Inside Central Asia: A Political and Cultural History of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Iran

Dilip Hiro
New York: The Overlook Press
ISBN: 978-1590203330
Chapter 2

The Andijan Massacre, a Turning Point

Encouraged by Karimov, the regional assembly of Andijan impeached Governor Kabiljan Ubidov in May 2004 for his involvement in several political-commercial scams, and replaced him with Saidulla Begaliyev, former minister of agriculture in Tashkent. Misusing the decree of 2002, which made a company changing its main line of activity since privatization liable to renationalization, Ubidov had done favors for his cronies and given them priority in opening new lucrative businesses.

In June, Begaliyev ordered the arrest of twenty-three businessmen who had thrived under Ubidov. To their horror, the detainees found themselves charged with membership of Akramiya, which was listed as a terrorist organization. It was named after Akram Yuldashev, a native of the Fergana Valley, who allegedly broke away from Hizb ut-Tahrir in 1996, arguing that establishing a pan-national caliphate was unrealistic and that the ultimate aim should be to set up an Islamic state locally….

As the trial of the businessmen neared its end in early May 2005, relatives and friends started gathering outside the court. On May 11, nearly 4,000 demonstrators assembled to hear the verdict. The judge deferred the sentencing. The next day, the police arrested the ringleaders of the demonstration. On the night of May 12, a posse of armed men raided the jail where the accused were held. They killed several guards and released the businessmen as well as hundreds of other inmates. They seized the regional administrative office where they held hostage twenty government officials and called on Karimov to resign.

At daylight on May 13, thousands of people assembled in the central square (named after Mughal Emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan) to hear the articulate among them voice their rage at the deepening poverty and rising administrative and business corruption. The speakers knew firsthand why their country ranked 137th out of 159 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index.The crowd remained in Babur Square even after some 12,000 troops from the military, the Interior Ministry, and the SNB had arrived ….  after closing off the exits from the square, troops fired live amunition from automatic rifles on unarmed civilians. According to some reports, soldiers killed at close range those who were injured in the intial shootings. 

As a witness to “a mass of dead and wounded,” Galima Bukharbayeva of the Institute of Peace and War Reporting said, “At first, one group of armored personnel carriers approached the [Babur] square, and then another group appeared. They opened fire without mercy on everyone indiscriminately, including women and children. The crowd began to run in all directions. We dived into a ditch and lay there for a while. I saw at least five bloody corpses next to me. The rebels who were holding the provincial administration [office] opened fire in response. They intended to stand to the end! When we got out of the ditch, we ran along the streets into the neighborhood. Then we looked for a place where there was no shooting. But shots could be heard everywhere.” [1] Andijan’s local radio station went off the air, and the authorities blocked all foreign TV channels.

The government claimed that the victims were terrorists. The state-run Uzbek TV reported that “an armed group of criminals” had assaulted the security forces in Andijan, and that “the bandits seized dozens of weapons and moved on to attack a correctional colony, setting some convincts free.” Karimov attributed the disturbance to “Islamic extremist groups.” The estimated death toll varied between 187 (the official figure) and 400 to 600. The government removed corpses by air, with eighteen flights taking off from the Andijan airport on May 14. Scores of dead bodies were later located by gravediggers.

Thousands of people fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. In the frontier town of Qarasuv, they set alight police stations and cars, and then attacked the border guards. Army troops besieged the town. The Kyrgyz guards pushed back the refugees. In the Pakhatabad region, clashes between the soldiers and those attempting to cross the international border reportedly left 200 Uzbeks dead.

In its report, summarizing the testimonies of fifty victims and eyewitnesses, the New York-based Human Rights Watch concluded that the extensive and unjustified killing of unarmed civilians by the government troops amounted to a massacre. The NGOs and news organizations that reported the events objectively, or protested the excessive state violence, received orders to leave. They included the BBC World Service, Eurasia Foundation, Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Uzbek branch of the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Though the Bush administration called for an international investigation into the episode, there were reports of a clash between the State and Defense departments, with the former advocating severing all links with Tashkent, and the latter arguing that the administration should examine separately each of the several programs funded by it before making a decision. Rumsfeld was keen to keep the U.S. troops and warplanes at the Karshi Khanabad base, but Karimov – angered by the vocal criticism by the American media, politicians, and NGOs – gave the Pentagon six months to quit the base. It did so in November 2005, marking the end of nearly a decade and a half of flirtation between Tashkent and Washington.

The demand for an international inquiry did not get far because Moscow and Beijing opposed it. The Shanghai Cooperaton Organization, to which both Russia and China belonged, accepted the official version of the events in Andijan and described them as “a terrorist plot.” Indeed, the SCO called on other nations to deny asylum to the thousands of Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, who were being compelled to leave.

During his visit to Beijing in July, the Chinese government greeted Karimov with a twenty-one-gun salute. He departed with a $600 million joint venture for oil. [2] In October, the European Union banned military sales to Uzbekistan, imposed sanctions, and put twelve top officials on the black list, denying them visas. Yet Karimov allowed Germany to keep a military base at Termez, and the German government allowed the Uzbek police chief into the country for medical treatment. At its behest, the EU removed four of the twelve names from the visa black list in May 2007. [3] Germany was keen to see that the EU did not antagonize irredeemably a country which possessed much-needed natural gas.

European energy corporations noted with envy Russia’s Lukoil inauguration of the Khauzak gas field in Uzbekistan, with reserves of 400 billion cubic meters, amidst much fanfare on the eve of the presidential poll in December. Lukoil had sold the reserves in advance to Gazprom until 2040 when the prices of oil and natural gas had risen sharply. [4]


[1] Galima Bukharbayeva’s testimony to the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, visit

[2] Guardian, July 6, 2005.

[3] Financial Times, May 15, 2007.

[4] By 2011, the Lukoil project will tie together three gas fields to produce 11 billion cubic meters a year. New York Times, December 14, 2007.