“The trial opened in February, and by last week, a sentence was due. The trial had already brought thousands into the streets of Andijan for peaceful protests, and the protest leaders promised massive resistance if the men were convicted. But the sentence never came.”
Although regional specialists and locally-based journalists and NGO activists had followed the trial of Twenty-three businessmen in Andijan on charges of Islamic fundamentalist subversion before 12th May, 2005, the impending crisis had passed the outside world by.
Yet it is important to note that before the trouble broke out, contrary to the image of a relentlessly intolerant police state, one of Uzbekistan’s main critics, Daniel Kimmage of RFE, reported, “The brother of one defendant told uznews.net, “We are ready to do anything in order to free our innocent brothers.” Police have not interfered in the demonstrations, which are unusual in their size and degree of organization, according to observers...” The glib descriptions in Western media after 13th May of Uzbekistan as a state where protests were never tolerated were not matched by evidence from reporters there before the violence broke out.
What actually happened in Andijan from late on Thursday 12th May to Friday afternoon, 13th May, is the subject of wildly differing accounts. Not only does the version provided by President Islam Karimov and the Uzbek prosecutor-general contradict claims made by the opposition and human rights activists but the many foreign journalists in Andijan at the time and since cite sources’ reporting different versions and flat contradictions.
As events began to unfold, Registan.ru’s Nathan Hamm, a former US Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan and self-appointed arbiter of matters Central Asian reported on his blog: “I was just about to head off to bed when I got a tip from an NGO worker in Uzbekistan that about 100 gunmen have seized a prison in Andijon, killing guards and freeing prisoners. The BBC is also reporting that the gunmen attacked a military garrison, driving off soldiers.” He added, “The gunmen could have been from the protesters or they could be militants taking advantage of the situation (some of those violent schismatics from the ranks of Hizb ut-Tahrir perhaps?).” But he cautioned, “It’s too soon to be sure of anything.”
Western media sided with the opposition and accepted its version as inherently probable in the immediate aftermath of the news. The BBC’s rolling news service, News 24, had “Breaking News” under the headline, “Official says death toll was 169” but that grim statistic did not convince and the anchorwoman in London made a Freudian slip when reading out the report: “The Uzbek Prosecutor General is saying that the death toll in Andijan in that rebellion was 169. That’s hugely at variance of course with the prosecution [sic.] figures .” Matthew Amrolliwallah added, “And perhaps no surprise that the official position is playing down those figures. They’re putting it at 169.” The channel reported that “The opposition are talking and claiming that at least 745 people were killed.” Earlier it reported claims by “the leading opposition party” that 724 people had died.
It matters a great deal who fired first. Even to ask that question must seem blasphemy to those who swallowed the immediate and recurring reports of troops shooting at peaceful demonstrators as the only story. So-called “people power” revolutions are supposed to be distinguished by the lack of violence on the part of protestors. Only a “repressive” state-machine uses force in this popular scenario. But it was precisely the use of violence by the opposition in Andijan on 12th May which causes comparisons between Andijan and Tiananmen Square to falter at this point.
Both in Romania and China in 1989, the worst the authorities could allege against crowds of demonstrators was that the pushed and shoved the police. The scale of anti-regime violence in Andijan before the security forces struck was clearly of a different order. The beatings and looting in Bishkek in March, 2005, were a foretaste of the violent potential of crowds in Central Asia. Anyone encouraging “velvet revolutions” there has to take responsibility for the likely costs of mob violence as well as any counter-repression.
The interlinked media ring of NGOs active in opposition circles in Uzbekistan and key news organizations in the West offer one picture of events. For instance, the New York Times C.J,. Chivers told readers on 23rd May, “from lengthy interviews with more than 30 survivors, combined with accounts collected by opposition workers and human rights groups, a picture emerges much different from the official version in Uzbekistan, an authoritarian post-Soviet state.”
The opposition line was that a peaceful crowd of protestors were fired on 13th May.
According to the anti-war Washington-based , InterPress Service, “Dilshad Tillamodjaev of the Center for Democratic Initiatives in Andijan noted that when the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, many of the victims were women and children. "Karimov said that he didn't order them to shoot, but that is not true," he added.”
Reuters reporter “Shamil Baigin said the shooting came from a truck full of soldiers which, along with an armoured personnel carrier, had sped to the town square where the protesters had gathered. He saw one body lying on the ground following the shooting.”
Galima Burkhabaeva, described as “the country director in Uzbekistan for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting” (IWPR) told the BBC that before government forces opened fire, “It's actually quite a peaceful protest. Everyone's being very polite to each other and no one's doing anything violent.”
