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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 September 2005, 06:28 GMT 07:28 UK
Andijan lives in fear as trial begins
By Ian MacWilliam
BBC News, Andijan

Andijan protests. File photo
Tashkent says the protesters wanted to set up an Islamic state
On the surface, the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan is now quiet and life seems normal.

Mothers stroll with their children in the town's leafy parks, and the bazaars are as busy and noisy as usual.

But four months ago, Andijan became the scene of what eyewitnesses say was a massacre of innocent civilians, after the supporters of 23 local businessmen on trial for alleged Islamic extremism broke into the town jail and freed them.

The group, who had earlier seized weapons, occupied the town hall and a huge anti-government protest began when townspeople came to the central square to see what was happening.

Today, the rebuilding of the badly damaged town hall is the only obvious reminder of the bloody fighting.

But human rights groups say 500 or more people may have been killed when Uzbek security forces crushed the protest.

It was like warfare here
Andijan taxi driver

The Uzbek government said only 187 people were killed, who were mostly what it calls "terrorist organisers".

On Tuesday, it put on trial 15 of the men accused of being the main organisers of the disturbances, in a court in the capital, Tashkent.

Paltry wages

No one in Andijan will openly criticise the government for fear of arrest by the ever-present militia.

People also fear strangers who might be spying for the secret police.

But if an inquisitive foreigner gets into a taxi where no-one else can hear, he will be told what people really think.

"It was like warfare here," said one young taxi driver.

"There was a lot of fighting between the security forces and the so-called terrorists who came to free the businessmen. But the businessmen are just believers, like me. They've done nothing wrong. Why were they arrested?"

The businessmen are mostly believed to be part of an informal group of local Muslims, known as Akramists, after a local author of a brief guide to Islamic piety.

Bodies in Andijan. Archive picture
Human rights campaigners say the crackdown was a "massacre"

They are popular because their successful businesses employed hundreds of people in a region which suffers severely from unemployment and economic stagnation.

They also treated their employees well and paid good wages. Most government jobs in Uzbekistan pay paltry wages - $50 a month or less.

"Do you know what I get paid to work here?" exclaimed a government office caretaker behind carefully closed doors.

"Eight dollars a month! What can I do with that? My son is studying at the institute but he has to sell ice cream in his spare time to try to pay for it."

Branka Sesto, Tashkent's director of the US human rights organisation Freedom House says the Uzbek authorities often arrest anyone who presents a threat to their power.

Those arrested are usually accused of Islamic extremism.

Trial

Three of the businessmen, recaptured after being freed, are among those who went on trial on Tuesday.

Another two are men who helped organise a peaceful protest in support of the businessmen outside the Andijan courthouse during their trial.

Last week, Uzbekistan's Deputy State Prosecutor Anvar Nabiyev referred to the defendants as "terrorists", giving details of the alleged crimes.

Children at Andijan's bazaar
The region suffers severely from economic stagnation
These included plotting to overthrow the government, leading an armed group, shooting hostages, and membership of banned religious organisations.

"The terrorist attacks on Andijan were carefully planned and organised by external destructive forces as an action against the independent policy of Uzbekistan," Mr Nabiyev told journalists.

"They were aimed at changing the constitutional order and setting up an Islamic state."

Government propaganda in the state-controlled media has been repeating this view of events at great length for weeks now.

Uzbek courts, as in Soviet times, rarely act independently, and most observers say there is little doubt the defendants will be found guilty.

The main questions are what their sentences will be, and whether the trial will reveal further details of what happened in Andijan.

There is little sign of further unrest for the time being. But with no attempt to remedy the sources of anger, the popular mood can only get worse.


What is your reaction to the trials in Andijan? Are you in the area? How would you describe the atmosphere in the town? Send us your comments and experiences.

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