Thursday 24 November 2005

Blind to the "Butcher of Andijan"

This article originally appeared in the European Voice on 24 November 2005.


Uzbekistan Interior Minister Zakirjon Almatov is currently on an extended visit to Germany. Nothing strange or particularly newsworthy about that, you might think - until you realise that Almatov has been declared persona non grata by the EU. He is officially prohibited from visiting the EU, and yet, he is here all the same.

On 14 November, the Council issued travel bans on 12 Uzbek officials "directly responsible for the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force" in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the east Uzbekistan city of Andijan on 13 May, 2005. The name Zakirjon Almatov tops the EU's travel blacklist.

The German Foreign Ministry defends its decision to allow Almatov to stay in the country despite the visa ban against him, saying it is acting "on humanitarian grounds", because he is receiving medical treatment at a clinic in Hanover. That must seem a cruel joke to the victims of the Andijan massacre. They know Almatov as "The Butcher of Andijan", a man who showed little humanity as he told protesters there would be no negotiations just before government troops started firing into the crowd.

The Andijan massacre's victims include not only those murdered in May but also witnesses and their families, who continue to face harassment from the Uzbek authorities anxious to silence them and, as documented in September reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, enforce their version of history. The Uzbek government would like the world to believe Andijan was the start of an attempted "Islamist insurgency" and they've been going through a lot of trouble trying to get that point across. Running propaganda films at their embassies worldwide has been the least of it.

The authorities have tortured confessions out of supposed insurgents as part of a completely choreographed Stalinist-style show trial that concluded last week with, to no one's surprise, fifteen out of fifteen convictions and the government's version of events fully upheld. In an apparent prelude to a second show-trial, they have also denounced a number of domestic and foreign journalists on national television for their part in the grand plot to overthrow the state.

The Uzbek security services have continued to pursue and harass refugees who were forced to leave the country after Andijan. A few hundred are now safe in camps in Romania, but as many as 2,000 more remain at risk just across the Uzbek border in Kyrgyzstan.

Perhaps the new German government will take into account some of these victims and consider dealing with them on humanitarian grounds rather than favouring their oppressors. The whole point of visa bans, after all, is to punish elites by denying them the sort of luxuries they enjoy. This sort of high-quality healthcare in particular is something they cannot get in their own countries and exempting it utterly defeats the point of sanctions.

The Council's decree was an admirable move. Along with the visa ban, it declared an embargo on "arms, military equipment and other equipment that might be used for internal repression". The travel and trade restrictions will be in place for one year, when the Council will look at Tashkent's progress on several human rights issues, including the outcome of an independent, international inquiry into the events in Andijan - an idea Uzbekistan has consistently rejected. Yes, the EU decree came embarrassingly late and the list of twelve officials rather oddly omits the authoritarian regime's ruler, President Islam Karimov, but generally it represented a positive step.

However, what good is Europe's principled decree if it is openly flouted from the very day it is made?

Germany has a military base in Termez, Uzbekistan, but while that might have been an excuse to avoid agreement on European measures in the first place, surely it cannot be used to justify the hypocrisy of announcing restrictions and contravening them at the same time. If Germany has sacrificed its principles to maintain Termez, it hardly seems worth it: to support German troops in Afghanistan, they could easily operate through Manas, Kyrgyzstan, or indeed Bagram, Afghanistan.

A spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has said of Germany's decision to let Almatov stay: "We don't see a problem." If they truly fail to see the problem with breaking rules as they are making them, then Berlin and Brussels must be blind.

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