In a 20-minute studio interview broadcast on Uzbek TV on 29 May, London University academic Shirin Akiner cast doubt on western media reports of the number of deaths during the 13 May unrest in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijon and said that interviews she had had with imams and local people had corroborated the official death toll. She said the evidence suggested that external forces were involved in the events. The following is the text of interview as broadcast in Uzbek TV's "Akhborot Plus" programme on 29 May, 2005: 

Commentator Haydar Hasanov:
 Good evening, the "Akhborot Plus" programme is on the air. The international community is commenting variously on the tragic events that took place in Andijon overnight from 13 to 14 May. And often, the assessment of these events is formed on the basis of media reports. Taking into consideration how the world media covered the events of those days, it is not difficult to imagine the opinion people abroad formed about Uzbekistan. However, now, when some time has passed, it is time for a deep analysis of these events, which will allow us to assess everything objectively. London University Prof. Shirin Akiner has been visiting Andijon. Today she is a guest in our studio. 

Prof. Akiner, welcome to our studio. This is not the first time you have been to Uzbekistan, and you are well acquainted with our country. Please, tell us about the real purpose of your visit. 

NATO seminar postponed 

London University Prof. Shirin Akiner: You know, we wanted to hold a seminar - to my mind a very important event - on the topic of religious extremism and terrorism in Central Asian states. Also, we wanted to hold the seminar under the aegis of NATO. Literally two days before I left London to get ready for the seminar, I was told from Brussels that the NATO Council had decided to postpone the event until an unknown date. They explained to me that the reason was absolutely political. It was all due to the Andijon events. 

Commentator: But still you came to Uzbekistan, and as far as we know, you spent two days in Andijon and talked to people, that is, you have an idea of what happened there. Could you tell us your assessment of these events and what you saw there? 

Akiner: You know, as early as 17 May, when I was still in London, programmes and interviews on the Andijon events were being broadcast and I also gave several interviews. I was probably interviewed 15 times, if I am not mistaken. And they were always saying that many people had died there and that it was a colossal tragedy. I agree that it was a tragedy, but from the very beginning everything which they said raised my doubts and somehow I did not understand what had happened there. I said that we do not have the facts. It is premature for us to judge what happened there. That is why I asked as soon as I arrived whether I could go there. 
We were met by the deputy governor of Andijon Region. He did not know the purpose of our visit ahead of our arrival, and only after we arrived did he ask whether we had any requests, such as who we would like to meet. Then, when we were already in the car I told him that I would like to talk to prisoners, physicians and local mahalla [neighbourhood community] committees and so on. So, he could not know in advance, as myself had not known about our requests. Then, after we entered the town, he immediately told me to do whatever I wanted and meet whoever I would like, and that they would organize everything, just tell us and we will do it. And on the way, he stopped the car and said: There is a madrassah here, you have asked to speak with students, please go inside and talk to anyone you wish. We began with this, and spent all day there, we worked for 12 hours without stopping and had a chance to have a conversation with about 35 people. Of course, this is not a deep professional investigation, but at the same time it is not a small thing. This gave us an opportunity to get an idea of what had been happening there. 
Media coverage of unrest 

Commentator: You talked to more than 30 people, for certain there were eyewitnesses to the events. Following their stories, what could you tell us about the reasons behind the events? Because foreign media reported that tens of thousands of people took part in the allegedly peaceful rally. What could you find out during the talks? 

Akiner: Such great numbers as were carried by the press are unlikely. I myself walked in graveyards and asked the wardens of these graveyards how many new graves they had there, whom they had buried and I myself went and looked at these graves. I also had an opportunity to talk to imams. I asked them how many times they had read burial services on those days. Based on all this, these conversations held in neighbourhoods with elderly people and other people, random people we met there - we visited several mosques and madrassahs - and based on all this I got the impression that perhaps about 170 people died.
Then we visited the main hospital and talked to physicians. I also visited a morgue. I decided very late to go there and the people working there had already left, and I went into the yard and looked at the building of a small size. It seems to me that it is somehow unlikely that it [presumably the morgue] could accommodate as many dead bodies as they talked about. 
As you see, I did my best to get an objective picture. I am not a police officer, and I do not know what happened, but I got the impression that the real numbers should be about 170 people. 

