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Rights Groups Call for More Action Against Uzbekistan on Anniversary of Killings


One year ago troops in Uzbekistan violently put down a demonstration in the town of Andijan, a remote town in the eastern part of the country. Human rights groups and witnesses claimed hundreds were killed in the crackdown, but the government said the figure was much lower, under 200, and most of those killed were militants. Rights groups are now urging the international community to apply more pressure on the government of Islam Karimov to reveal the truth about what happened.

On May 13 of last year Uzbek forces fired on a huge crowd of anti-government demonstrators. The demonstrators had gathered in support of a prison breakout that freed more than 20 people being tried on charges of religious extremism. Their trial had been the cause of weeks of protests by people who said the Karimov government was cracking down on their Islamic faith.

Human rights groups say at least 700 people were killed in the violence, mostly unarmed civilians who were protesting difficult economic conditions and lack of political freedom.

However, the authorities say just under 200 people were killed, and blamed foreign journalists for instigating the incident.

Most Western governments criticized the crackdown, and called on President Karimov to allow an independent investigation into what happened.

When he refused, the European Union imposed a visa ban on some Uzbek officials and also imposed some financial sanctions. The United States, which had considered Uzbekistan an ally in the war on terror, suspended financial aid.

But various human rights organizations say these measures are not enough.

Alison Gill worked in the Uzbekistan office of Human Rights Watch but is now based in Moscow.

"We're calling for an extension of the visa ban to include other officials, to include President Karimov as well as officials who were responsible for the unfair trials that happened, and some of the crackdown that happened after Andijan," she said. "The U.S. has yet to take similiar action and we call on them to do so."

Critics say in the year since the Andijan shootings, government repression has continued. They say at least 170 people have been sentenced to prison terms after trials reminiscent of the show trials of the Soviet period.

Foreign media and humanitarian aid organizations have also been banned by the government.

The Andijan events severely strained relations between the United States and Mr. Karimov, who ordered Washington to withdraw U.S. troops it had at an air base in Uzbekistan during the war against the Taleban in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001.

Russia and China, however, strongly backed Mr. Karimov in what they called a necessary use of force to "fight terrorism and separatism."

Alison Gill says a united international response is in the best interests of Central Asia.

"Countries like Russia and China might choose to jettison that policy for strategic or other gains but it is in their long-term interests as well, to pursue a principled policy," she said. "The repression and lack of accountability in Uzbekistan can only lead to destabilization of the region."

Small protests are planned in Moscow and other cities to mark the anniversary on Saturday, but it is unclear if any memorial events will be allowed in Andijan or the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.