Uzbeks campaign for economic rights and release of prisoners, 2005

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Timing
Time Period:  
January
2005
to
May 13,
2005
Location and Goals
Country: 
Uzbekistan
Location City/State/Province: 
Andijan, Andijan Province
Location Description: 
Babur Square
Goals: 
To free twenty-three prominent businessmen arrested by the police and to force the Uzbek government into improving the economic situation in the Ferghana Valley. Protesters also spoke out against the corruption in the Uzbek government.
 

In June of 2004, police arrested twenty-three businessmen in the Uzbek city of Andijan for their supposed connection to Akramia, an Islamic extremist group. These businessmen enjoyed considerable support among the Andijan population, because they employed many locals at higher wages than other companies did. The national government, however, saw these businessmen as a nuisance. After the 1999 Tashkent bombings, the Uzbek government cracked down on Muslims, and made it much harder for Muslims to have their own businesses. The twenty-three Muslim businessmen in Andijan had avoided the government crackdown by sharing capital and creating successful businesses. After their arrest, they were put on trial, and thousands of demonstrators campaigned for their release and against the poor economic conditions in Andijan.

Beginning in January of 2005, locals, many of whom had lost their jobs following the arrest of the business leaders, protested routinely in Babur Square, the square in front of the courthouse where the businessmen were being tried. They held signs and chanted slogans in an organized fashion, and their demeanor was non-confrontational. They aimed at first to simply pressure the authorities into releasing the businessmen, because Uzbek authorities regularly arrested people on exaggerated charges to scare them, and then would decrease the severity of the charges after public pressure. Over time, the protesters also spoke out against the poor economic conditions present in the Ferghana Valley (where Andijan is located) and corruption within the Uzbek government. By the end, the protest became just as much about social and economic issues as political issues.

For almost the entire campaign, the protesters used similar techniques. They gathered in front of the courthouse in small groups, and conveyed their message through signs and chants. On April 25, the arrested businessmen announced a hunger strike in protest of the judge’s actions.

The pattern of the campaign changed as the verdict deadline approached. The verdict was set to be announced on May 11, and on the 10th, 1,000 people showed up in front of the courthouse. A large crowd gathered on the 11th as well, but the court delayed the verdict indefinitely. On the 11th and the 12th, police detained several relatives of the already detained businessmen.

During the early morning of May 13, a handful of unidentified men forcefully took weapons from an army unit and stormed the Andijan jail, liberating the businessmen and other prisoners. The militants killed some guards in the process. Many of those liberated made their way to Babur Square. Armed civilians also seized a government building near a square and made their way to the Square with some hostages, and kept other hostages in the building. While both militants and peaceful demonstrators occupied Babur Square, the two groups stayed separate, and the militants were a small minority of the entire crowd. News of the events spread quickly, and soon thousands gathered in the Square. Protesters put microphones in the middle of the Square and people spoke out against poverty and injustice. Many also prayed as a group at the nearby mosque. Beginning in the early morning, army and police forces set up blockades around the Square, but allowed people to enter on foot. As the situation escalated, some protesters wished to leave the square due to the potential for violence, but organizers feared that anyone who left the Square would be executed, and urged people to stay in solidarity.

By the afternoon, between 10,000 and 15,000 people had gathered in the square, and many believed President Karimov would come to address the crowd. Without warning, however, police and army forces attacked largely unarmed demonstrators with gunfire, and forced them out of the square. As they escaped, the demonstrators placed hostages in front of them, but many hostages were killed by government fire. Unarmed demonstrators faced intermittent fire from the army and police. Some broke off from the main column via side streets, while others continued in a large group, and a small portion walked across the border to Kyrgyzstan. Various sources estimate the protesters’ death toll between 300 and 5,000 people.

The campaign ended in disaster for the protesters. The death toll was enormous, and none of their demands were achieved. While militants perpetrated very little violence against the Uzbek government, it, along with the presence of weapons in Babur Square, was enough to cause a violent reaction from the government.

Research Notes
Sources: 
"Bullets Were Falling Like Rain" Human Rights Watch. 06 June 2005. Web. <http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11731/section/3>.

Chivers, C.J. "Toe Tags Offer Clues to Uzbeks' Uprising." New York Times, 23 May 2005. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/23/international/asia/23uzbek.html>.

Hamm, Nathan. "Andijon Court Blinks." Registan. 12 May 2005. Web. <http://www.registan.net/index.php/2005/05/12/andijon-court-blinks/>.

"How the Andijan Killings Unfolded." BBC News. BBC, 17 May 2005. Web. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4550845.stm>.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Rep. Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 20 June 2005. Web. <http://www.osce.org/odihr/15653>.

Additional Notes: 
The nonviolent campaign failed to release the prisoners or improve economic conditions because of the massacre perpetrated by the Uzbek government. However, it was not the peaceful protesters that provoked the government; the violence committed against jail guards and government employees caused the Uzbek government to respond violently, therefore ending the campaign. Following the massacre, the Uzbek government refused to release all of the victims' bodies to their relatives, especially those of women and children killed. Because of this, the exact death toll is not known.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Danny Hirschel-Burns, 09/03/2011