A leading international human rights group is calling for an independent investigation into last month's violence in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon that left hundreds of unarmed civilian demonstrators dead. In a report released Tuesday in Moscow, Human Rights Watch said the events amount to a massacre by Uzbek government forces.
The executive director for Human Rights Watch in Moscow, Ken Roth, says that without international pressure brought to bear by the United States and European Union, among others, the truth about what happened in Andijon on May 13, and how many lives were lost, may never be known.
Mr. Roth says as long as the Uzbek government continues to refuse to reveal the facts, those who ordered the killings, and those who carried them out, may never be known, much less brought to justice.
In releasing the HRW report entitled Bullets Were Falling Like Rain, Mr. Roth said Human Rights Watch has more questions than answers. That is why he says an international investigation is needed.
Mr. Roth says Human Rights Watch has confirmed several key inconsistencies with the Uzbek government's official version of events based on 50 interviews with victims and witnesses of the violence.
"The cover story that the Uzbek government has offered to explain the events of May 13 is completely false,” he said. “It claims that only 170 people were killed, when in fact hundreds were murdered. It claims that all the killing was done by non-governmental gunmen, when in fact it was governmental troops that were responsible for the vast, vast majority of the slaughter. It claims that the demonstrators came to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state when, in fact, the demonstrators came to hear from the government and their grievances had nothing to do with Islam."
Mr. Roth says the demonstrators were concerned with governmental repression, especially regarding what they saw as the unfair trial being given to 23 local businessmen charged with Islamic extremism. He says the protesters were also dissatisfied with governmental mismanagement, corruption and unemployment, much like the protesters in the recent popular uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia and Krygyzstan.
Ilkhom Zakirov is the spokesman for the Uzbek Foreign Ministry in Tashkent. Asked by VOA to respond to the report by Human Rights Watch, and its accusations, Mr. Zakirov declined comment.
But in earlier remarks, Uzbek government officials have dismissed calls for an international investigation as groundless. The officials say they can handle the investigation on their own. But Mr. Roth of Human Rights Watch says his organization sees no reason to believe the Uzbek government's words in this regard.
"It is actively blocking access to information about the massacre, it is closing off the site from independent inquiry, it is removing and covering up evidence, it is intimidating witnesses,” he added. “This, coupled with the long record of impunity for those who have committed already serious human rights violations in Uzbekistan, including systematic torture, suggest there is no reason to believe that this time will be any different in the government of Uzbekistan bringing to justice the perpetrators of this terrible crime."
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is urging Uzbek authorities to let its workers visit people detained or hurt during last month's bloody clashes between Uzbek security forces and protesters.
The organization says its staff is still being denied access to hospitals, morgues and prisons, dashing hopes of getting a fuller understanding of the scale of the unrest. The ICRC shares the assessment of Human Rights Watch that a clear response from Tashkent has become, "urgent.”
The Washington Post newspaper recently quoted high-ranking officials at the State Department and Pentagon as saying the crackdown in Andijon has prompted a high-level policy review of U.S. relations with Uzbekistan, a key ally in the global war against terrorism.