Witness at Uzbek terror trial: troops shot protesters

A witness at the trial of 15 people accused of organizing a rebellion in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon testified that government troops opened fire on civilians during the crisis. It marks the first time in the trial that a witness has contradicted the government’s version of events. Mahbuba Zokirova told the court that on May 13 she and her children had gone for a walk when, out of curiosity, she decided to join the protesters in the city square.

She said she was hoping to see Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who was believed was on his way to talk to the protesters. That’s when troops started shooting, she said.

“The helicopter started hovering over our heads. It was very low. We got excited that [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov is really coming to talk to us. But instead soldiers who were circling us started shooting people. There were almost no armed people among the crowd. Many among them were children,” Zokirova said.

On Oct. 3, Uzbek soldiers testified that they had offered the protesters safe passage out of the city, but that the protesters started firing. The soldiers backed the state prosecutors’ statements that many of the protesters were killed by fellow protesters in confused fighting.

Uzbek authorities say 187 people—mostly “Islamic militants”—were killed in the Andijon violence. Human rights groups say upwards of 700 people, many of them civilians, may have been killed. Karimov has refused calls for an international probe into the violence.

Prosecutors challenged Zokirova as she testified for some 30 minutes. But she maintained that the protesters did not open fire, asking, “How could they shoot at their own wives and relatives?”

She said she saw soldiers shooting at people who were waving a white flag in surrender. “The shooting was horrifying. I have no words to describe it,” she said. “I guess real war isn’t that terrifying. Blood was flowing from everywhere.”

Zokirova—a 33-year-old housewife from a village near Andijon—said she fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan with her family and several hundred other protesters. She said she was forcibly returned by her husband’s brothers. The rest of her family stayed in a Kyrgyz refugee camp and were later transferred to Romania.

She said she now fears for her safety, and asked prosecutors if she would be arrested for her testimony. The prosecutors told her no, that she was only a witness.

The 15 defendants who are on trial have all pleaded guilty to charges of terrorism, murder, and membership in banned Islamic groups. They face possible execution. Rights groups say they were tortured into confessing. (RFE/RL Newsline, Oct. 14)

See our last post on Uzbekistan, and the politics of Central Asia.