Andijan, Uzbekistan – It was the biggest and bloodiest crackdown on a popular revolt in the former Soviet Union since its 1991 dissolution – and the reason why the US lost a strategic foothold in Central Asia, right next to Afghanistan.
On May 13, 2005, Uzbek President Islam Karimov ordered his troops to open fire on thousands of protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan who had rallied against his heavy-handed policies and the arrest of 23 local businessmen on charges of Islamist extremism.
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The night before, their armed supporters had taken over a military base and rammed the gates of a prison freeing the businessmen. Inspired by the success of the recent “Tulip revolution” in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, where massive protests had peacefully toppled an autocratic president, the group had stormed city hall and called the rally.
Thousands of protesters turned up on city square urging Karimov to resign – or at least show up for talks. People took turns to address the crowd about corruption and persecution of Muslims who attended unsanctioned gatherings and mosques and were accused of hatching jihadist plans.
What they got from Karimov was a butcher’s bill.
Troops armed with AK-47s and heavy machine guns encircled the square and opened fire, shooting more than 700 dead, including women and children, rights groups and survivors said.
There were reports about unmarked mass graves and security officers abducting wounded people from hospitals.
“Karimov showed that he tolerates no opposition, no revolts,” Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based Central Asia analyst, told Al Jazeera.
Uzbek authorities claimed 187 were killed and blamed Islamists and unnamed Western powers for planning a coup. In the following months, hundreds were sentenced to up to 22 years in jail during trials critics called government-orchestrated.
Rejecting Western criticism and demands for an international investigation, Karimov’s government shut down a US military base on the Afghan border and sought closer ties with Moscow – the former “coloniser” Karimov had lambasted just weeks earlier.
The most populous and strategically located ex-Soviet nation in Central Asia seemed lost to the West. The US and the European Union imposed an arms embargo and selective visa bans.
Who’s to blame?
Researchers, witnesses and opposition leaders still disagree about the roots and results of the protest.
“Karimov deliberately let the protesters seize the weapons and open the prison gates to turn a peaceful protest into a terrorist attack,” Kislov said.
Some things should be kept forgotten. The less you know, the longer you live.
“All he had to do after that was to convince the international community that the ‘crackdown on militants’ was just.”
But a human rights advocate from Andijan – who served as a public defender for the arrested businessmen – holds a different view.
Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov released statements condemning their trail, and was arrested a week after the uprising and sentenced to seven years in jail for allegedly supporting their cause.
Zaynabitdinov said he thinks the uprising had long been planned and its organisers were “werewolves” who deliberately presented themselves as innocent victims of Karimov’s repression.
“It was not a spontaneous revolt or a peaceful rally,” Zaynabitdinov, who was released in 2008 after almost three years in jail following an international campaign by human rights groups and Western officials, told Al Jazeera.
The organisers “had long been getting ready for an armed action”, the gaunt, gray-haired, 60-year-old said.
Karimov’s main political opponent Muhammad Solih, who ran against him in the 1991 election and now lives in Turkey, said organisers of the Andijan rally should have contacted him and other exiled Uzbek opposition leaders to work out a unified plan against Karimov’s government.
“I still regret that Andijan activists ignored political opposition and acted spontaneously, illiterately, without a clear plan,” Solih told Al Jazeera.
Ten years after the uprising, Andijan looks busy and peaceful. Locally produced cars and mini-buses zigzag the badly paved roads, men in traditional Uzbek skullcaps and women in headscarves and long dresses throng the streets.
But the shops they pass by are often adorned with posters depicting seductive, scantily clad women, and the public consumption of vodka is known here as “drinking white tea” – waiters in restaurants serve it in teapots.
There are no bullet holes on buildings around the empty central square where the rally took place.
Yet, omnipresent policemen and plainclothes officers accost and interrogate anyone with a camera, and local residents refuse to talk about the massacre.
“Some things should be kept forgotten,” said an elderly man who only gave his first name, Bekhzod. “The less you know, the longer you live.”
Andijan, a city of 400,000, is the informal capital of the fertile and overpopulated Ferghana Valley, the birthplace of post-Soviet Islamism in Central Asia.
Local governments viewed various Islamist movements as the most serious threat to their rule. In Uzbekistan, the threat was born along with the independence of the nation.
In 1991, attackers seized a government building in the city of Namangan, neighbouring Andijan. They demanded the imposition of Islamic law across the country.
Karimov, a former communist boss, arrived to hold talks which ended in a shouting match and no compromises. Karimov subsequently cracked down on the group.
Some of the fighters fled to Afghanistan to establish the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In the late 1990s, IMU joined the Taliban and organised several incursions into Central Asia.
Karimov’s government also claimed the group masterminded a series of deadly explosions in Tashkent in 1999. It used the blasts as a pretext to crack down on religious people and opposition members and eventually jailed thousands.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Uzbekistan became the first post-Soviet nation to offer its territory and airspace for NATO’s military operations in Afghanistan.
The country’s strategic location outweighed Western concerns over human rights, and the US invested tens of millions in a Soviet-era airbase on the Afghan border.
Fear still hangs over the people of Uzbekistan. They live with the knowledge that simply for speaking out, they can be shot and killed with impunity.
International rights groups and media also claimed the CIA used an Uzbek facility for extraordinary rendition, detention, and interrogation of “terrorism” suspects.
West softens sanctions
In March, Karimov – who has been in power for 26 years – was re-elected in an uncontested presidential election. His government’s incessant clampdown on Muslims, opposition figures, and businessmen who stand in the way of powerful clans makes Uzbekistan one of the world’s most repressive and corrupt countries.
“Fear still hangs over the people of Uzbekistan,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement in early May.
“They live with the knowledge that simply for speaking out, they can be shot and killed with impunity,” Swerdlow said.
In recent years, the US and EU allowed the sanctions that had been placed on Karimov’s government to lapse, eventually softening their stance on the human rights situation.
Germany, which still maintains a military base in the southern city of Termez, has played a large role in these developments, while Washington has been using Uzbek territory to evacuate military equipment from Afghanistan.
“The USA describes its engagement with Uzbekistan as a policy of ‘strategic patience’, but it is perhaps better described as strategic indulgence,” John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director for Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Karimov’s policies keep marginalising and radicalising politically active Muslims. The IMU is one of the most dreadful armed groups in Pakistan’s tribal zone, and hundreds of ISIL’s Uzbek recruits threaten to open a new front against Uzbekistan’s authoritarian leader.
An Uzbek security official told Al Jazeera, an ISIL squad tried to cross the Uzbek border and clashed with border guards in early April. There has been no official report on this clash.
“The political system Karimov has built is the largest threat to stability in Uzbekistan and in the region,” analyst Kislov said.
“After the Andijan massacre, extremists all over Central Asia found more supporters,” he said. “ISIL and its threats to the region are a partial response to Karimov’s perennial repressions of Muslims.”