteen years in prison for writing The Way to Sacred Islam. However it is even doubtful whether “Akramiya” exists as an organisation.
Yuldashev’s pamphlet was not extreme, nor was it a political Islamist tract. Its focus was Islamic ethical business. It talked about promoting small business as a way of providing a living for those in need. It stated that “acting against the ruler [i.e. any ruler] means acting against Allah’s will” on the grounds that “one becomes ruler at Allah’s will.”
Fifteen of the businessmen ran their own firms, employing around 2,000 people. All were involved in charitable work, and are reported to have conducted their business affairs in an “ethical” manner (e.g. paying higher than usual wages) — in contrast to the general corruption rife in Uzbek society.
Street protests against the trial of these popular businessmen began in January 2005. By 11 May, when the trial approached its climax and the judges retired to consider their verdict, the demonstrators numbered several thousand.
In the evening of 12 May Uzbek security forces arrested a number of protestors. Supporters of the businessmen responded by storming Andijan prison and freeing the detained businessmen, the arrested protestors, and all other prisoners.
On 13 May protestors effectively took over Andijan, barricading roads and holding street meetings to denounce the government. But in the early evening government troops moved in to crush the protest movement, killing hundreds in the process.
The unrest quickly spread to neighbouring towns — Pakhtabad, Teshiktov, and, most seriously of all, Korasuv, where government buildings and police cars were set alight. As in Andijan, but with much less loss of life, Uzbek troops quickly snuffed out the protests.
The trial of the Andijan businessmen and the brutality used to crush the local protests sum up the essence of the Uzbek regime, ruled over by President Islam Karimov: the use of the supposed threat of “Islamic militancy” as a pretext to suppress ruthlessly all forms of real or perceived opposition.
The contrast between the indifference of the Uzbek authorities to poverty and unemployment and, on the other hand, the creation of job opportunities by the “Akramiya” businessmen transformed the trial into a lightening conductor for more general grievances against the Uzbek authorities.
One local protestor was reported in the Guardian as saying: “I used to have a job, but there is no justice under this government. We are not Islamic extremists — just ordinary people fed up with corruption.” According to the BBC’s coverage of the events: “Residents said the main cause of resentment was the lack of work combined with the regime’s tough curbs on private trade.”
And a journalist quoted by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting commented: “This rebellion has nothing to do with religion. I did not hear cries of Allahu Akbar [God is Great], and none of the rebels inside the regional administration building mentioned anything about an Islamic state.”
At the businessmen’s trial the (government-sponsored) prosecution claimed that “Akramiya” was an anti-constitutional extremist organisation which wanted to impose Sharia law and establish an Islamic state covering the whole of Central Asia. Asked by the men’s lawyers what crimes they had committed, the Chief Prosecutor replied: “They have not yet committed any crimes — but they might commit them.”
Then after the suppression of the revolts in Andijan and the surrounding towns Karimov claimed that the protests had been the work of Hizb ut-Tahrir [ultra-“radical” Islamist group], and that the only persons killed, apart from policemen, had been members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Uzbekistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. But the “official” Muslim religion — like everything else in Uzbekistan — is tightly controlled by President Islam Karimov. His government finances and controls the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan. This, in turn, controls the Islamic hierarchy, the contents of imams’ sermons, and the contents and print-run of Islamic publications.
Islamic organisations not under the government’s control are illegal and repressed. The Islamic Renaissance Party, founded in 1991, was quickly banned. By 1993 it had collapsed. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which carried out a series of guerrilla raids on Uzbek and Kyrgyz territory between 1999 and 2001, was destroyed by the superior firepower of the Uzbek military.
Since the beginning of the decade the Uzbek authorities have focussed on Hizb ut-Tahrir as the supposed main threat to the state order, denouncing its members as “terrorists” and blaming them for a series of bombings in Bukhara and Tashkent last year.