But in fact the oppositionists who had seized the prison had already killed a number of prison guards and policemen. They had also taken hostages. As so often in recent revolutions, casualties to the government side go uncounted and unacknowledged.
It is hardly surprising that opponents of the regime present a different version from the government. The question is whether this Opposition version is fully truthful or accurate. (People may make mistakes as well as deliberately lie – particularly under the pressure of events.)
Russian media showed pictures from Andijan after the prison was seized but before government forces opened fire. They showed public buildings on fire and wrecked vehicles, armed men in civilian dress among unarmed supporters. According to the BBC website on 13th May, “Men armed with Kalashnikovs can be seen on the streets, but most demonstrators are ordinary people and the atmosphere is calm, says Galima Bukharbaeva. "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."
Western media has ignored violence by the anti-Karimov forces but the “other side” mourns its own victims too. Not only were policemen, prison guards and mayors and city officials reported killed or wounded in the week after 12th May, but even members of Uzbek NGOs were apparently killed when trying to mediate between rebels and authorities, killed it is claimed by the rebels.
For instance, on 20th May, Ferghana.ru whose generally pro-rebel stance has been widely quoted by Western media as a source on events in and around Andijan carried the claim, “Rebels reportedly kill Uzbek rights activist trying to mediate”. The agency reported, “According to a report by the chairman of the Party of Businessmen and Farmers of Uzbekistan, Marat Zohidov, the rebels who seized the Andijon [regional] administration building on 13 May killed Ortiqali Rahmatov, deputy head of the local branch of the International Human Rights Society (IHRS), and injured his assistant, Qodir Ergashev.” Mr Zohidov said, "They went to the administration building to broker a peace, although I forbade them to do so and ordered them to stay in the IHRS office with those freed convicts who had come to the office. They were released from prison by the rebels.They disobeyed me and went there. The rebels tied them up and beat them. Then the rebels took them out and shot Rahmatov dead. Ergashev escaped with his life because the storming of the square began," Marat Zohidov said.”
Mr Ergashev’s own account matches this version. One of the defendants whom he had supported as unfairly prosecuted, “called from a cellphone and said he's out," Ergashev said. "He said he was released by an armed group that killed several guards, then released all prisoners and demanded that they should join their ranks, distributing automatic rifles to them from a truck that was parked near the prison. Then shooting began in town, and I went to see what was going on." When he entered the government building which was in the hands of the rebels and escaped prisoners to meet Sharifjon Shokirov, an escapee, Ergashev found a grim scene: "When I was entering the building I was walking over the corpses of dead policemen," Ergashev recalled. "I asked Shokirov directly, 'What do you want to do? The entire world community was on your side. You were supported everywhere, and now I saw dead bodies outside this building. What does it mean?” 
Mr Ergashev reported that Andijan’s government building was no longer controlled by the police “but by people in civilian clothes with Kalashnikovs… Outside and inside the building I counted about 50 armed men, all aged between 20 and 40. Inside the building, on the floor, I saw several policemen and regional officials with tied legs and arms.” The treatment of these captives was not in the spirit of human rights preached by the defendants’ apologists in the West: "Some armed men were preparing Molotov cocktails, and some were beating the hell out of police and security officers they had captured."
Rashanbek Khadimov, one of the defence lawyers for the Twenty-Three gave a detailed account of how events unfolded to the Los Angeles Times which “ largely matches the official government version” according to the newspaper’s reporters, David Holley and Sergei Loiko. Although he rejected he idea that an Islamic terrorist group had plotted the jailbreak, Mr. Khadimov clearly thought the attack on the prison by the relatives and friends of the defendants was the wrong thing to do: “If I had known what they were thinking I would have stopped them.”
Mr Khadimov described how the group had attacked a police station guarded by only 5 policemen but where they could seize 100 Kalashnikovs. They used these to attack a military unit and seize more weapons. "Then they made their biggest mistake. When they were freeing their friends from prison, they released the most horrible criminals who were there and gave them guns. They released from prison, together with the flower of the nation, the scum of the nation."
