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

Uzbek Trial Stirs Memories of Stalinism

The first trial of Andijan “terrorists” looks decidedly staged, but can the government really close off access to other views of what happened.
By Filip Noubel

Following the May 13 violence in Andijan in which several hundred civilians were killed by the Uzbek security forces, the authorities are now trying the men they say are responsible for the trouble.


The trial, the central event in political life in Uzbekistan, is now entering its third week as the tightly-controlled media report that the 15 defendants have “confessed to their crimes”, pleading guilty to charges of plotting to overthrow the government and set up an Islamic state, and receiving foreign support for “terrorist attacks”.


The authorities say 106 more “terrorists and their supporters” will be dealt with in subsequent trials, but this first event has already raised numerous questions about the impartiality and transparency of the judicial system. Local and international human rights groups have documented unfair judicial practice and the use of torture to extract confessions in Uzbekistan over more than a decade.


In the highly politicised debate about what happened in Andijan, the Uzbek authorities have clearly mobilised all their resources to present a version of events that best suits their interests, so as to ward off calls for an independent inquiry from western governments and international organisations.


These first weeks of the trial, which began on September 20, suggest that some of the methods of Stalin’s show-trials of the Thirties are being resurrected. In the Soviet trials, “enemies of the state” confessed to imaginary, often fantastic crimes.


The confessions of the Andijan 15, broadcast on state television and reported in the press, included statements so excessively damning, and often mutually contradictory, that there has to be a suspicion they were scripted by the authorities. In the Uzbek legal system, confessions count as an extremely important, and sometimes principal, element of prosecution cases.


All the defendants hail from the Fergana valley, the eastern region where Andijan is located. Yet the confessions ostensibly written by them include some expressions that a speaker of Uzbek would instantly recognise as typical of the Tashkent dialect, distinct from the way Fergana-born people speak. Other words again belong to the literary, at times archaic phrasing of Persian and Arabic. For the average Uzbek TV viewer, such language jars with what we know of these men, and raises questions about who really wrote their statements.


Equally, the “foreign hand” theme - typical of the classic Stalinist trials – has become a leitmotif of the Andijan case. In this case, the dark external forces include a wide range of actors, from Chechen extremists to the United States embassy in Tashkent, and local and foreign reporters. In mouthing these accusations as part of their self-condemnation, the defendants have so far failed to produce substantive evidence.


To those brought up in the Soviet system, this is again strongly reminiscent of the “foreign plots” of the Thirties.


The main question now must be the extent to which Stalinist tactics are viable in a 21st-century state.


The Uzbek authorities have certainly managed to close off independent media voices, so that there are no voices interfering with the official media’s court reports setting out the story of an internationally-sponsored terrorist attack. Any other possible motives for unrest in Uzbekistan, such as economic hardship, anger at government repression, and the desire to practice Islam outside officially-sanctioned channels are simply airbrushed out of the picture.


Yet unlike Stalin, the Uzbek leadership lives in a much more interconnected world. Access to news via the internet remains possible, if difficult, and Uzbekistan nationals travel outside the country and bring back different perspectives on the Andijan violence when they return.


More important, it will be clear to many people in the country that whatever the outcome of the trial, none of the big issues - corruption, massive unemployment, lack of economic opportunities, and the country’s growing political and economic isolation – is being addressed, and that these failures of government could fuel more unrest.


Filip Noubel is IWPR’s Central Asian project manager.