Residents of Uzbek province dispute official report

CONFLICTING ACCOUNTS: 15 men on trial for murder and terrorism in Andijan have said they are guilty. But Andijan residents and human rights groups disagree

AFP , ANDIJAN, UZBEKISTAN

Sat, Sep 24, 2005 - Page 5

Fifteen defendants on trial in Uzbekistan over this spring's massive bloodshed in the eastern province of Andijan have fully backed President Islam Karimov's view of what happened. But in Andijan itself, dissenting voices insist the men are innocent.

The 15 alleged foreign-backed Islamic extremists are being tried at the supreme court on multiple charges that include terrorism and murder of officials and members of the security forces.

They pleaded "fully guilty" on the first day of the trial and have begged forgiveness of the Uzbek people and president over an incident officially said to have killed 187.

But groups such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch say the defendants have been tortured in order to hide state forces' shooting of hundreds of unarmed civilians after unidentified gunmen stormed the city on May 13 and anti-government demonstrations began.

In the streets around Andijan's teeming bazaar -- an area with a history of anti-government unrest -- many residents support this view.

They fear speaking openly however, saying they would suffer reprisals such as imprisonment.

Amid cobblers, bicycle repair men and knife sharpeners, Alisher, a 55-year-old carpenter, produces household furnishings in a tiny alcove workshop whose arched entrance opens onto the street.

All the time he awaits word of his 22-year-old son, who disappeared on May 13.

"We've been to the hospitals, the morgues, but there's no trace of him," said Alisher [not his real name]. "A fortune-teller I visited said he was still alive."

The family is among a number of residents who believe much of the destruction in Andijan, including the burning of its cinema and theatre, was carried out by state forces to create a false impression of an Islamic insurgency.

The men now on trial, including a number of businessmen jailed earlier on extremism charges and freed during the violence, are not extremists, but were helping the struggling local economy, says another son of Alisher, aged 35.

"It was a peaceful demonstration. People lost their fear of going out to speak because of those armed men," the son said. "Then armored cars came and opened fire ... Special forces soldiers in masks were shooting at women and children."

A neighboring tradesman joins in the discussion, again refusing to be named.

"All they wanted was justice, for people to live normally with a bit of democracy. Our people weren't guilty," the tradesman said.

Other traders say the same, one venturing to compare neighboring Kyrgyzstan -- accused by Uzbek prosecutors of harboring the attackers -- to the US in its level of democracy.

"The prosecutors and court are doing a bad job. The authorities are to blame," said the trader, a sewing-machine mechanic who gave his name as Boris.

At the offices of the nearby mahalla -- a state-controlled neighborhood committee -- the committee's head, Ulugbek Kasymov, insists residents are united against the alleged extremists.

A number of the mahalla's residents however were among hundreds of people who fled across the border into Kyrgyzstan and were then moved by the UN to Europe amid fears they could be tortured if they returned.

Uzbek officials have dubbed those who fled "so-called" refugees, saying many are in fact terrorists.

Kasymov says the mahalla is caring for family members left behind, explaining that one man's family have been given food and cash.

"We don't want his children to feel guilty," Kasymov said.

The building next door to the mahalla presents a somewhat different story however, suggestive of the social control that has been stepped up in Andijan since the May violence.

A sprawling courtyard teahouse, its customers have deserted it since 12 of its owner's relatives fled to Kyrgyzstan.

The owner, an old man, now sits alone each day, reading on one of the raised platforms where customers once reclined and drank tea under the trees.