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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 May 2005, 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK
Uzbekistan's most orderly protest
By Jenny Norton
BBC, Andijan

Female protesters in Andijan
As is traditional in Uzbekistan, women and men are separated
Every day for the past four months, protesters in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan have gathered outside a court where 23 local businessmen have been on trial.

The men were accused of belonging to an extremist religious group, a charge they and their relatives strongly deny.

The court hearing formally ended on Wednesday and verdicts are expected quickly.

But the protests have been an almost unprecedented show of defiance, in one of Central Asia's most authoritarian states.

At first the number of protesters was small, but as the trial entered its final stages, more and more people came to join in, until there were as many as 3,000 people in the crowd.

The protesters have been quiet, orderly and very well organised, and there have been no slogans or banners - people are simply gathering along the roadside.

There are rows of benches for the older people, and room at the back for mothers with babies.

Rahbarhan Shakirova, the mother of two of the men on trial
My sons have been accused of terrible things
Rahbarhan Shakirova

Everyone seems to be dressed in their best clothes, and in Central Asian style, the men sit on one side, in dark suits and traditional Uzbek skull caps, and the women on the other, in long dresses and colourful headscarves.

The organisers have been handing out food and water to the demonstrators.

They have even organised their own security - men in dark glasses with earpieces, keeping an eye on the crowd.

'No need for violence'

The protesters are keen to stress that this is a peaceful demonstration, and that they are doing everything they can to ensure it stays that way.

"People here have to learn how to demand their rights in a civilised way," said Rustam Sobitov, a relative of one of the accused men.

"There's no need for violence... but it's just no longer an option to stay silent here," he said.

The 23 men who are on trial are all local businessmen. Many owned shops or factories producing anything from building material to cakes and sweets.

Many of the younger men taking part in the demonstrations are former employees of these businesses, who lost their jobs when their bosses were arrested.

Relatives said many of the accused had also tried to help their local community - setting up computer classes, and helping the elderly and the poor.

"My sons have been accused of terrible things," said Rahbarhan Shakirova, the mother of two of the men on trial.

"All they wanted was for life in Uzbekistan to improve, and for all of us to be able to live normal lives like normal people," she said.

Relatives of the accused dismiss the charges of religious extremism which have been made against them.

They say the men have been singled out because they were independent-minded and prominent members of the community.

There is virtually no information available about Akromiya, the group they are alleged to belong to. Many of them say they have never met Akrom Yuldashev, the man the authorities say is the group's leader.

Earlier this week, one group of relatives even went to court to sue a local newspaper which had published an article about Akromiya.

They said the article was full of misinformation and could prejudice the outcome of the trial.

Unprecedented rally

This is not the first time that people in Uzbekistan have taken to the streets to protest.

Last November, economic problems sparked unrest in a number of cities across the country.

Earlier this month police in the capital, Tashkent, broke up a tent protest outside the US embassy.

Rustam Sobitov, a relative of one of the accused men
Many of the protesters are relatives of the accused men

But this is the first time Uzbekistan has ever seen a demonstration which has been organised so efficiently and maintained on this kind of scale.

The Andijan protestors are all well-spoken, dignified and orderly.

They could perhaps be described as the town's middle class.

They make a point of saying that they are not protesting against the government - they simply want justice for their relatives.

And they are eager to mention other arrests in the town and of more trials they say are planned for the near future.

Talking to them, it is clear that these are people who have been pushed to the very edge.

They have lost both their loved ones and their livelihoods.

And they are no longer afraid to speak out, because they have very little left to lose.

Whatever the outcome of the verdict, the quiet despair of the protesters in Andijan is bound to strike a powerful chord across the country.

SEE ALSO
Uzbeks protest at court ruling
10 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Uzbek police break up protest
04 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Angry protest in Uzbek capital
03 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Uzbekistan no-choice poll closes
26 Dec 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Uzbekistan
14 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Uzbekistan
02 Nov 04 |  Country profiles

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