Commentator: All these days the Andijon events were widely covered by the international press and it is now emerging, following the operational investigative measures, that the reports were greatly exaggerated, and yourself are a witness to this. How would you explain the work of our foreign colleagues, journalists, I mean the angle of their reports? 
People not support militants 

Akiner: It is very hard to understand their motivation here. Again, it is necessary to say and stress that this action, this operation, had been prepared very well. Second, those who took part were experienced militants, they already had a plan of action. I have a schedule of how it all happened. I have checked it all several times with people, and every time I asked them to draw up a scheme of where it took place and how it happened in order to understand properly what they were talking about. And that is why I am convinced that they were not random people and they were not peaceful residents. They were trained and armed militants who wanted to call on people to carry out an uprising. Why did this all take place on a Friday? Probably, they hoped that people were gathering for the Friday prayers and they could call on people to rise up, but this did not happen. And then probably, a second plan was followed when they understood that they needed to provoke the law-enforcement agencies and organize a demonstration in order to do so. 
Regarding the participation of peaceful people, I should tell you that according to various sources - and I even talked to an independent human rights activist, we had a private conversation, nobody was listening to us - he also confirmed that they did not demand or protest against anything in the square, they were standing there, and as he said they were mainly onlookers. They simply stood and observed what was going on there, because it was interesting for them to watch. But those militants not only seized hostages, but also set fire to the cinema, drama theatre and private cars parked there. Following all this, I have the impression that they wanted to arrange a big performance in order to have all the journalists filming and showing it as if the local authorities did it. But in reality, everything was done by the militants. 

Commentator: You have said that you visited prisons and talked to people who have been arrested. Now many analyses of the situation are being carried out and conclusions are being drawn about the causes of the events. What are the roots of the crimes? 

Visit to prison 

Akiner: The visit to the prison was interesting. I did not think that I would be given an opportunity to talk to them [prisoners]. Of course, it is always possible that they had prepared their stories in advance, but they did know about the meeting, nor did I, because I had not requested any such meetings. 
First of all, it is necessary to say that they returned voluntarily. For example, I spoke to a prisoner who has been sentenced to 20 years in prison under Article 97 [of Criminal Code; killing out of vengeance], and he is serving his third year at the moment. So, he has to serve a very long term, but still he came back. He said that conditions in the prison were not that bad, and it was better for him to serve his term in full. They told me about how the militants seized the prison, and then they started to shout out several times "God is Great, jihad" and so on after they entered the prison, but afterwards nobody put forward any religious slogans, nobody could remember that anybody was speaking about religion. However, one may think that these militants wanted to attract religious people and people with faith and make them understand that they want to help those religious people. But in reality, they used them. As far as I understood, the locals did not follow them and they simply stood and observed what was going on there. They did not take part. 
The second reason is reportedly economic problems. Again, I can confirm that people in Andijon are relatively well-off. We visited bazaars and talked to vendors and to my mind, to say that they live in poverty is not true. 
External forces involved 

Commentator: The militants, bandits - now they are called by various names - that day seized many hostages from amongst the civilian population, as you are well aware. You have talked to those hostages in Andijon. Please tell us what they told you. 

Akiner: Yes, in fact I was told about this. They described horrible things in detail such as how a militant, his name was something like Gulom, cut a man's ears off and then shot him dead. Another hostage's eye was poked out, he was all covered in blood and then he was shot dead too. He told us many stories like that. I had quite a long conversation with the hostage and he clearly described everything, however, he was still in shock, and he was trembling. His trauma was evident, and one could see that he went through horrible hours then. 

Commentator: Do you think there is any connection between the Andijon and Kyrgyz events that took place this year? 

Akiner: You know, one interesting thing here is that judging by the dialects, there were Andijon residents among these militants, and also residents from other regions: Tashkent, Buxoro and so on, and they even said that there were quite a lot of militants from Kyrgyzstan. They believe this is the case, as they heard them speaking to each other. Again, it is quite possible that they were preparing this attack in Kyrgyzstan and crossed the border and then began all those actions. 

Commentator: Taking into account your assumptions, is there an element here of some extremist groups being involved? That is, as you said, the preparation had been done in advance. 

Akiner: Yes, that is categorically so. 

Commentator: Who is behind it? 

Akiner: It is difficult to say, again, I will be careful about this, as I do not have evidence, but there were many hints that external forces were involved there, and also big money were invested in the affair. I was told various things, which I am not going to mention, I have everything recorded. And this gives me grounds for thinking that external forces were involved there. 

Commentator: As you have already said, they were counting on support by the people, were they not? Why do you think the people of Andijon did not support them? 

