The central Asian country of Uzbekistan was on the edge of revolt following a government massacre of as many as 500 demonstrators in the town of Andijon.
Sketchy media accounts suggest that the government had quelled unrest in Andijon, but that protests and rioting had spread to other towns in the Fergana Valley–a densely populated and impoverished region in eastern Uzbekistan, close to the capital of Tashkent and near the border with Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan is a former republic of the ex-USSR, where the dictator Islam Karimov has ruled with an iron fist since declaring independence from Moscow in 1991. Since 2001, Karimov’s rule has been bolstered by the U.S.–which considers him a staunch ally of Washington’s "war on terror."
But it is Karimov’s regime that is guilty of terrorism.
The upheaval in Andijon was sparked by the trial of 23 local businessmen accused of Islamic "extremism"–a favorite scapegoat for both Karimov and his newfound admirers in Washington–for supposedly belonging to a banned religious group. As the trial was due to come to a close last week, as many as 4,000 relatives and supporters turned out for protests in defense of the 23.
In the early morning hours of May 13, about 100 of the protesters stormed a security post and the Andijon prison, releasing thousands of inmates, including the businessmen. The demonstrators then occupied a building in the city center, demanding that Karimov resign.
Government troops moved in. According to Galima Bukharbaeva, a reporter with international monitoring group Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a column of armored personnel carriers opened fire "indiscriminately and unprovoked" on several thousand people in the square outside the occupied building.
"Hundreds of unarmed peaceful residents were struck by automatic-weapons fire," said a reporter for the Russian news organization Fergana.ru, who talked to eyewitnesses. "At first, they shot them from machine guns mounted on their vehicles, and then soldiers followed on foot mercilessly finishing off the wounded, including women and children."
Rumors of the number of dead flew after the government imposed an information blackout on Andijon. But human rights worker Lutfulla Shamsiddinov told Agence France-Presse: "This morning, I saw three trucks and a bus in which 300 dead bodies were being loaded by soldiers. At least one third of the bodies were women." Other estimates of the casualties range as high as 500.
A White House statement last week backed Karimov’s regime and its repression directed at the supposed "Islamic terrorists" put on trial in Andijon, and Karimov himself seized on the U.S. statements to blame the protests on the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. But the source of the anger is Karimov’s police state–as well as persistent poverty in areas like the Fergana Valley, where bitterness toward the regime is combined with economic grievances resulting from unemployment and poverty.
"Wild-eyed religious extremists are the stock characters for most discussions of potential unrest in Uzbekistan," wrote Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Daniel Kimmage. "But while outbreaks of violence in 2004 have drawn media scrutiny, the daily cares of most people in Uzbekistan are far removed from the ‘al-Qaeda links’ and ‘terror plots’ that mainstream media find so compelling."
Nevertheless, the U.S. government’s "daily cares" are about maintaining relations with the repressive regime.
When the Bush administration launched its "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001, attacks, it courted Karimov, funneling $79 million in aid for the country’s military and police in 2002–a "sweetener," in the words of one diplomat, for the deal that allowed Washington to use an airbase in the southern town of Khanabad for its war on Afghanistan.
In 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave Karimov the red-carpet treatment on a visit to the U.S.–even though Powell’s State Department had issued a report two weeks earlier which described Uzbekistan as a "an authoritarian state with limited civil rights," where the "government does not permit the existence of opposition parties." U.S. officials know full well that the aid goes to security services and police that–as a State Department report admits–engage in "torture as a routine investigation technique."
Uzbekistan’s human rights record is one of the most appalling in the world. Last year’s Human Rights Watch report on the country charged that the Karimov regime was carrying out a campaign of torture and intimidation against Muslims. Among the 7,000 people imprisoned in the government witch-hunt, at least 10 died in custody, according to Human Rights Watch–including Muzafar Avozov, who was boiled to death in 2002.
But that’s fine with the CIA–which has been accused of utilizing Uzbekistan’s torture chambers for its secret "renditioning" program of sending terrorist suspects to countries where torture isn’t against the law.
"This has really blown up in the U.S.’s faces," said Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who revealed the regime’s ongoing human rights abuses, and lost his job for it. "When will the U.S. and UK call for fair, free and early elections in Uzbekistan?" asked Murray, who ran an independent antiwar campaign for a seat in parliament in British elections held earlier this month.
"The US will claim that they are teaching the Uzbeks less repressive interrogation techniques, but that is basically not true," Murray told Britain’s Observer newspaper. "They help fund the Uzbek security services and give tens of millions of dollars in military support as well."
The ongoing upheaval in Uzbekistan exposes the real face of Washington’s "war on terror" around the world.