The Andijan Massacre One Year Later: Conference Held at Columbia University
(NEW YORK – March 6, 2006) Over 100 academics, journalists, diplomats, activists and students gathered at Columbia University on March 6 for a conference on the Andjian massacre nearly a year after it took place. The conference, which featured talks by six experts on the events, was titled, “Uzbekistan and the Andijan Massacre One Year Later: The Politics of Tragedy.”
Journalist Galima Bukharbaeva and human rights researcher Lutfullo Shamsuddinov gave eyewitness accounts of the events. Professor Peter Sinnott of Columbia offered some historical context. Researcher Alisher Ilkhamov argued that "Akromiya" was actually a
moderate Islamic movement contributing to domestic civil society and the social and economic welfare of Uzbeks. Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch discussed the Uzbek government's crackdown on freedom of speech and civil society following the massacre. Finally, Sergei Kalamytsau of the International League for Human Rights commented on the world's response to the massacre.
The following are brief summaries of each of the featured presentations:
Galima Bukharbaeva, founder of Press Freedom Group Andijan 2005 and a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, began the conference with an eyewitness account of the massacre in Andijan. Her presentation included a tape recording of the events of May 13 which provided a moving account of the tragedy. She spoke about the lack of justice in Uzbekistan and the motivations of the protestors on Bobur Square. Demonstrators were able to finally speak out about of their unhappiness with the situation in Uzbekistan, particularly with regards to poverty and unemployment, she said. They complained about being forced to travel to Russia to find work, where they are abused and even killed. The protestors also talked about the lack of freedom of speech, Bukharbaeva said.
Bukharbaeva concluded with the question, “Why didn’t the world react to the crimes committed by the Uzbek government in Andijan?” She spoke of all the victims, not just those killed on that day, but those forced from their own country, and those that disappeared from hospitals in the days following the massacre. If politicians around the world would condemn the events of Andijan and band together to condemn Karimov, Bukharbaeva said, he would understand that what he did was an unforgivable crime.
Peter Sinnott, a lecturer at the Harriman and Middle East Institutes of Columbia University, spoke on "Karimov's Uzbekistan and the Politics of Morality." He discussed how the sounds of the bullets heard on Bukharbaeva’s tape recording provide evidence of indiscriminate firing. He said the guns were of WWII vintage, “guns that could put a bullet through an engine.”
Professor Sinnott then gave an account of events in Namangan on December 7, 2005, when an Islamic resistance movement was launched and Karimov visited the town to discuss the protestors’ demands. When Karimov failed to follow through on many of his promises, the group left Uzbekistan to join the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), he said. Professor Sinnott argued that the government has a right to act against terrorist uprisings, but not in the way that it did – by shooting indiscriminately into a crowd.
Professor Sinnott concluded with the questions, “Why has there been no investigation, and where does responsibility lie?” He argued that the idea of moral authority exists in Central Asia, and that the Uzbek government should abide by it. He also commented on the debate in the square. He concluded that the reason such a debate had not occurred in Uzbekistan in a very long time is because the government does not have any trust in the people.
Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at SOAS, University of London, spoke on the topic, "Are the 'Akromiya' an extremist or moderate Islamic movement?" Akromiya is the name given by the government to a group of local businessmen, 23 of whom were arrested in Uzbekistan and charged with being affiliated with extremist religious activities. Dr. Ilkhamov discussed the founding, ideology, and socio-economic context of Akromiya. His conclusion was that Akromiya had established itself as a moderate Islamic movement contributing to domestic civil society and the social and economic welfare of Uzbeks, in areas where the government is failing. The events in Andijan were the result of inability of the Uzbek government to distinguish between moderate and extremist Islamism and the government's fear of any kind of grass root social activism. The massacre destroyed the possibility of further positive developments of this kind in the future.
Lutfullo Shamsuddinov, chairman of the Andijan branch of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, presented a talk titled, "An eyewitness account of the May events in Andijan." He discussed the show-trials prior to the massacre, noting that some of the defendants received longer jail sentences than even the prosecutors had requested. He also described in great detail the days following the trial, and in particular the protests and shootings of May 13. He also reported seeing bodies loaded onto three trucks and a bus on the morning of May 14. After a horrifying description of events, Shamsuddinov concluded by declaring that the people of the Ferghana Valley are peaceful and even though the government likes to accuse the people of terrorism, they are not terrorists.
Acacia Shields, senior researcher on Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, spoke on the Uzbek government's crackdown following the massacre in Andijan. Shields described how the government washed the streets of the square following the massacre and citizens of Andijan were told to mourn in private. The government also undertook wide scale arrests and harassment of human rights defenders and independent journalists who tried to tell the true story of what happened in Andijan. International NGOs such as the Open Society Institute, Eurasia Foundation, IREX and international media outlets have been closed. Estimated hundreds of Andijan residents were detained and pressured to provide false testimony to authorities following the events as part of the government cover-up. There is an unprecedented level of anxiety and despair that permeates the entire country. She described the Uzbeks as a "people under house arrest".
Sergei Kalamytsau, the Central Asia program researcher at the International League for Human Rights, discussed the international response to Andijan. He reiterated the need for an independent international investigation. The UN issued strong statements following the events in Andijan urging the Uzbek government to allow an investigation and UNHCR also took an active stance in protecting refugees in Kyrgyzstan, he said. The most robust response came from the EU, which imposed sanctions, including an arms embargo and a visa ban for 12 senior officials in Uzbek government. Russia and China, meanwhile, support Karimov’s version of events and have provided his government with political cover, Kalamytsau said.
The final hour of the conference was taken up by of questions from the floor. Questioners included representatives from Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Columbia University and from various Uzbek political figures, activists and refugees.
An exhibition of photographs from the events in Andijan was on display.
The conference was sponsored by the Harriman Institute of Columbia University.