The indiscriminate release of prisoners awaiting trial, those on trial and those convicted of common crimes, like murder was a recipe for disaster. Ferghana.ru reported that a “serial murderer” was among those released by the insurgents who stormed Andijan prison. According to Aleksei Volosevich, “One of the inmates of Andizhan prison released in the course of the recent events there was a serial murderer. He is Mikhail Sakhnov (or Misha), born in 1958.” Mr Sakhnov’s melancholy career as a three time killer had looked over until the “indignation of the People” boiled over. In the past, “Sakhnov's neighbours said that he had killed his first wife and spent 10 years behind the bars for the murder. When released, Sakhnov moved to Russia, married again, and murdered his wife. When imprisonment in a Russian jail was over, he returned to Andizhan. He married another woman, Natasha, and murdered her last fall. This time, Sakhnov was sentenced to death.” He was awaiting execution in Uzbekistan, despite the protests of international NGOs and Western governments against the regime’s use of the death penalty when he and an accomplice escaped courtesy of the “businessmen’s” friends. Volosevich notes, “The first thing he did finding himself out of jail was murder his son [Andrei].” His current whereabouts are unknown which cannot be comfort to anyone living in Uzbekistan, even the international NGO staff there.
But the main problem was that the rebels had killed people in their power before the Uzbek troops acted. They had taken hostages and even attacked would-be mediators may have precipitated the soldiers’ attack. It is impossible to know whether President Karimov who was briefly in Andijan, his Interior Minister, Zakir Almatov, who spoke by phone to the insurgents in the government building, or any other Uzbek official could have offered satisfactory concessions to the rebels after the prison seizure. The insurgents method of negotiating was to use their prisoners, including human rights activists and lawyers as well as state officials, as a human shield.
Britain’s Independent on Sunday has led the charge against Karimov but even its correspondents note en passant “our inquiries have also established that the incident which sparked the massacre was initiated by the storming of a prison which led to the ‘insurgents’ themselves also murdering 54 men and women in cold blood…. At the prison the insurgents did their own killing, murdering guards many of whose weapons were actually unloaded, a government-ordered precaution to prevent them from falling into inmates' hands.” [emphasis added] The report continues:
“Taking hostages along the way they then tried to seize three key local buildings, Andizhan's administrative headquarters, the local branch of the Interior Ministry and the office of the National Security Service. They succeeded in occupying the administrative headquarters but met armed resistance at the other two buildings and were repelled.” Once they were in control of the city administration, the insurgents “phoned relatives telling them to join them and that was when crowds that would later swell to several thousand began to form in central Andizhan.” Even by this account, a city of 300,000 was only able to produce a crowd of “several thousand” to back the insurgents’ demands for street protests.
The lawyer, Ergashev, himself became a hostage when it became clear that he was not in agreement with the violent methods used by the insurgents. "…On my way out I was detained, tied up and made a hostage," Ergashev said. As the militants’ supporters demonstrated in the main square of Andijan as troops and police gathered in late afternoon, Ergashev reported, that the militants left the building with their hostages. He added that he was with a group of about 30 hostages tied together at the front of a huge column of people that walked from the centre of the city toward the outskirts. Taking hostages by anyone is a clear breach of international law and the norms of civilized behaviour.
Mr Ergashev’s account made the proceedings clear:
"Hostages first, then unarmed civilians, then armed men," he said. "Only four hostages survived after an armored personnel carrier opened fire on the crowd. I was among them. I don't know why they opened fire seeing that uniformed policemen, their comrades, were walking tied up in front of the column. I guess the order to shoot came from the very top and they just couldn't disobey it, hostages or no hostages."
Although Ergashev surmised that a high authority, by implication President Karimov, ordered his security forces to open fire, the situation was not in which a purely unarmed and peaceful crowd came under attack without provocation.
The BBC News website gave the impression that only policemen were held hostage by the insurgents: “After the shooting began at 6pm (according to the BBC news website) “A large number of protesters - including gunmen and 10 police officers who have been held hostage - moves from the city centre towards School No 15, just over 1km away, unnamed witnesses tell Reuters news agency.”
This report was contradicted by eyewitness testimony. One Andijan resident linked to the Peace Corps sent a blog saying that the BBC’s reports were not accurate: “on the news it was said it was people’s demonstration but it’s not right: it was the terrorists and their relatives, and many people were killed by accident neither terrorists nor [did] army want to kill them”. They were bystanders according to this witness.
Although it seems very likely that in any exchange of fire or volley of machine-gun fire from Uzbek security forces, innocent civilians or unarmed protestors would have been killed or injured, much of the Western media has ignored the reality that it was the slaughter of unarmed people by the insurgents which preceded, even precipitated the “massacre” whose reporting filed the airwaves unchallenged throughout the key first week of reportage.
