On 13 May 2005, at least 700 people died. The government described them as armed terrorists, persecuting witnesses in subsequent years. On the anniversary each year, police held back the participants. This year, the new President Shavkat Mirzyaev sends a signal of openness.
Tashkent (AsiaNews/Fergana) – Activists with the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan (PAU) held the traditional demonstration at the foot of the ‘Courage’ monument to commemorate the hundreds of Andijan residents shot to death 12 years ago.
On 13 May 2005, a mass demonstration broke out in Andijan, eastern Uzbekistan, as a result of tensions that had built up over growing poverty and government repression.
According to the official version of events, protesters seized government buildings and a prison. Uzbek troops intervened to put an end to the uprising, killing 187 people.
Activists have disputed this version, claiming that at least 700 people died, mostly peaceful demonstrators, including women and children, as well as passers-by.
Subsequently, at least 358 people were sentenced to long prison sentences in "secretive" trials. No one, activists or relatives, has been able to read the sentences.
Surprisingly, this year the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Security Service (SNB) did not intervene to stop the commemoration. The ceremony took place without interference. Activists laid flowers and toys at the foot of the monument, and unfolded posters denouncing "war crimes".
This year's rally was organised by PAU leader Elena Urlaeva, who in the past had complained of police abuses.
In previous years, the police and the SNB detained demonstrators, who were heavily fined by a local court. Police also intervened when activists did not raise any banners, but just held only flowers and children's toys.
Sometimes the authorities stopped potential participants from leaving home on 13 May. In 2008, some NGOs complained of witness harassment.
The place for the annual commemoration is not by chance. The Courage monument was erected on 20 May 1970 in memory of the devastating earthquake that hit Tashkent in 1966.
According to Ms Urlaeva, ‘this monument is directly connected to the courage of the Uzbek people. For human rights activists it is also the embodiment of the heroism of Andijan residents, who were not afraid to complain en masse against the infringement of their rights and were brutally shot for it.”
Uzbek authorities and media chose not to remember the Andijan tragedy. Not even a visit by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein led to any media coverage of the memorial.
In a message at the end of his visit (10-12 May), Mr Al Hussein said, “On Saturday, we will mark the 12th anniversary of the terrible events that took place in Andijan on 13 May 2005. While it is important to look forward, it also important [for Uzbek authorities] to come to terms with past events and ensure that victims are not forgotten and their grievances are addressed.”
Since he took office in early December, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirzyaev has moved the country towards a "more tolerant" direction with the release of activists and journalists.
The visit by the UN Commissioner is itself a sign of change. Since 2005, Uzbek authorities had refused to cooperate with UN human rights agencies.