Uzbek forces open fire on protesters

Transcript of an interview from AM – a radio programme by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Reporter: Rafael Epstein

ELIZABETH JACKSON: There’s been a new wave of popular discontent, violence and repression in Uzbekistan, one of Washington’s key allies in Central Asia.

Government forces in the country have opened fire on thousands of people demonstrating in the city of Andijan.

The trouble began when a group of armed men stormed the city’s prison and freed hundreds of inmates.

Our Europe Correspondent Rafael Epstein reports.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Thousands of people were on the streets of Andijan in Uzbekistan’s east. Though it’s hard for anyone outside the country to really know what’s going on.

But it does seem soldiers spent several hours firing on a crowd of at least 2,000. As many as a dozen people were reported killed.

The troops sealed off the city after thousands of prisoners, including 23 men accused of Islamic extremism, were freed from the town’s jail, along with up to 4,000 other prisoners.

The Uzbek President Islam Karimov was said to be heading to the city, but he hasn’t appeared there.

For the President’s critics it’s a popular uprising.

For the President, they’re dangerous radicals fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism.

That’s a claim dismissed by the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray.

CRAIG MURRAY: That’s complete nonsense. The Uzbek Government routinely accuses any of its opponents of being Muslim extremists in order to discredit them. Andijan has long been a centre of democratic opposition to the Uzbek Government.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Craig Murray left the British diplomatic service after what he says was his Government’s failure to see Uzbekistan for what it is ? a repressive regime, torturing and killing anyone asking for basic human rights, while allies like the UK and the US turn a blind eye because hundreds of American soldiers use an Uzbek airbase with good access to countries like Iran and Afghanistan.

CRAIG MURRAY: I strongly suspect that the Uzbek Government will resort to extreme violence. This is a Government which is by no means concerned at shedding the blood of its citizens.

(sound of Uzbek television)

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: President Karimov watching yet another parade and display of nationalist fervour.

He rules a country accused of accepting subjects for torture on behalf of Western countries. He receives hundreds of millions of dollar in aid from the US, some in the form of military support, to help in the war on terror.

But is that war on terror an excuse for simple and brutal repression?

The UN says the state employs systemic torture on its opponents.

Media control is so tight it’s thought few in the country outside of the city of Andijan would even know there was a clash for hours between protesters and Government troops.

Opposition politician Atanazar Arifov spoke to ABC TV’s a few months ago.

(sound of Atanazar Arifov speaking)

He says the suppression of the secular democratic opposition is one of the conditions which leads to the evolution and spreading of religious extremism.

Craig Murray says the US preaches freedom while supporting a brutal dictatorship.

CRAIG MURRAY: The elections held on the 26th of December from which the opposition were banned, were held the same day as the Ukrainian rerun. We had Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all over our television screens demanding democracy in the Ukraine. Whereas the United States was remarkably silent on the regime banning the opposition from even competing in the Uzbek elections. And I think now you won’t be hearing any great calls for democracy in Uzbekistan coming from the US.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: This is Rafael Epstein reporting for Saturday AM.