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…
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…