This Uzbek “house of horrors” was fixed in people’s minds before complicating details could challenge the media-image. In all propaganda what matters is getting your message across first in a simple and easily understood but equally unshakeable form. No-one will ever think again about Uzbekistan or President Karimov without the mental image of unprovoked butchery of civilians. But the eyewitness accounts surfacing later indicate that a very unpleasant episode had preceded the government forces onslaught and unarmed people had already been killed – only they were servants of President Karimov’s government and so apparently “fair game” even if unarmed or prisoners. The prison guards in Andijan did not have bullets for their guns and so were defenceless when attacked on 12th May but their slaughter is not mourned.
Professional rivalry among Western journalists appears to have led some newspapers to put more emphasis on their claimed “scoops” than admitting that Uzbekistan was not a “hermit kingdom” or Andijan a “closed city”. Sensationalism may be part of media professionalism but it doesn’t aid understanding and the many journalists and other foreigners in Andijan and the Ferghana Valley could have provided more information if less time had been spent on claiming exclusivity. For instance, on 21st May, The Sunday Times claimed its reporters were alone in “Andijan, which was effectively closed to other foreign journalists…” But the Independent’s Peter Boehm was also there writing The BBC’s Monica Whitlock was quoted from the town on 21st May On 24th May, the BBC’s Jenny Norton reported from Andijan - to mention only some of the English-language media.
Some journalists like Channel 4’s Jonathan Miller claimed that “Unlike Georgia or Ukraine [there is] no outside help for this nascent opposition. Thanks to Karimov theirs was never going to be a velvet revolution.” As this Group reported recently there are at least 78 foreign-funded NGOs operating in Uzbekistan – a far cry from the country’s reputation as a “closed Stalinist state” Although it has been repeatedly reported that both the Open Society and Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) have been banned in Uzbekistan since 2004, in practice their representatives continue to operate there – and to publish reports highly critical of the regime there, even inflammatory at times. This suggests that government claims that they were auditing institutions and whether NGOs abided by their legal obligations and contractual agreements may not be false. Some NGOs seem to want to preach the rule of law but regard themselves as above the law or local tax regulations for instance. With regard to the events in the Ferghana Valley on 13th May, the small army of NGOs in the region makes the absence of film or photos of the events in Andijan on 13th May, 2005, so difficult to understand. Surely it was the responsibility of such foreign activists to use their relatively privileged position to ensure a visual record of events?
 See http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20050521/ap_on_re_eu/kyrgyzstan_uzbek_refugees &printer=1,
 See RFE/RL Newsline (12th May, 2005),
 See Hamm’s “Gunmen storm prison at Andijon” @ http://www.registan.net/?p=5297,
 12.24pm BBC 24 (17th May, 2005),
 See The Boston Globe’s leader, “Uzbek Outrage”, six days after the event which fails to discuss the jailbreakers’ violence. See http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/ editorials/articles/2005/05/19/uzbek_outrage?mode=PF],
 See http://www.iht.com/bin/print_ipub.php?file=/articles/2005/05/23/news/ uzbek.php,
 Quoted on 19th May @ http://www.antiwar.com/ips/capdevila.php?articleid=6006,
 Quoted @ http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/4544229.stm,
 See the photos @ http://www.newsteam.ru/reports/index.html?1,562,1,
 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4550845.stm,
 See “Rebels reportedly kill Uzbek rights activist trying to mediate” (20th May, 2005) @ Ferghana.ru,
 See ibid. See “Press-conference of the Prosecutor General of Uzbekistan Mr. Rashid Kadyrov” issued by the Uzbek Foreign Ministery (Tashkent, 17 May 2005),
 See Aleksei Volosevich, “Serial murderer was among inmates released from Andizhan prison” (18th May, 2005) @ http://enews.ferghana.ru/detail.php? id=63996886338. 112,1987,10524509,
 See http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/story.jsp?story=640374,
 See http://fairuse.1accesshost.com/news3/latimes82.htm,
 See 16th May message @ http://noughsaid.blogs.com/wanderluster/,
 See “Terrified Uzbeks tell of three massacres. Wounded finished off in cold blood” @ http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-524-1622286-524,00.html,
 See http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/4569597.stm,
 After visiting various graveyards and talking to locals, Norton’s team was stopped by the police: “Eventually, two local security officers turned up and made it clear that in their words, we were not safe in the city. We understood it was time to leave. “ See http://news.bbc.co.uk/ go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/4576585.stm,
 See http://www.oscewatch.org/CountryReport.asp?CountryID=23&ReportID=243,
 Russian media carried pictures of the scene before the clashes but not of the violence. E.g. http://www.1tv.ru/owa/win/ort6_main.main?p_news_title_id=77268&p_news_razdel_id=0&p_pagenum=3.