Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbek Police Out on a Limb

Unloved police force has become a prime target for Islamic militants.
By IWPR staff

In the wake of the recent suicide bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, police are growing increasingly nervous of their position as visible guardians of a regime under attack.

Among ordinary people, sympathy for police officers killed or injured in such attacks is muted by a general dislike to the force often accused of wrongful arrest, violence and corruption.

Members of the police force, part of the ministry of internal affairs, figured high on the casualty list of the latest attack on official buildings by suspected Islamic militants.

On July 30, three suicide bombers exploded bombs outside the United States and Israeli embassies and at the headquarters of Uzbekistan’s prosecution service, killing themselves and two uniformed policemen guarding the US embassy, plus an officer of the National Security Service and a civilian guard at the Israeli mission.

There were no fatalities - apart from the bomber - at the prosecution service, but five staff members and two police were injured, according to an official report issued by the chief prosecutor. Earlier reports had suggested no one was injured there.

It was the second such attack in the last five months. In four days of fighting in late March and early April, there was a widespread perception that police were deliberately targeted – 10 of the 47 people who died were officers, and 37 of the rest were suspected Islamic attackers.

Chief prosecutor Rashid Kadirov said at a press briefing on August, “There is no doubt that these terrorist acts are links in a chain of attacks organised and coordinated from a single centre located outside our republic.”

It may well be that police are vulnerable only because they are the first line of defence for official institutions. Yet many feel they make easy targets.

Several policemen interviewed by IWPR said that before this year’s violence, they never felt they could be attacked, but now they keep a nervous eye on anyone who walks past them while they are on patrol.

“The situation is tense,” said Akhrom, a sergeant guarding an embassy building in the capital. “In the past, no one would have imagined that suicide bombers who attack the police could appear in Tashkent. And it’s always easy to see us, we’re always in uniform.”

Anvar, a policeman on duty at the hotel Sayokhat in Tashkent, said policemen know full well how dangerous their work has become, but added, "Hard as it may be for us, this is our job."

Among policemen on the beat, opinions differ on whether they are being singled out for attack.

Senior lieutenant Ghafur Rozzokov said it was wrong to say the militants were at war only with the police or the Uzbek government – they were a danger to the entire nation, while the explosions at foreign embassies showed they also had other targets.

But two others, one a local community policeman and the other a lieutenant, said they were in no doubt that the force was the principal target for attacks.

They said the public had lost confidence in the police as an institution, because its members often abuse their authority. They suggested that the reason officers were corrupt was their low wages. The 70 US dollars a month that the lieutenant receives may be a great deal by Uzbek standards, but in reality he said it was enough only to buy bread and cigarettes.

Interviewees on the streets of Tashkent expressed little solidarity with the people who are supposed to protect them.

"They used to say that the police protect us, but now people are afraid of the police, and have even started attacking them," said an elderly pensioner, who feared to give his name.

A taxi driver added, "The police and prosecutor's office have drunk so much of the people’s blood, and they are still doing so. Pardon me if I don’t feel sorry for them."

More senior officers denied that the police were the targets of a deliberate campaign by Islamic militants. A spokesman for the interior ministry, Vyacheslav Tutin, told IWPR that the role of police naturally placed them at risk.

"Police die because they are always on the front line, and essentially they take the shots and die to save the lives of others. It’s not because they are being picked off, or that someone is taking revenge on the police," said Tutin.

Tutin insisted that recent attacks had not damaged morale and the police force was ready for action.

The prosecution service is the second link in the law-enforcement system to come under attack.

The July attack on its offices took place just as a trial was getting underway at Uzbekistan’s supreme court in which prosecutors had investigated and indicted 15 people for the attacks earlier this year.

Yet a senior prosecutor injured in the blast said she saw no link, arguing that the prosecution service does not impose punishment but only ensures that the law is carried out.

"The fact that no one in the prosecutor general's office died, and that I survived even though I was two metres from the explosion, shows that there is justice. God sees everything, and kept us alive," she said from her hospital bed. "I think that I was lucky, very lucky."

The prosecutor is still in hospital, having undergone an operation to remove shrapnel and treat burns all over her body.

She recalls only that she was about to go into a café next door to the prosecution building – she never saw the suicide bomber. "I had just got hold of the door handle when I heard something explode. There was a huge bang, and pieces of glass and metal flew at me. Believe me, it was very frightening," she said.

The only person more seriously injured than this woman is policeman Arip Arifkhojaev, 25, who was on guard duty that day. He took the entire force of the blast, and after undergoing a 10-hour operation is still in poor shape, with no journalists allowed in to talk to him.