For those familiar with the ruthless brutality of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the eastern city of Andijan on May 13 was no surprise. With a gruesome track-record that includes methods of torture such as boiling prisoners and the removal of body parts, ordering troops to gun down demonstrators and fleeing civilians is something the Uzbek dictator could conceivably do with glee. It was a bloodbath. But the Butcher of Uzbekistan knows full well that getting away with mass-murder in the era of the US-led “war on terrorism” is a privilege available to any dictator who jumps on the West’s anti-terrorism bandwagon.
The crackdown in Andijan came on a day of unrest that began with a pre-dawn raid by about a hundred armed fighters who stormed a jail to free prisoners incarcerated on charges of being “Islamic extremists.” The freed inmates, around 2,000 of them, included 23 local businessmen who had been on trial on charges of establishing a criminal organization and “religious extremism”. The so-called criminal organization that the businessmen are accused of forming is in fact a local Islamic charitable organization. The case of the 23 Andijan businessmen had triggered a wave of protests. As local entrepreneurs, they were employers providing some of the rare job-opportunities to be had in the region. For weeks before the crackdown on May 13, protesters had been holding demonstrations and sit-ins in front of the courthouse where their case was being heard.
In Karimov’s Uzbekistan, the slightest hint of independent Islamic activity outside state-run mosques, even benevolent acts of philanthropy, is considered a punishable offense. Since he seized power after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Karimov, a former Communist Party boss and finance minister in the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, has arrested tens of thousands of people on suspicion of being “Islamic radicals”. Many of those arrested are guilty of nothing but the peaceful expression of their beliefs.
The daring prison raid unleashed long-pent-up and widespread anti-government feelings of discontent and resentment. Emboldened by the jail-break, an estimated 50,000 protesters rallied in a square in front of a government building that armed fighters had earlier taken control of in central Andijan. The protesters were comprised of a broad cross-section of society. The majority of them were local citizens, many of them women and children, expressing their dissatisfaction about repression, unemployment and poor living conditions. A government statement broadcast on state television claimed that the fighters also held hostages inside the government building. “The militants are sheltering behind women, children and hostages,” it said. “They will not compromise with the authorities.”
Eyewitness accounts relate tales of total pandemonium that broke loose when an armoured personnel-carrier and two truckloads of soldiers reached the square. Screaming men, women and children began to run in all directions or cower on the ground as soldiers fired a hail of bullets on them. In other parts of the city, government troops lay in ambush in buildings, from which they mowed down crowds of people fleeing the city centre. Soldiers moved around finishing off injured people who were lying on the ground; not even children were spared. Later Uzbek troops prevented friends and relatives from collecting bodies. Instead, they loaded the corpses into trucks and took them out of the area.
The rampage of Uzbek army and police units went beyond Andijan. The troops fired on thousands of panic-stricken Uzbeks fleeing the city as they tried to make it to the border withKyrgyzstan. There were also reports of troops firing on civilians in the surrounding towns and villages near the Kyrgyz border. It may never be possible to know the exact number of people killed, but estimates put the figure at between 700 and 1,500 victims.
Andijan, which has a population of around 300,000, is located in the impoverished and densely-populated Ferghana Valley, close to the border of Kyrgyzstan, where protesters overthrew the government in March after general elections that were rigged in favour of the authorities. The Ferghana Valley area, which is an oasis some 300 kilometers (about 190 miles) long, enjoys a climate and fertile soil that makes it a potential breadbasket for Central Asia, yet it has suffered disproportionately as a result of Karimov’s ill-advised policies. Karimov continues to impose on the Uzbek parts of the Ferghana Valley the Soviet era’s monoculture of cotton, with all its disastrous economic, environmental and social dislocations. After the collapse of theSoviet Union, the Fergana Valley, an integrated geographical area with a population of about 10 million people, was divided between the three Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan,Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Karimov’s bunker mentality, which inspired him to cut off the Uzbek part of the Valley from the rest of the region, has precluded any possibility of developing the agricultural and industrial infrastructure of the area as a whole. Not only were families separated, but also the flow of trade along the historic Silk Road was disrupted. The result has been increased impoverishment of the local population.
In the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, Karimov described the bloodshed as part of a plot by the outlawed Hizb al-Tahrir to seize power in the ex-Soviet republic. “Their aim is to unite Muslims and establish a caliphate,” he told journalists; “their aim is to overthrow the constitutional regime.” The notion of a “constitutional regime” in Karimov’s Uzbekistan is ridiculous. Karimov, who has been ruling the country with a Stalinist iron fist for about fifteen years, once said of political opponents: “Such people must be shot in the forehead. If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself.”
