On Thursday, May 12, 2005 the BBC ran a story titled “Uzbekistan’s most orderly protest” in which Jenny Norton, a reporter on the ground in Andijan, praised the thousands gathered there as being “well-spoken, dignified, and orderly.” She recounted how every day for the previous four months, protesters had gathered in Andijan, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, outside the court where 23 local businessmen were on trial, accused of being extremists. One of the relatives of the men told Norton that “[t]here’s no need for violence… but it’s just no longer an option to stay silent here.”
According to the testimony of Galima Bukharbaeva, an Uzbek journalist working as a country director of IWPR at the time, delivered to the U.S. Helsinki Commission in a June 2005 hearing, the crowd gathering in May 2005:
…was so large because it was not ordinary people who were on trial, but successful businessmen, heads of various manufacturing companies. These 23 businessmen provided jobs to 2,000 people. Their employees, friends, and relatives filled the entire park by the court building on Tuesday and Wednesday…
German journalist Marcus Bensmann, who was also covering the trial in Andijan and in 2005 had also testified for the U.S. Helsinki Commission said that the prosecutor of the 23 men, when asked what crimes the men had committed, replied ‘‘Nothing. They committed nothing. But we will put them in jail because they may in future do something.”
The trial ended Wednesday and the crowd outside was, to Norton’s eyes, waiting patiently for a verdict. Thursday evening, however, everything changed.
The verdict was announced in secret: the 23 men convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from 12 to 22 years. Outside the court, traffic police had begun to impound cars parked outside, which journalists present said belonged to the families of the defendants. Then a group of armed men stormed the prison where the 23 men were being held, freeing them and other inmates. A few government buildings were seized and about a dozen police were taken hostage. It is unclear what, if any, linkages there were between those protesting the trial and the armed men who stormed the prison.
By the next day, the protests swelled to 10,000. Human Rights Watch wrote that “although it is clear that a small number of protesters were armed, there is no indication that they were ‘fanatics and militants’ with an Islamist agenda.” According to HRW, witnesses recalled shouts of “Ozodliq! (“Freedom”), not Allahu Akbar! (“God is Great”).”
According to Bukharbaeva, the “assault began at 5:20 pm local time.”
A convoy of armored vehicles moved on protesters gathered in Bobur Square. The gunmen who had broken the businessmen out of prison, according to a BBC timeline, moved with their hostages and a large crowd away from the city center and toward School 15, where the worst of the massacre occurred. The Uzbek government says 173 people died during the unrest. Witnesses put the number closer to 500. A BBC stringer in Andijan, Sharifjon Akhmedov, recalled seeing traces of blood still on the streets two days after the massacre: “[T]hey’ve tried to wash it all away but you can still see the blood and bits of hair on the tarmac. There are bullet holes in the telegraph poles and trees.”
A Brief Dark Cloud
Two weeks after the massacre, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), John Sununu (R-NH) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) visited Tashkent. The Senators met with the U.S. Ambassador to Uzbekistan and several opposition groups, but at their press conference on May 29 McCain said that no government officials agreed to meet with them. He said that:
We find the recent events to be shocking but not unexpected in a country that does not allow the exercise of human rights and democracy. We believe there should be a complete investigation conducted by the OSCE and I believe that the United States must make this government understand that the relationship is very difficult, if not impossible, if a government continues to repress its people. And history shows that continued repression of human rights leads to tragedies such as the one that just took place.
By the end of 2005, the U.S. and EU cut military assistance to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan then kicked the U.S. off the Karshi-Khanabad Airbase (K2) which supported the war in Afghanistan, albeit at a time when attention was shifting back to the war in Iraq.
However, despite the harsh words traded in the weeks and months after the events at Andijan, the relationship between Uzbekistan and the West has rebounded. The EU lifted its sanctions in 2009, and U.S. restrictions were relaxed at that time as well–incidentally the same year the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) was established to transport supplies through Central Asia to Afghanistan. By 2011, the NDN would account for 40 percent of the supplies being transported to coalition troops in Afghanistan.
McCain’s 2005 statement that it would be “very difficult, if not impossible” for the U.S. to maintain its relationship with Uzbekistan if it “continues to repress its people” rings hollow a decade later. In January 2015, the U.S. donated more than 300 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan’s military.
Ten Years Later, What’s Changed?
In the decade since the massacre, very little has changed in Uzbekistan — Islam Karimov still rules the country with a bloody fist, torture remains a hallmark of the justice system, religion is tightly controlled, press freedoms are extremely limited and mentioning Andijan is a dangerous prospect.
Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, says that “Uzbekistan’s human rights situation has grown more dire over these last ten years, remaining atrocious but in some respects deteriorating even further.” Karimov, he says, had a choice in 2005 between allowing an independent investigation or taking the country into lockdown:
Unfortunately for the people of Uzbekistan, Karimov chose the latter, which has meant ten years of near total government censorship of the press and blocking of the internet, an ongoing assault on civil society activists through imprisonment, torture, and exile, suppression of religious freedom, deepening levels of corruption, and one of the worst overall human rights records in the world
Uzbekistan’s “willingness to use violence to suppress free expression and a persistent, authoritarian refusal to play by basic international rules” define the country, Swerdlow says. Meanwhile:
The factors that led thousands of peaceful protesters out onto Andijan’s central square in May 2005—grinding poverty, pervasive corruption, severe human rights abuses—have only deepened in the country over the past decade and at some point will trigger a public expression of citizens’ concerns.
The United States’ stated policy toward Uzbekistan–outlined by Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia– is “strategic patience.” In an interview with NPR in January she said that “It’s a combination of the right balance of pressure, partnership and a certain amount of strategic patience in how change can take place.”
Human rights defenders are critical of “patience” as a strategy.
Swerdlow says that Uzbekistan’s geostrategic importance has led the Obama administration to give Tashkent a pass in the last decade, but that the “policy of the last ten years clearly has not worked and should now be directed at establishing some accountability for ongoing abuses, including the Andijan massacre.”
U.S. policy, however, isn’t likely to change. At an event, hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on May 12 in Washington D.C., Biswal briefly noted the Andijan anniversary:
I would be remiss if I did not make note that tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic events in Andijan. And I just want to underscore that, as we say to governments around the globe, the long-term stability and security cannot be achieved without respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. That’s not just a theory or a belief, that is a fundamental truth that is borne out in the pages of history.
She immediately went on to comment that the U.S. and Central Asian states share a fundamental concern on the rise of violent extremism. Whether the connection to Andijan was intentional or accidental, it represents the embracing of what some Central Asia researchers have called a dangerous myth–basing policy on the belief that the primary threat to stability in the region is violent extremism and not, as Andijan illustrates for many, repressive governments.