An Orwellian aftermath to slaughter

Observations on Andijan

Dadakhon Khasanov's crime was clear: he wrote a couple of songs referring to what happened on 13 May last year in Andijan, eastern Uzbekistan. On that day there was an armed uprising, followed by a demonstration involving thousands of unarmed people, hundreds of whom were then slaughtered in cold blood by Uzbek security forces.

In Uzbekistan, however, to tell the truth about these events is an offence, so Khasanov is now awaiting trial. Even listening to his music is a crime - in the town of Bukhara last month, two men were sentenced to four and seven years in jail merely for possessing recordings of Khasanov songs.

The authorities in this former Soviet republic have created an Orwellian alternative version of the events of 13 May, according to which the killings were the responsibility of "terrorists and bandits". In reality, there was a tiny number of armed men among the thousands of protesters, but the overwhelming majority were peaceful, even naive. As one protester said later: "People were waiting for the president to come. They wanted to meet him and explain their problems."

To sustain the official version, confessions of terrorist guilt were needed, and such confessions are easily obtained in President Islam Karimov's Uzbekistan, where torture is widespread; some people have died following interrogation. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of accounts given in court corroborate the government's version of what happened.

One woman has shown extraordinary courage in defying the government, however. A villager from near Andijan, she startled a court in Tashkent by describing how a stranger died saving the life of her three-year-old son by covering him with his own body when the shooting started. "Because of this young man, I will tell the truth," Mahbubahon Zokirova declared. She resisted attempts to smear her, and to suggest that her account could not be trusted. "I have one chance in my life to say the truth, even if it is just this one time. I watch the television [reports of the trial] and wonder, why do all of these people lie?"

The nightmare events of 13 May, documented in the Human Rights Watch report Bullets Were Falling Like Rain, and in a string of other accounts from international agencies, deserve a place in a world hall of infamy. In scale and intent, the events in Andijan bear comparison with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Just one year on, however, Andijan seems almost entirely ignored.

Last October, the European Union, with Britain in the presidency, finally got round to imposing some sanctions, including a travel ban, but since then there has been little will to follow the sanctions through - some even argue that they should be lifted. (Washington, for its own strategic reasons, has not even taken those limited steps.) President Karimov, an old Soviet survivor and arguably the man who bears more responsibility than anybody else in Uzbekistan, remains exempt from the ban. Calls for an international inquiry into the massacre have stalled.

In recent years, Britain and the United States have repeatedly described Uzbekistan as an "ally" in the war on terror, and even now there is little understanding that the behaviour of the Uzbek regime does nothing to create stability - rather, the contrary.

Uzbekistan does all it can to resist the scrutiny of the outside world. A long list of human-rights defenders have received substantial jail sentences in recent months. In March, Mukhtabar Tojibaeva, a critic of the Andijan massacre, was sentenced to eight years in jail. In addition, NGOs that worked to promote civil society in Uzbekistan have been closed down and even the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has been forced out - perhaps as retribution for its role in defending the rights of Uzbek refugees in neighbouring countries.

But the songwriter, the villager and the human-rights defenders cannot just be forgotten. To ignore the dangerous plight of Uzbekistan is to create still greater problems in the months and years to come. Democracy can help to bring stability; state-sponsored terror cannot.

Steve Crawshaw is UK director of Human Rights Watch. Bullets Were Falling Like Rain can be read at www.hrw.org