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Long, hot summer ahead

Central Asia | Uzbek crackdown signals revolutionary change-likely bloody-in the making

Issue: "Judicial filibuster deal," June 4, 2005

Uzbek government forces may have stopped gunning down protesters within one day, but residents of Andijan city have found that the crackdown against them is only beginning. With scattered gunfire at night, security checkpoints, and an unofficial curfew, fear and resentment of the country's regime are rising among local residents and nationwide.

More than a week after forces killed 700-1,000 demonstrators on May 13, those wounded in the attack are still too afraid to seek help at local hospitals. They worry that the authorities will identify them as dissidents. But this latest brutality from 15-year President Islam Karimov is already being described as Uzbekistan's Tiananmen Square-and ironically, could be the genesis of his downfall.

For days protesters congregated in Andijan, a city located in the populous Fergana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan. Locals were angry over the year-long imprisonment of 23 businessmen dubiously accused of being Islamic radicals. On May 12, armed men-according to some reports, relatives and employees of the businessmen-stormed the prison and released hundreds of inmates. They soon occupied an administrative building close by and took hostages. As word spread of the armed bid, locals congregated outside by the thousands and continued protesting.

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To the crowd's shock, when security forces appeared, they began firing on the unarmed protesters, even as some raised their hands shouting, "Don't shoot!" Officially, the government reported 169 died, largely among security forces and attackers, who were accused of being terrorists with a banned Islamic group. The government has issued no statements of how the other protesters were slain.

"I think people are being pushed to the breaking point, especially outside of Tashkent," explained a Western development worker who has lived in the capital, Tashkent, four years. He spoke to WORLD from Uzbekistan by satellite phone and asked that his name not be used due to the security situation. "In spite of the willingness to use deadly force by the government, most people expect this uprising to continue, possibly all the way to Tashkent," he said.

Mr. Karimov, the country's former Communist Party leader in its days as a Soviet republic, does have to contend with Muslim radicals within his borders. One group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, would like to do away with Muslim nation states and rebuild a single ancient caliphate.

Another, the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, is active throughout Central Asia and took responsibility for bombings in Tashkent last year. U.S. forces reportedly killed its leader in Afghanistan in 2001, where the group found sanctuary under the Taliban-a deed for which Mr. Karimov thanked Washington.

But the specter of an Islamic radical takeover has long been a convenient excuse to crush all dissent within Muslim Uzbekistan and smother religious practice. Muslim men devout enough to wear beards or women donning headscarves immediately fall under suspicion. Thousands have been imprisoned on tenuous charges, many tortured, and some prisoners-according to a former British ambassador-have been boiled to death. Christians and other minority faiths also suffer raids and harassment from officials.

But the latest protests show that any patience with Mr. Karimov is evaporating. As he tries harder to throttle vocal discontent, national frustration could feed Muslim extremism. "The more brutal Karimov is in his oppression of all dissidents, the more he calls into being the Frankenstein he claims to be fighting," said Larry Uzzell, an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union with International Religious Freedom Watch.

Nonetheless, most grievances stem from the grinding poverty Uzbeks endure, particularly in the cotton-growing Fergana Valley. Planeloads of Uzbeks fly to Russia as migrant workers. Andijan protesters appealed to President Vladimir Putin to intervene on their behalf, viewing Russia as a more legitimate and prosperous guardian. The Tashkent worker described Uzbekistan's own government as a "highly developed mafia."

"People here have put up so long with this government, which so tightly controls information and especially the economy," he told WORLD. "Especially in the valley, conditions are so desperate that people are willing to die rather than 'live like dirt' as one local was quoted in the underground media here. It is almost impossible to start a business and make a living with such a tightly controlled economy, corruption and bribes at every level."

Uzbekistan's latest tyranny has backed the United States into a diplomatic corner. Mr. Karimov has been a valuable ally in the war on terror, allowing a U.S. air base on his soil for use in the Afghanistan war, which has scaled back operations since the crackdown. While the West quickly condemned the May 13 slaughter, Washington hesitated for days to join in protest. State Department and other federal bodies have long criticized Uzbekistan's human-rights abuses, but the United States has so far declined to act tough.

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