Uzbeks accuse foreign media of coup attempt as Andijan ‘show trial’ opens

‘ BBC named for ‘colluding’ with 15 Islamic militants

‘ Observers brand Tashkent proceedings as a sham

Nick Paton Walsh in The Guardian

Western aid groups and journalists, including the BBC, helped Islamists in a bid to overthrow the Uzbek government, prosecutors claimed yesterday at the start of a trial of 15 men accused of organising May’s uprising in Andijan.

The claim was part of an attempt to portray the massacre in the eastern town of Andijan, in which witnesses have said at least 500 protesters were gunned down by Uzbek troops on or after May 13 this year, as a foreign-assisted coup aimed at forming an Islamic caliphate.

The deputy prosecutor general, Anvar Nabiev, said the “foreign destructive forces” behind the uprising “used so-called human rights groups and foreign media whose aim was to blacken the actions of the Uzbek government and help destabilise society”. He said some aid groups were created “just to help” such Islamic extremists.

The team of four blue-uniformed prosecutors put their case for five hours before the defendants, all well-dressed and fed, rose inside a large metal cage, to declare their guilt, on all charges. Their defence lawyers remained silent. All 15 face the death penalty over dozens of charges including murder, trying to overthrow the constitutional order and attempting a coup. A further 106 men will be tried.

Islamic extremism and the foreign media are commonly cited by authoritarian regimes in central Asia. Yet Uzbek prosecutors made little mention of the armed jailbreak that may have killed up to 50 prison guards, and which sparked the protests, and the crackdown.

Mr Nabiev said the 15 were linked to the Akramiya group, an Islamic movement that encourages business success. The arrest and jailbreak of 23 of its members started the Andijan uprising. Mr Nabiev said Akramiya was linked to fundamentalists Hizb ut-Tahrir and to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which the US blacklisted for its links to al-Qaida. He said $200,000 (‘110,000) had been sent from Akramiya cells in the Russian towns of Omsk and Ivanovo to fund the operation. Hizb ut-Tahrir denies such links.

The prosecutors stopped short of accusing the foreign media of having co-planned the event, yet suggested they had been tipped off. They said several foreign journalists in Andijan on the day of the massacre were brought to the state building seized by the gunmen so they would report a peaceful uprising. A Human Rights Watch report released yesterday documented months of abuse against foreign media and rights workers who exposed the scale of the massacre.

Mr Nabiev singled out two BBC journalists: Jenny Norton, a World Service reporter, for saying the protests in Andijan were of “an unprecedented scale”; and a Russian Service correspondent, Valeri Pankrashin, for saying Akramiya members were businessmen, not extremists. A reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Galina Bukharbayeva, was also frequently criticised for similar comments made on CNN and in her reports.

Mr Nabiev claimed the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, had negotiated with the uprising’s organisers for 11 hours but that their leader, Kabul Parpiev, who remains at large, had refused their offer of safe passage after talking to his handlers in Afghanistan. When the troops neared the seized building, the gunmen began to flee, “standing behind hostages as human shields”, a prosecutor added.

“They killed hostages who resisted them,” he said. He read a list of victims, repeating the government line that civilians among the 187 dead were shot in the back by the militants. Witnesses have said troops shot randomly at protesters in the afternoon, and finished off wounded survivors with a shot to the head.

Craig Murray, ex-British ambassador to Uzbekistan, said: “This is a hideous show trial, more suited to Stalin’s Russia than a country today where the US and UK still have embassies. In a state where prisoners are routinely tortured, sometimes by immersion into boiling water, admissions of guilt are ten-a-penny.” Despite admissions of guilt, the supreme court trial is expected to last for weeks.

Murad Batior, an official held hostage by the gunmen, said outside court that he recognised two defendants: “The gunmen told me I worked for the state and would have to answer. They killed a policeman before my eyes, cutting his eyes out.”