Akiner: Yes. You know, in general, first of all people do not live so badly. Second, they do not believe that it would improve their lives. Third, I think they are smart people and they asked themselves why they need it. So although the action was prepared from the military point of view, the orchestrators of this action did not know the local populace well. It seems to me that they expected their support, but they did not know their mentality and the conditions in the town. 

Human rights business 

Commentator: Akiner, apart from Andijon, what regions did you visit during your present stay? 

Akiner: I had little time, but I decided to travel to another town, and chose Jizzax. Why Jizzax? Because this town is quite far away from both Andijon and Tashkent. It was interesting to me to know how they learnt about the Andijon events and how they assess this process there. I managed to meet an independent human rights activist there, and I was curious to find out what he knew about the events. I gained the impression that these rights activists, not only him, are very sincere people, but sometimes they do not know consequences of their words. They report sincerely what they know, and sometimes they report rumours. But foreign journalists listen to all of this and record them as if they were facts. Second, I believe that - I am not talking about him, I am speaking in general - quite big money is involved here. Some rights activists get used to receiving money for information. And if they create such an image in Uzbekistan: the worse they say things are, the most money they earn. So it seems to me that it has turned into a business. It makes me feel sad, because the situation has become serious. A situation could have been created here where a civil war might really be possible. But sometimes they do not understand what they are doing. And maybe somebody needs to work with them in order to explain to them what the consequences of their actions are. 

Commentator: Who do you think benefits from portraying Uzbekistan in this way? 

Akiner: Again, I understood a long time ago that there are external forces: governmental and nongovernmental, which are interested in seeing a different government and having a revolution similar to the Georgian, Ukrainian and Kyrgyz ones. They wish the same to happen here in Uzbekistan and then as a consequence in Kazakhstan and in other Central Asian states. I believe that this is a very erroneous policy, because Central Asia is a special region and it would be easy to spark a conflict here and then the consequences will be very dangerous. And those external forces, whoever they are, will not be able to control or stop it. I am afraid that they are playing with fire without realizing what they are doing. 

Commentator: Now you have a quite objective idea of the Andijon events, what are you planning to do when you return to London? 

Akiner: Beginning from 13 May, there was a daily information campaign against Uzbekistan for almost a week after the start of the Andijon unrest, reporting that masses of people, hundreds of people, died in Uzbekistan. However, Uzbekistan and Andijon are far away, events take place in Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq everyday. They were reporting less on these, and Uzbekistan was top news. It is a bit offensive to me personally, because it is not fair - I have spoken about this before, and I will say it again when I return and I am going to send a written report to the British Foreign Office, NATO and to those who are interested in this. But it has to be said that - maybe it is good for you, if there are no new events in Andijon - our people, the general population, have already forgotten about this. Andijon is one of many events and now it is in the past, they move forward as the caravan moves forward. 
Political game 
Another matter is the political game which is going on here, I do not understand it, but I can see that some sort of a big game is going on here. What kind of game, I do not understand, but I think that it will be bad for all of us if our leaders are misinformed, and if they believe what the media have reported, and cite these reports without knowing what happened in reality, then this is bad for all of us. Because they will draw the wrong conclusions and take wrong decisions. That is why I believe that it is my duty to write what I have seen. As I have already told you, I am not a police officer, I am an ordinary person who has some knowledge about the region, but I can draw my own conclusions as a rational and educated person. I am going to write about this and from this point of view I will put this to them. 

Commentator: My last question, you know Uzbekistan very well, Akiner, you often visit our country and you can objectively assess the reforms carried out in our state in both the democratic and social spheres. What do you think the reforms have brought to Uzbek people? 

Akiner: I visit Uzbekistan quite often, I have to say that I have already been visiting the country for more than 25 years on a regular basis. For this reason, I am very careful - knowing how little I know. If I had only come here two or three times, then I would think that I knew a lot - and I know that an outsider cannot know everything, even my knowledge can be shallow. I want to say that big changes are taking place here, and it is a very complicated process. There are problems, there will be problems, but looking at our history, I can say that we were building not only democracy but capitalism as well for 100 years or even more. And this is a delicate process. It is natural that you have problems. Probably, these problems or most of them can be solved. All that needs to be done is to solve them. I am sure that both the government and people want to solve them. I can see that this process is under way. It is already a good beginning. I think that 10 or 12 years of independence is not a long period of time. 

Commentator: Thank you very much. I recall that today's guest in our studio was Prof. Shirin Akiner.

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