By Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch
(Bishkek) - Some government forces acted, knowingly or unwittingly, to facilitate attacks on ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods in the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Local law enforcement agencies also failed to provide appropriate protection to the Uzbek community, Human Rights Watch said.
The 91-page report "'Where is the Justice?': Interethnic Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan and its Aftermath," also said that the government's investigation into the violence, which left hundreds dead and thousands injured, has been marred with abuses, while new ethnically motivated attacks are taking place in the south. The authorities should thoroughly investigate government forces' role in the violence and prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
The report is based on more than 200 interviews with Kyrgyz and Uzbek victims and witnesses, lawyers, human rights defenders, government officials, and law enforcement personnel. The report also analyzes satellite imagery and photographic, video, documentary, and forensic evidence.
"It's clear that the massive ethnic violence posed colossal challenges for Kyrgyz security forces," said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and one of the authors of the report. "Yet we found that some of the security forces became part of the problem rather than the solution."
The violence in southern Kyrgyzstan began on June 10, when a large crowd of ethnic Uzbeks gathered in response to a minor fight between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in a casino in the center of Osh. Several violent attacks during the night of June 10 against ethnic Kyrgyz and the torching of several buildings enraged ethnic Kyrgyz from Osh and outside villages, thousands of whom filed into the city. From early morning on June 11 through June 14, crowds attacked Uzbek neighborhoods, whose residents in some cases fought back. Mobs looted and torched Uzbek shops and homes in Osh, Jalal-Abad, Bazar-Kurgan, and other southern towns - in several areas burning entire neighborhoods to the ground.
At least 371 people, and possibly many more, were killed as a result of the mayhem. Several thousand buildings, mainly belonging to ethnic Uzbeks, were completely destroyed.
Witnesses from the destroyed neighborhoods consistently told Human Rights Watch that men in camouflage uniforms on armored military vehicles removed makeshift barricades erected by residents, giving the mobs access to the neighborhoods. Often, witnesses said, armed men followed the armored vehicles into the neighborhoods, shot at and chased away remaining residents, and then let crowds loot and torch homes.
While the authorities claim that Kyrgyz mobs stole some weapons and vehicles used in the attacks, this cannot completely account for the use of military vehicles in the attacks, Human Rights Watch said. Information gathered by Human Rights Watch indicates that in at least some neighborhoods, government forces were in control of the vehicles. It further shows that in some instances government forces that went to the neighborhoods to disarm residents living there, either intentionally or unintentionally gave cover to violent mobs carrying out attacks. An additional question that requires investigation is whether they actively participated in these attacks, and if so, to what extent.
Human Rights Watch said that while the authorities might have had legitimate security reasons to enter Uzbek neighborhoods, they did not uphold their obligation to ensure the safety of the residents in light of the clear and imminent threat posed by the mobs.
"National and international inquiries need to find out just what the government forces did and whether the authorities did everything they could to protect people," Solvang said. "This is crucial both for justice and to learn lessons about how to respond to any new outbreaks."
Human Rights Watch said that widespread violations have taken place in the course of the Kyrgyz authorities' investigation into the June violence, which now consists of more than 3,500 criminal cases.
The report documents large-scale "sweep" operations in Uzbek neighborhoods, during which law enforcement officers beat and insulted residents and looted their homes. During one operation, in the village of Nariman, security forces injured 39 residents, two of whom subsequently died.
The report also documents abusive search and seizure operations that security forces have conducted daily in Osh's predominantly Uzbek neighborhoods. Dozens of witnesses provided consistent accounts of how security forces searched homes without identifying themselves, presenting a warrant, or explaining the reasons; detained people without warrants; refused to tell the families where detainees were being taken; and, in some cases, beat detainees and planted evidence, such as spent cartridges.
The authorities routinely denied detainees the right to a lawyer and other rights, and subjected them to ill-treatment and torture in custody. Human Rights Watch received information about torture and ill-treatment of more than 60 detainees, at least one of whom died as a result of injuries suffered in custody.
While Kyrgyz authorities have not released figures showing the ethnic breakdown of the detainees and claim they have detained both Uzbek and Kyrgyz suspects, information collected by Human Rights Watch indicates that the majority of the detainees are ethnic Uzbeks.
In the course of its research in Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch raised the issue of arbitrary arrests and torture in detention with Kyrgyz authorities, including the president and interior minister, as well as local law enforcement officials.
To their credit, senior government officials in Bishkek made several statements calling on local officials to halt the abuses, and in a media interview in August, President Roza Otunbaeva also acknowledged that some abuses had taken place. Yet in meetings with Human Rights Watch, law enforcement officials in Osh variously dismissed allegations of abuse and defended the practice.
"Those responsible for the heinous crimes against both Kyrgyz and Uzbeks during the June violence should be prosecuted irrespective of their ethnicity, title, or rank," Solvang said. "But there cannot be a proper investigation unless the authorities respect Kyrgyz and international laws, and there is no reason the Kyrgyz authorities can't immediately put a stop to the abuses in custody."
Human Rights Watch said continued abuses fuel tensions in the already volatile situation.
On July 22, the member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreed to deploy a small advisory police group to southern Kyrgyzstan to assist the Kyrgyz authorities in reducing ethnic tensions. Human Rights Watch called on the OSCE to ensure that the force arrives quickly and works effectively. Human Rights Watch also called on all interested governments and the United Nations to support an international inquiry into the violence and its aftermath.
"The June violence has left deep scars," Solvang said. "For those scars to heal there needs to be justice for what happened and equal protection for all ethnic communities."