Members, or people who are suspected (with or without foundation) to be members, of Hizb ut-Tahrir have suffered arbitrary arrest and detention, torture (with sometimes fatal consequences), unfair trials, and lengthy prison sentences. Around 5,000 people are reported to be currently in prison for alleged support for Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is a reactionary Islamist organisation. But there is no evidence that it has engaged in terrorist activities. This may change as a result of the level of repression meted out by Karimov to its supporters.
As an international organisation, Hizb ut-Tahrir has provided large-scale support to its co-thinkers in Uzbekistan, allowing them to build a base of support in the country (even if the size of that base is anything but clear).
The label “terrorists” serves as a convenient pretext for Karimov to repress Hizb ut-Tahrir. And attaching the label of “Hizb ut-Tahrir” to individuals unconnected with the organisation — such as followers of “Akramiya”, or even Jehovah’s Witnesses — likewise serves as a pretext to justify their repression.
The arrest of the Andijan businessmen, the torture they suffered during their year-long pre-trial detention, the trumped-up nature of the charges against them, and the murderous brutality used to drive their supporters off the streets are all typical of the systemic and ruthless nature of the repression used by Karimov.
Uzbekistan is an ally of the US in the latter’s “war on terrorism”. The US maintains an airbase in the country, and also provides considerable economic aid (which, assuredly, largely disappears into the pockets of Karimov and his cronies).
The fact that the USA allies itself with such a repressive regime, and soft-pedals its criticisms of the regime’s human rights record, exposes the hypocrisy of the US government’s (selective) promotion of human rights.
But it is not enough to respond to recent events in Uzbekistan by simply pointing an accusing finger at the US. There are no genuine trade unions in Uzbekistan. But there is a working class. And there are individuals and groups committed to promoting democratic rights in the country.
Insofar as it is physically possible, the international trade union movement should be seeking out and supporting Uzbek workers and organisations which share its values.
Instead of simply, though justifiably, denouncing US hypocrisy and passively warning that the role of the US encourages the growth of Islamism, socialists and trade unionists should be doing their utmost to encourage political and social forces in Uzbekistan which offer a working-class political alternative to Karimov, US imperialism, and Islamism.
Repression and dictatorship
Islam Karimov became leader of the Independent Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in 1990. After the country gained its independence in 1991 he continued in power. His party, the People’s Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, is simply the old Uzbek Communist Party with a different name. All political parties in Uzbekistan support Karimov. Those which do not support him are banned.
Karimov rules Uzbekistan through attacks on freedom of the media, attacks on members of NGOs critical of the government, the imprisonment of thousands of political opponents, the systemic use of torture, and the use of brute force to crush potential dissent at birth.
Uzbekistan is a throwback to the Soviet Union. It is effectively a one-party state. Political dissidents have been despatched to psychiatric hospitals. Karimov wins presidential referenda with a Soviet-style 99% share of the vote. Since Uzbekistan gained its independence not a single election has been recognised as free and fair by international observers.
328 of the 471 newspapers in the country are state-owned. The remainder are so small-circulation that the regime does not bother about them. And only four of them report any news. The remainder carry only adverts and horoscopes. Television channels are even more tightly controlled by the government than are the printed media.
12,000 local neighbourhood committees (“mahalla”) keep local residents under constant surveillance, maintaining extensive files on families and gathering information on their religious practices. Residents who appear to be acting suspiciously are reported to the security forces.
A 1992 law allowed for the formation of trade unions. In reality Uzbek “trade unions” are state-controlled organisations, as was the case at the time of the Soviet Union. There is no legal right to strike, and there are no reports of any strikes having been organised.
Karimov on “Islamic extremism”
“Such people must be shot in the forehead! If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself…!” President Karimov, upon the 1998 adoption of a highly restrictive religion law, warning parliament not to be soft on “Islamic extremists.”
Many peaceful Muslims have also been rounded up in the sweeps of “fundamentalists.”