Samarkand Student Demo Unnerves Regime

Tashkent rattled by the largest protest in the country for over a decade.

Samarkand Student Demo Unnerves Regime

Tashkent rattled by the largest protest in the country for over a decade.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The removal of a popular rector at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Samarkand last week sparked the biggest act of protest seen in Uzbekistan for 11 years.


Investigators from the ministry of interior have started hunting down the student organisers of the rally, while other parts of the Uzbek government are denying that any demonstration took place. "What rally? There was no student rally," said a spokesman from the ministry of justice in Samarkand when IWPR questioned him.


Students at the Institute of Foreign Languages were informed on the morning of March 24 that their rector, Yusuf Abdullaev, had resigned. No one believed that Abdullaev, through whom the institute has become a popular place to study, had vacated his post voluntarily. The authorities claimed that he had stepped down as he was close to retirement age.


Abdullaev probably fell foul of the regime by helping the former editor of the banned Samarkand newspaper, Tashpolat Rakhmatullaev, to publish a book about media in Uzbekistan. Also, his institute is known to have one of the lowest levels of bribery to obtain places, which will have made him unpopular in some circles.


Student protesters began to gather in the city centre then blocked the ring road. They carried placards saying, "We want Abdullaev", "Bring back our rector" and "The heart has been ripped out of our institute".


"Our institute gives a good education and doesn't charge fees. We will not return to class until they reinstate our rector, we don't care about expulsion, we will fight," students Timurov Gayrat and Salakhutdinov Mirsaid told IWPR.


Accompanied by a large number of agents from the National Security Service, NSS, and the ministry of interior, the demonstrators moved towards the city hall. Eyewitnesses estimated there were over one thousand protesters. Municipal governor Shavkat Mirziyaev received the students and spent 20 minutes attempting to calm them down.


Eventually, the former rector was summoned to tell the protesters that he had chosen to resign and to ask them to return to their classes. Abdullaev said they should disperse until the next day, when a final decision would be made about his status. In the event, the authorities decided against reinstating him and cordoned off the institute to prevent further rallies.


While officials were apparently reluctant to suppress the demonstration itself, they came down heavily on journalists covering the event. The film crew of Internews Uzbekistan were arrested and their tape confiscated. Journalist Solekh Yahyaev was manhandled then locked in a cafe for the duration of the rally. IREX photographer Anvar Khamrakulov was also detained and held for an hour in the NSS building. Voice of America correspondent Rohila Ochilova had her tape recorder broken.


Throughout the demonstration, law enforcement agents busily made video recordings of the event, which they have been studying closely to identify the main organisers. Sources in Samarkand told IWPR that a group of ministry of interior investigators arrived from Tashkent to direct the inquiry.


The rally in Samarkand was the first large-scale demonstration in Uzbekistan since January 1992. Then, thousands of students protested when food prices were hiked up. On that occasion, the demonstration was violently suppressed and at least one student was killed. Some concessions were made, however, with grants increased and free food tokens introduced.


According to the head of the Samarkand Centre for Human Rights, Kamiljon Ashurov, the authorities on this occasion were more rattled by the fact students dared demonstrate at all, than by their demand for Abdullaev's reinstatement. "They are threatened by the prospect that the young might start to make political demands," he said.


For now, however, the students have failed to save their rector. If anything, the demonstration will have made his life more difficult.


Artur Samari is an independent journalist in Samarkand.


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