Uzbeks Losing Patience

Uzbeks take to the streets to air anti-government grievances

Uzbeks Losing Patience

Uzbeks take to the streets to air anti-government grievances

Spring has brought an unusual sight to the streets of Tashkent and Andijan.

Fear of police persecution means public rallies are unheard of here, but last week, during Navruz - Muslim New Year - people reached the end of their tether, and took to the streets.

In Andijan, a town in the Fergana valley, the protestors numbered about 300, and were mostly women. Holding placards saying "2001 will be the year of lonely women and orphans", they gathered outside municipality buildings to demand their husbands and sons be released from prison.

The men have been detained on suspicion of belonging to illegal Islamist movements such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - estimated to have around 5000 members - which is accused of a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999.

The women were received by Andijan's mayor Kamiljon Abidov who promised to form a special commission to review court cases of men convicted of belonging to religious organisations. He would, he promised, personally ensure a thorough investigation of each case.

Next day, though, the protestors were summoned to the city department of internal affairs, where they were requested to write down their reasons for participating in the rally. Some were fined 2,000 soms (about $2) for taking part in an illegal protest.

Meanwhile, in Tashkent, demonstrations were held by people who had gathered to express various grievances against the authorities.

Tashkent resident Tatiana Bukhareva, for example, was protesting because her local municipality has begun to knock down her house to make way for a new road.

"Last November the district court decided to demolish my house, without even involving me in the proceedings," she said." They've already pulled off the roof, and they haven't offered me anywhere else to live."

Deputy mayor Rustam Shabdurakhmanov denounced the protest as illegal, saying Uzbek law required people to submit a request in writing to go ahead with a rally. He also said holding the protest during Navruz was deliberately provocative.

But Bukhareva says they have no other option, "Wherever we go for help, we're thrown out."

Uzbek officials have long disapproved of public demonstrations, but their attitude has become distinctly more hostile since Islamic militants began appearing on the scene. The authorities now assume that they're behind the demonstrations, which may be partially true.

That the rallies unsettled authorities was made obvious when they blocked roads to the Fergana valley, preventing its inhabitants reaching the capital.

Public unrest stems from the fact that the gulf between government pledges and the expectations of the population is widening.

The authorities have been promising economic and democratic reforms for years, but nothing has happened. Meanwhile local and international protests over human rights violations are ignored.

Human Rights Watch has claimed that torture during preliminary police investigations is very common, and has become standard procedure in the campaign against Islamist militants.

Over the last two years, the deaths of several people during detention and imprisonment give a hint of how prisoners are treated. Uzbek courts regularly base their decisions on testimonies received under torture.

During a recent visit by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, officials in the National Security Service and foreign and interior ministries admitted the use of torture in detention.

But endless denunciations by human rights activists and journalists have fallen on deaf ears. Not one complaint by defendants about the use of torture has been upheld. Not one soldier or militiaman has been punished for the use of torture.

Attempts by President Karimov to diffuse public criticisms have fallen flat.

In his public utterances, he acknowledges that the people are facing extreme hardship, but urges them to endure it because the country faces a "bright future".

Such rhetoric is little comfort to a schoolteacher living on a salary of 10-15,000 soms ($11-16), which only just covers transport and food costs. And while such expenses increase several times a year, salaries don't.

Rather than address these problems, the government has over the last ten years disabled opposition and censored the mass media to such an extent, there is now no credible political force that can express public dissatisfaction.

It will be no surprise if Uzbeks' disgust at their "bright future" boils over into more demonstrations in the coming months.

Bakhodir Musaev is an IWPR contributor

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