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Uzbek Witness Tells of Brutality on Both Sides

Government troops killed hostages after relatives and friends of men freed in a jailbreak 'just lost their heads,' a defense lawyer recounts.

May 23, 2005|David Holley and Sergei L. Loiko | Times Staff Writers

ANDIJON, Uzbekistan — They called themselves "the Brotherhood." Devout Muslims and astute businessmen, they grew to include about 200 associates. They ran bakeries, garment and shoe factories, carpentry and leatherwork shops, even a medical center and charitable activities.

They were the business elite of this city of 300,000 in eastern Uzbekistan's poor but densely populated Fergana Valley, known as a hotbed of Islamic fervor.

But the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov saw them as a threat, and put 23 members on trial last year as alleged religious extremists running a criminal organization. All but one were imprisoned during the proceedings.

As the trial approached its conclusion, a volatile mixture of political and religious repression, poverty and radical Islam exploded in violence and death on May 13, raising concerns about the political stability of a key U.S. ally in Central Asia. The Pentagon said last week, without providing details, that activities at a U.S. base here that support operations in Afghanistan had been scaled back because of concern about the events in Andijon.

Witness accounts from reporters for Western wire services, local human rights activists and others in Andijon have indicated there was brutality on both sides on that day of bloody clashes, which began when armed fighters staged a jailbreak, freeing the imprisoned businessmen.

According to a defense lawyer who offered the most detailed account yet of what happened, the freeing of prisoners and subsequent protest rally that ended in a fierce government crackdown was organized not by some shadowy terrorist group, but by the imprisoned businessmen's frustrated and angry relatives and friends.

As described by Rashanbek Khadzhimov, a lawyer who took part in the businessmen's defense: "Their friends, their colleagues who were still free, and their relatives just lost their heads. If I had known what they were thinking I would have stopped them.

"But they decided that all other means had been exhausted and total injustice was being done, and they could bear it no longer. They decided to resort to force."

The government placed the death toll in the town of Andijon at 169, although human rights activists and others said hundreds more had been killed. The dead included armed militants and unarmed civilians who had come into the street to support the freed businessmen and to complain about unemployment, low living standards and Karimov's authoritarian rule. The death toll included at least 32 police and soldiers, according to the government.

Khadzhimov's account of clashes in the early stage of the uprising largely matches the official government version, expressed by Karimov at a news conference in Tashkent, the capital. The president and other government officials, however, have cast a broader net of blame against alleged underground and international terrorist groups. The lawyer said the revolt was a local affair.

"It was a collective decision on their part, but it was also a spontaneous decision," he said. "They attacked a police unit where there were only five policemen on duty and they seized at least 100 Kalashnikovs. They attacked a military unit and got some more weapons there.

"Then they made their biggest mistake. When they were freeing their friends from prison, they released the most horrible criminals who were there and gave them guns. They released from prison, together with the flower of the nation, the scum of the nation."

Some of the subsequent violence that the government blames on supporters of the 23 businessmen was committed by criminals who were released and given weapons in the jailbreak, Khadzhimov said.

The actions of those who freed the prisoners also came as a shock to others sympathetic to the businessmen, who many human rights activists believed were being prosecuted on trumped-up charges as part of the government's long-standing repression of political and religious dissent.

New York-based Human Rights Watch and other rights groups estimate that about 6,000 people are imprisoned in Uzbekistan as political dissidents or for nonviolent activity such as praying at unregistered mosques, holding religious meetings in homes and reading or distributing religious literature.

Karimov is a former Communist who has run Uzbekistan since 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. His government characterizes the imprisonment of thousands of alleged Islamic radicals as part of a battle against terrorism and an effort to preserve Uzbekistan's secular society. But human rights organizations in Uzbekistan and abroad have warned for years that the repression might trigger a violent backlash.

Kodyrzhon Ergashev, chairman of the Andijon chapter of the International Committee for Human Rights, was among those who thought the businessmen were being unfairly persecuted.

Ergashev said he learned of the uprising from a prisoner he had helped defend.

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