Little Light Shed on Andijan One Year On

APAn Andijan resident throwing a rock at a damaged car during unrest in the Uzbek city on May 13, 2005. The events were triggered by a prison break.
ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan -- There is no memorial marking what happened in the center of this Uzbek city, where activists say hundreds of residents were gunned down without warning by government forces a year ago.

Instead, a new billboard with a smiling President Islam Karimov meeting a worker in a hardhat decorates the road leading to Andijan's central square, and a mirrored facade covers the bullet marks that scarred City Hall during the May 13, 2005, uprising.

A year after the Andijan events, exactly what happened remains unclear, with the Uzbek government repeatedly refusing an international inquiry into what it claims was a terrorist attack fueled by Islamic extremism.

The anniversary has prompted renewed Western calls for action against Tashkent -- including leading U.S. lawmakers proposing new sanctions and British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowing to keep up European pressure.

"The Uzbek government has done nothing to hold the perpetrators of this atrocity accountable, and the international community has failed to compel the Uzbek authorities do so. The victims deserve no less than full justice," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Most people agree an armed group staged a prison break on May 12, 2005, to free 23 businessmen after weeks of protests against their trial for alleged religious extremism, and that other inmates also got out. The men headed to Andijan's central square, and were joined the next day by hundreds of residents who transformed the gathering into a protest against government policy and complaints about the economy. After negotiations failed, witnesses say, government forces opened fire without warning into the mostly unarmed crowd. Uzbek authorities say 187 people were killed, but activists have said hundreds or even more than 1,000 died. Hundreds fled to Kyrgyzstan, and the UN refugee agency evacuated 439 to Romania.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called last month for overturning the verdicts in the only open trial connected to the Andijan events, citing lack of due process. In that trial, 15 men were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison after they pleaded guilty to charges of terrorism and murder.

At least another 230 people were convicted in 17 closed trials.

An unknown number of people remain missing, and the government has made no efforts to help families track them down, said Surat Ikramov, a Tashkent-based human rights activist. "These questions will remain as long as there's no international inquiry," he said.

The European Union last year enacted a travel ban on top officials that excluded Karimov. Germany nonetheless allowed former Interior Minister Zokirjon Almatov -- the person at the top of the blacklist -- to travel there for medical treatment.

In Andijan, it is difficult to find anyone willing to speak openly about what happened. "People used to want to speak, they all thought there would be some kind of international trial," said one Andijan man. "Now they are all afraid. ... They see even the United States can't do anything."

The government has sought to placate residents by boasting new investments in the area. There have even been shortages of cash in the capital, Tashkent because money has been sent to Andijan to cover unpaid salaries and pensions, bank tellers have told clients. With uncertainty lingering, international experts and residents warn Uzbekistan remains ripe for instability.

Once mild in its criticism of Western reform pleas, Uzbekistan ramped up its propaganda after Andijan and unleashed a further barrage ahead of Saturday's anniversary. "The attack of parricides and destroyers of religion, thoroughly organized under the aegis of external forces, has been repelled," Anvar Tursunov, the government-approved chief imam of Tashkent, said at a conference Wednesday.

The rhetoric is unconvincing to many here. "We used to think Karimov had bad advisers and therefore did not know what was really happening," an elderly man who identified himself as Alimjon said, squatting Wednesday beside a pile of cheap toys he was selling at a Tashkent bazaar.

"He has spilled the blood of his own people, and I cannot find words for what he's done. I can only hope to outlive him and see his name cursed forever."