Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Who knows where the time goes? 

This was a quick response to the recent massacres of demonstrators in Uzbekistan...

The Leader of the Free World and the dictator of Uzbekistan
Andijan: The War on Terror's very own Tiananmen Square

"Hundreds of bodies left outside a school were removed early Saturday, the witnesses said. Blood and body parts could still be seen on sidewalks and in gutters Sunday in Andijon, a city of about 300,000."

As reported by Dmitry Solvyov of Reuters for the Washington Post. Nick Allen for the Daily Telegraph from Moscow, of the killing in the Uzbek city:

"As many as 500 bodies were retrieved after the violence. Uzbek soldiers reportedly fired into a crowd of thousands protesting over hardships in the former Soviet republic as police officers begged them not to shoot."

The details of what the Uzbek regime has done are still emerging - the city is currently sealed and journalists are barred from entering the city and threatened if they do so - we will probably find out more soon. But already, a reasonably clear outline of events is emerging.

On Thursday May 12th, protestors began to gather outside a court where 23 local businessmen were being prosecuted, charged with being a part of the Islamist opposition (the charge was of "Islamic extremism" - (an ultra-broad and purposefully ambiguous charge obviously not internationally recognised as a criminal offence) - a charge which in Uzbekistan can be put to any Muslim who practises Islam outside of proscribed state parameters. On Friday 13th, a group of men armed with Kalashnikovs stormed the prison where the accused were held and released them along with other inmates. They went on to occupy a number of government buildings and take ten policemen hostage. The accused men then joined the protest rally which grew to several thousand.

This was a dramatic escalation, but the protestors remained calm and peaceful, as Galima Bukharbaeva, director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Uzbekistan described:

"They are holding meetings, and people are making speeches and talking about injustice and respect for human rights. It's not just a political protest - it's also social and economic."

The BBC timeline of events describes the demonstration growing to 10,000, with people using open microphones to protest pent-up anger at the regime and the economic conditions they endure. Demonstrators openly attacked President Karimov himself.

During this time, government forces began to concentrate at the city airport, preparing for a counter-offensive against the rebels and the towns-people. At 6 o'clock in the evening, the army tried to take back occupied government buildings.

This is when the massacre of the demonstrators began. We have some fragments of information:

"The 50-year-old father of one missing man says: "Karimov's people shot women and children. I saw young men with their hands up, shouting 'Don't shoot'. But they just shot them." (BBC Online)

"Those wounded who tried to get away were finished with single shots from a Kalashnikov rifle," one man said. "Three or four soldiers were assigned to killing the wounded."

"The men lay on the ground, but not the women, who may have thought that they were not at risk."

Other witnesses spoke of lorries piled high with corpses in the city centre.
(Daily Telegraph)

"They shot at us like rabbits," said a boy in his late teens, recalling the horror of troops rampaging through the square where 3,000 protesters, some of them reportedly armed, had rallied...

Saidzhakhon Zainabitdinov, chairman of a local human rights group, estimated that as many as 500 people were killed in the ensuing operation to crush the protests, which would make it the bloodiest incident in Uzbekistan's post-Soviet history.

At a cemetery in the city, Wahhabjon Mominov, a gravedigger, said Sunday he had already dug four graves in the morning for victims of Friday's violence. The facade of the two-story School No. 15 was pockmarked with at least 20 bullet holes.

The bloodshed prompted as many as 4,000 people to flee to the closed border with Kyrgyzstan.
(Washington Post)

On Saturday 14th, there were further protests and further reports of shooting of unarmed demonstrators. Human Rights Watch anticipates a further crackdown on disssent and protest throughout the country in the aftermath of the massacre.

Karimov himself maintains that there was no order given to troops to open fire on protestors. But is it even remotely plausible that Uzbek soldiers would kill so many of their fellow citizens with such brutality without a clear direction from above?

The Uzbek regime is one of the most repressive in Central Asia, perhaps outsripped only by that of nearby Turkmenistan. It is a regime dominated by the ex-Communist appartchik Islam Karmiov, retaining all the characteristics of Stalinist repression with some extra things thrown in - extreme forms of torture, detention of political prisoners (sometimes in psychiatric wards), the suppression of independent religious belief, openly rigged elections in which the leading opposition candidate votes against himself, state controlled media, even reports of prisoners being boiled alive.

All this has very great relevance to us in Britain. Uzbekistan is a major strategic ally of Britain and the United States in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan and our covert war of torture and dubious intelligence on people who might conceivably be connected to Osama Bin Laden. Matthew Davis puts it gently for the BBC:

"The US has a large military base in Uzbekistan that is seen by the Pentagon as important for the projection of US power into the region. It also has an eye on the Uzbek oil and gas reserves. So while deeply concerned about the outbreak of violence, the United States has tried to avoid taking sides in public."

