Human rights groups worldwide show concern over continuing crackdown on civilians in eastern Uzbekistan where government troops mowed down at least 700 protestors on May 13, writes Faisal Hashmi.

President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan is a living oxymoron of sorts: he is a hardened Islam-baiter. This former communist ruler of Afghanistan is known to have resisted even normal, peaceful expressions of Islam, like growing a beard, or regularly visiting a mosque.

Karimov’s antics have often drawn flak from human rights groups. The world showed great outrage when his troops shot dead 700 protestors in the eastern Uzbekistan town of Andijan on May 13. A large gathering of civilians was protesting against the arbitrary arrest of 23 local businessmen. Earlier a mob had broken the local jail and freed the 23 businessmen, besides 1200 other inmates.

The government alleged the arrested businessmen were associated with "Islamic terrorist groups." Following the killings, about 30,000 people on May 14 participated in an agitation against the government’s highhandedness, demanding President Karimov’s resignation.

Though Karimov claimed to have mounted a campaign against terrorism, it was alleged by the local population and international rights groups that it was just a face-saving stunt of the president. Craig Murray, who was British ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004, in his article published in The Guardian of May 16, said those killed were pro-democracy protestors, not Islamic terrorists as claimed by the president.

The real cause of unrest is said to be growing poverty and unemployment, wrong agricultural policies, want of freedom of speech, and rigged elections. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) headquartered in London, the events were sparked off by a brutal assault on Shimanov, a local rights activist, who was opposing local authorities confiscating farmers’ lands. The peasants told the IWPR that they were "hostage to an unfair Soviet-style system" in which they were dictated as to how to grow and given "artificially low prices" for their produce.

Large-scale violation of human rights is reported from the country which is home to Central Asia’s largest Muslim population (26 million). In a 2002 report, Prof. Theo van Bovern, UN special rapporteur on torture in the country, observed there was a "widespread and systematic" torture in the region. He also noticed the conviction rate in criminal and political trials was over 99 percent, and added, "in President Karimov’s torture chambers, everyone confesses."

The Human Rights Watch in its report published in 2003 titled "Creating Enemies of the State: Religious Persecution in Uzbekistan," documented rights violation in the country. It informed the campaign of religious persecution had been going on for the past decade.

Following the May 12 crackdown, hundreds of Uzbek refugees appealed to the neighbouring Kyrgyztan to give them political asylum as they said they feared for their lives if they went back home. They also urged UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to intervene. In the meantime, President Karimov has rejected a UN call for an international inquiry into the killings.

Karimov has been resisting UN efforts to send independent investigators to Andijan. The US has hinted at economic sanctions if Karimov does not relent. Britain denounced the killings as "a clear abuse of human rights." On the contrary, China supported President Karimov’s move.g

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