Mr. Salih Goes to Washington

by Laurence on 6/30/2005 · 1 comment

Mohammed Solih in Senate Hearing RoomMuhammed Salih may have surprised his colleagues from Human Rights Watch, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and the International Crisis Group when he testifed before Senator Sam Brownback’s CSCE committee on Capitol Hill yesterday. (A transcript should appear here, eventually.)

The Erk party leader asked for the United States to keep its base in Uzbekistan. In answer to a question from Brownback, he said that the Karshi-Khanabad presence “had a positive psychological effect,” adding that Uzbekistan is “squeezed between China and Russia.” He concluded, “as an Uzbek,” if America has the opportunity to have both the base and pressure on the regime, “I would support this, because we also have concerns of growing Chinese interest.”

Senator Brownback seemed a little confused and unprepared for this pro-American military analysis. He asked Salih to repeat himself, which he did.

It was just the most obvious evidence that the hearing did not go as planned. The event was a poor showing for the NGOs. Brownback himself left the room in the middle of Galima Bukharabaeyva’s eyewitness account, returning much later to hear Salih’s testimony. Although he said that he had to leave in order to vote, had Brownback wished to listen to what was being said, he had the option of calling a recess until his return. His decision not to do so was revealing. In his absence, the two congressmen in the room seemed only mildly interested in what the panel had to say, asking desultory questions. At the end of the proceedings, both Congressman Pitt and Senator Brownback shook Salih’s hand, which they might regret one day.

Some additional observations:

Senator Brownback seemed personally offended that he had telephoned Karimov yet the Uzbek president would not talk to him. He noted that the Department of Defense and State Department declined to testify, as did the Uzbek Embassy. He threatened to invoke the Moscow mechanism to force an investigation of the Andijan events on the recalcitrant Uzbek leadership. When Senators get mad, they tend to get even, so I wouldn’t discount Brownback’s comments about preparing for the “Post-Karimov” era. It sounded threatening. He’s angry that things are going wrong.

Mohammad Salih, wearing a short beard, and dressed in a dark suit favored by the apparatchiks I saw in Tashkent, appeared to be a somewhat unreliable witness in a number of respects, behaving strangely and inconsistently. He began his testimony in Uzbek, translated by someone from Columbia University. Suddenly he stopped, and his translator read the remaining testimony from a printed English text. During the questions and answer period, however, Solih spoke in fluent Russian, and appeared most at ease.

Asked by Brownback to answer charges about alleged links to terrorists, Salih had his translator read a prepared statement in English. In it he admitted some of the charges were true, most damagingly that he had in fact met with terrorists, though he claimed that did not mean he supported them. He denounced terrorism in his statement as “a disdainful practice which does not bring about true reform.” This statement seems striking for a lack of empathy with the victims.

Salih also charged that Karimov might have been behind the violence in Andijan himself, since the existence armed groups gave him an excuse to use force, and therefore we “should not ignore” the possibility that the rebellion was “created by the government.” He stated that the “so called Akromists are in reality a creation of Uzbek security services, because such group simply does not exist in Uzbekistan.” Since Eurasianet published articles about this Hizb-ut-Tahrir splinter group some two years ago, Salih is just not credible on this point.

Holly Cartner of Human Rights Watch admitted that armed gunmen “took over government buildings, took hostages, and used people as human shields.” But then she claimed that since the “overwhelming majority of people in Bobur Square at all times were unarmed protesters,” the Uzbek government was guilty of a massacre. Yet if some of the people in the square were armed gunmen holding hostages and using human shields, how would the government forces know who had a gun and who didn’t? Cartner’s personal description of events was of an armed standoff, followed by a gun battle–more consistent with the claims of the Uzbek government than the reports from Human Rights Watch or the OSCE. It makes one question either her judgement or her frankness.

Robert Templer of the International Crisis Group appeared with a shaved head and a large beard, looking frightening. He spoke with an apparent British Empire accent. He could have been a colonialist in “The Jewel and the Crown” damning the Indians, instead he was condemning the Uzbeks. In his angry tirade, Templer let one significant fact slip: the International Crisis Group had been “working with the families” of the jailed Akromists “for six months” prior to the Andijan shoot-out. Unfortunately, no one asked Templer what ICG was doing with them, whether their activitiy may have been a factor in the tragedy that took place on May 13th. Like Cartner, Templer’s testimony seemed to confirm the Uzbek government’s claims, in this case of Western support, and cast questions on his own reliability.

Marcus Bensmann, a German reporter who had been in Andijan, looked like a Peter Sellars character, wearing funny glasses and hair that resembled a wig. He spoke with a strong German accent. In response to a question from Congressman Pitt, he attacked British scholar Shirin Akiner’s report on the Andijan event. But the only error he mentioned sounded rather minor. Akiner apparently claimed shooting began at 6:20, while Bernsmann said he was in the square when shooting began at 5:30. He condemned Akiner for touring with local officials, but remained oblivious to the irony that he said he had attended the Andijon demonstration at the invitation of some of the organizers. (Either Bensmann or Templer mentioned that someone told them that if Westerners came, they would feel safe, making them, essentially voluntary human shields.)

The most striking statement from Bensmann was that he attended the earlier trials of the Akromists, and had never before been to a trial of Islamists where they did not mention Allah. Yet, these defendants pointed to the Uzbek constitution, the words of President Karimov, and saying they were just businessmen, he said. But Bensmann didn’t try to explain where this new legal strategy had come from–ICG consultants perhaps? He also admitted that when his stringer was arrested, he just went to the Uzbek police and asked for him to be released–which they did. Bensmann then sent him to another country, he said. He said he knew IMU and Chechen gunmen, they were big and strong but the Andijon gunmen were skinny, so did not come from anywhere else. Given Bensmann’s own claims he is on friendly terms with terrorists, he might not want to anger sources by revealing things they wish to keep secret. Again, an unreliable witness.

Finally, the first witness to speak, Galima Bukharabaeva, had a good story to tell about being shot at in Bobur Square. Unfortunately, Senator Brownback wasn’t there to hear it all…

The best testimony was that not presented in person to the committee. It came from Abdurahim Polat of the Birlik Party, who issued a written statement declaring, “The authorities demonstrated not only that they are unable to stop almost permanent terrorist attacks in Tashkent but that they literally lost for a few hours the control over one of the biggest regional centers like Andijan.” Perhaps Polat will be given a chance to address Brownback’s committee in person at a future date, to talk about Andijan.

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{ 1 comment }

Bertrand July 1, 2005 at 12:31 am

Abdurahim Polat(ov) has testified before the committee.

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