"Deeply concerned..." maybe - but not for the demonstrators.

After touring the former Soviet Union, making unlikely boasts of US success in bringing freedom to the region and taking the credit for recent popular challenges to authoritarianism in Georgia's Rose Revolution, the Ukraine's Orange Revolution and Kyrgyzstan's whatever-that-was kind-of-revolution, George Bush Jr. has come face to face with the glaring contradiction between his rhetoric and the reality of a foreign policy that favours some of the world's worst dictatorships.

As Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, said:

"There is not a senior member of the US administration who is not on record saying warm words about Karimov. There is not a single word recorded by any of them calling for free elections in Uzbekistan. And it's not just words. In 2002, the US gave Uzbekistan over $500m in aid, including $120m in military aid and $80m in security aid. The level has declined - but not nearly as much as official figures seem to show (much is hidden in Pentagon budgets after criticism of the 2002 figure)..." (Emphasis added)

Murray himself was harassed while in office by Downing Street and eventually pushed out of it, for his vocal criticism of the Uzbek regime and US and British support for it.

In the first official US response, reported by the Guardian, "White House spokesman Scott McClellan urged restraint by both sides and Uzbeks should pursue their goals peacefully."

"Both sides" being the peaceful demonstrators and the troops who were gunning them down "like rabbits". How to lie and down and die with greater restraint?

Aware at the criticism being levelled at the Bush administration's clearly insincere position (including from some Congressional Republicans), a new statement has just been released, in which the State Department finds that it is "deeply disturbed", though quite what by is left to our imaginations. Condeleeza Rice insists that the State Department has been urging Karimov towards political reform - which to some extent it has, but in a dismal manner that puts no priority on human rights. Indeed previous State Department calls for reform along with reduction in some support for the regime were coupled with false claims of improvements in the Uzbek human rights record undetected by human rights agencies. In fact, here it is:

"Uzbekistan is an important partner of the United States in the war on terror and we have many shared strategic goals. This decision does not mean that either our interests in the region or our desire for continued cooperation with Uzbekistan has changed.

'Uzbekistan has made some encouraging progress over the past year with respect to human rights. We are, however, disappointed by lack of progress on democratic reform and restrictions put on U.S. assistance partners on the ground. On balance, therefore, the Secretary has decided that, based on Uzbekistan 's overall record of reform, he cannot make the determination required by Section 568(a)."
(Emphasis added)

And what do you know, Karimov felt able to ignore that kind of hectoring. And I think you'll find that "restrictions put on US assistance partners on the ground" - business? local political clients? - is the main issue here, not torture.

Meanwhile over here, the Foreign Minister Jack Straw discovered in this affair: "a clear abuse of human rights, a lack of democracy and a lack of openness".

A lack of democracy and openess? Well, what do you know about that? That's because it's a dictatorship. A fact he must have noticed while Tony Blair's office was harassing and trumping up charges against Craig Murray. And not even New Labour can claim that a massacre like this occured after an open process of consultation. The Foreign Secretary also called for the Red Cross to be allowed into Andijan - a good call, though given the way Coalition forces in Iraq have often blocked Red Cross access to the sick, maimed and dying, British moral authority is none too strong on this point.

Needless to say, Karimov has heavily emphasised details that will help fit the Andijan massacre into the framework of the war against Bin Ladenists, blaming an Islamist rebel group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, for the bloodshed and claiming that the use of repression was to prevent an Islamist coup and takeover of the country. Such lying cannot wash away the reality that the army was used to butcher brave people who were protesting because of their lack of freedom and because they were poor.

So, will the international and domestic outcry after the massacre mean an end to US and British support for the Karimov regime? It's not clear - but the evidence is probably that it won't. The CIA retains its co-operation with the Sudanese regime despite the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the popular movements around the world requesting a serious international response. Unless Karimov himself is ousted by internal opposition or there is major protest in Britain and the USA we can expect a response to the Andijan slaughter similar to that of the West to the Tiananman Square massacre in China in 1989. Angry (if it even gets to that) public statements while the bodies are still being taken away and the blood hosed off the streets, followed by private assurances to the murderers that it will soon be back to business as usual.

Make some noise!

Oh, and i know i used to joke about how Nigerian businessmen with huge, non-existent sums of money were also welcome to e-mail me, but i've changed my mind. You can stop now. And if you really do have tens of millions of dollars from some hapless dead guy, please return this wealth to the working-class of your country from whom it was taken in the first place.

Best wishes in the world,
Alex Higgins
(Tottenham, London, England)

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