Karimov is an enthusiastic ally of Washington’s “war on terrorism.” The US maintains a large military base in Khanabad, which was used as a crucial staging-post for the invasion ofAfghanistan; US forces continue to use the base to support operations there. When US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Uzbekistan last year, he had nothing but praise for the Uzbek dictator as a key partner in the US coalition. “Our relationship is strong and has been growing,” he said. In the four years since Bush declared his “war on terrorism,” Uzbekistan has received more than $200 million in military aid. Despite voluminous evidence of the Karimov regime’s brutal human-rights abuses, Uzbekistan has been used as a surrogate jailer in the US-led “war on terrorism.” Two weeks before the carnage in Andijan, the New York Times revealed that the CIA was sending “terrorist” suspects to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation. This was done under a secret rendition programme that allows the CIA to transfer “terrorist” suspects to other countries for interrogation (New York Times, May 1).
Little wonder that the language used in reactions by Western leaders to the brutal killing of Uzbek citizens has been circumspect, muted and morally neutral. There was no immediate condemnation of the Uzbek troops’ brutal killing of protesters and unarmed civilians. The initial reaction from the White House and the British Foreign Office was to call for calm and restraint. In a telephone conversation with Karimov, Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed his “serious concern” over the risk of “destabilization” in Central Asia.
Then, amid a growing international outcry, the Bush administration called on Karimov to hold an inquiry into the violence before it reluctantly supported a demand from the European Union and Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, for an independent inquiry. “We are disappointed that so far they have not welcomed international participation in an inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened in Andijan,” US state department spokesman Richard Boucher said. Expressing concern at the bloodshed, a spokesman for the EU said: “We are concerned by the outbreak of violence. The situation is also the result of the government’s lack of regard for human rights and the rule of law.”
Since he joined Washington’s “war on terrorism,” Karimov has had a field day: killing, locking up and torturing tens of thousands of Muslims under the guise of fighting “religious extremism”. Many of the victims were ordinary Muslims who belonged to no organised groups; others belonged to the country’s two main Islamic groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb al-Tahrir.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has a track-record of armed activities in Uzbekistan and neighbouring countries. It was set up in the 1990s by a group of Uzbek activists from the Namangan Oblast with the aim of toppling Karimov’s government and setting up an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, IMU founders set up training-camps in Afghanistan and began to use Afghan territory as a base for military incursions into Uzbekistan. They also set up bases in the remote mountainous regions ofTajikistan. Authorities held the IMU responsible for a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999. After the attacks of September 2001, the IMU was included on the US state department’s list of groups regarded as terrorist organisations by the US. During the US-led war in Afghanistan the IMU fought alongside the Taliban and lost most of its military manpower. It is believed that among those IMU fighters who lost their lives in the war in Afghanistan was Juma Namangani, its military commander, who is thought to have been killed in action with the Taliban near Mazar-e Sharif in November 2001. After the war, many IMU members reportedly fled to Pakistan’s northern province of Baluchistan. The group’s key leader is Tahir Yuldashev. Other IMU leaders include Dilshod Hojiyev, believed to be Yuldashev’s deputy for financial affairs, and Ulug Bek Holik, the group’s military commander, who also goes under the nom de guerre of Muhammad Ayub.
By contrast, Hizb al-Tahrir has no known ties to any violent activities. The group eschews violence as a method of political activism and a means to bring about its ultimate political goal of re-establishing the caliphate. Despite its rejection of violence, Hizb al-Tahrir is outlawed in Uzbekistan and therefore operates illegally and with considerable secrecy. The group is believed to operate as a clandestine network of five-man cells known as dairas (daira is Arabic for circle). Its activists have demonstrated an exceptional ability to publicise the party’s ideas. They have organized a large underground network of desktop-publishing presses that has been churning out large numbers of books, pamphlets and leaflets translated from Arabic into Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Persian and Russian to be distributed throughout Central Asia. Hizb al-Tahrir cells have also been producing posters and ‘night letters’ (shabnamehs) to be slipped under people’s doors overnight.
Founded in 1953 by Taqiy al-Din al-Nabhani, an alim from Jerusalem, Hizb al-Tahrir spread to many countries throughout the world. In the early 1990s, Arab students belonging to Hizb al-Tahrir began to recruit locals into the party in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, it succeeded in maintaining a significant presence. In the last few years, tell-tale signs of Hizb al-Tahrir activism have become visible throughout Central Asia. In November 2003 Hizb al-Tahrir activists were sentenced to prison terms in Shymkent, Arysi and other regions in southern Kazakhstan; in February 2004 authorities in Khujand, Tajikistan, arrested activists.
It is fair to say that Hizb al-Tahrir, with its preference for a non-violent pathway to an Islamic state, is light-years away from the salafi worldview of al-Qa’ida and the IMU, which places few limits on the use of violence to achieve political goals. Yet despite its commitment to a programme of non-violent organisation-building, members of Hizb al-Tahrir have been repressed throughout Central Asia. Events in Andijan, especially the jailbreak, indicate that some on the fringe of Hizb al-Tahrir might have become so disenchanted with its pacifist approach that they have been radicalized. That provides more evidence of the inexorability of one of the seemingly fundamental laws of history: that ruthless measures used by brutal dictators to maintain their iron grip on power always come back to haunt them.