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

Uzbekistan: Softly, Softly

Police try to modify fearsome image after being deliberately targeted in attacks.
By IWPR staff

Policeman at Chorsu market checking ID cards

"I was in total shock when the policeman who stopped me was so polite," Tashkent taxi driver Abdurashid told IWPR. "Before, the police would just bark 'come here - get out of your car and buy me some mineral water!'."

Until recently, drivers pulled over at one of Uzbekistan's many police checkpoints would never have expected to hear the words "please" or "thank you" from an officer.

But things have changed since the country was shaken by a wave of shootings and bombings in late March and early April, and policemen appear to have received instructions to behave more civilly to the public.

There were strong indications that the police were deliberately targeted by the attackers, thought to be Islamic radicals. Ten of the 47 people who died were police, while 33 attackers were killed.

In the capital Tashkent, scene of most of the bloodshed, people who would never support such violent action were nevertheless unsympathetic towards the police, who they see as corrupt and brutal agents of the regime.

Many observers predicted that the security forces would simply react by getting even tougher. There have been arrests following the clashes, but people are also reporting a marked difference in the police's behaviour towards the general public.

Oleg Bichenov, head of Tashkent's anti-terrorist squad, rejects any suggestion that the police were scared by the level of public hostility to them during the attacks.

"The police are never afraid of anyone. Our job is to find criminals, arrest them and eliminate them if they offer resistance," he said, adding, "The police always behave politely; it's standard practice."

There are other signs that the authorities have been forced to make concessions to the public.

Many believe the attacks were sparked by - or were timed to capitalise on -mounting anger at officialdom voiced by traders at Tashkent markets. The final straw for many came when a man died after being beaten by police at the large Chorsu market on March 28. Within hours, shots and explosions were ringing out across the city, with the first of several reported suicide bombings killing three people - two policemen and the female attacker - close to Chorsu.

So it is seen as highly significant that the authorities have started turning a blind eye to rules they previously imposed rigorously at the market.

In October last year, the government imposed new laws requiring market traders to work from licensed stalls and follow other rules such as using cash registers. This left large numbers of traders, often the poorest, out in the cold. The law has been ruthlessly enforced at markets throughout the country by police and tax inspectors, who often confiscate goods by force.

Now, however, an official at the market told IWPR by telephone that a decision has been made to allow the unlicensed trading to take place until May 1, so as to avoid escalating the situation.

That's good news for traders like Shohida Ismailova, 60, who previously had to conceal the skirts she was selling by keeping them in a bag or under her clothes. "What were we supposed to do? We have to live," she said.

Fatima, 45, who sells bed-linen at Chorsu, thinks the concessions made by the authorities are a victory for those involved in the attack, "These people sacrificed themselves for the good of the nation. Now we can trade as we did before."

Although delighted with the freedom to sell their wares without being intimidated by police, traders are concerned that the relaxation of the rules may only be temporary.

The atmosphere at the market remains tense because of the killing for which traders still blame police.

Eyewitnesses say that 65-year-old Ahmatjon Turdiev was attacked by an officer when he tried to intervene on behalf of a young porter who had been detained by police.

"This old man said to the police, 'What are you doing? Let the boy go.' Then Shukhrat, one of the four officers, went up to him and punched him in the neck," said a women who saw the whole incident as she was trading nearby. "The old man fell over, but managed to get up and started cursing the police. Then the policeman punched him in the chest several times with his fists. The old man fell over and started to choke."

Another witness, a young man selling vegetables, recounted how he too saw the policeman beating Turdiev but felt unable to intervene because like many people in Uzbekistan, he dreads any confrontation with the police.

Turdiev died in this man's arms. "Blood flowed from his mouth onto my hands. He didn't say anything. The police tried to carry away his body, but a crowd of two or three hundred people had gathered, all shouting," he said.

Tashkent police are unrepentant. "Turdiev intervened on behalf of a young porter who had been detained for not having the correct documents and working in Tashkent without proper registration," said a spokesman. "The police officer asked him not to intervene, but Turdiev threw a punch. He turned red, then green, fell to the ground and died."

Police returned Turdiev's body to his family just before midnight the same day that he died, and insisted they bury him by dawn the next morning. They also warned them not to talk to journalists or discuss the incident with anyone else. According to human rights activists, the police detained one of Turdiev's nephews for three days to ensure they did not talk. The family are now demanding that independent experts be allowed to investigate the cause of Turdiev's death.

Police have refused to give any information about the officer involved in the incident, but reject any suggestion he was responsible for the man's death.

Jahongir Shasolimov, a member of the Erk opposition party who himself trades at the market, believes that his fellow traders lost what little confidence they had in the authorities following the tragedy.

"This happened in front of hundreds of people. We all saw it, and now they tell us he died without anyone touching him. It's insufferable. The policeman responsible is still coming to the market and we see him every day. How can we trust the government after this?"