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Uzbekistan: From Businessmen To Prisoners To Refugees -- Escaped Andijon Prisoners Tell Their Tale

Andijon residents carrying away a casualty of the 13 May massacre It was a jailbreak that kicked off the revolt in eastern Uzbek town of Andijon on 13 May. The 23 businessmen whose trial triggered the unrest were reportedly released, and some managed to escape to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Elmurod Yusupaliev visited the Uzbek refugee camp in the village of Karadarya, in the Jalal-Abad region of Kyrgyzstan, and spoke to two of the escaped prisoners.

Prague, 21 May 2005 (RFE/RL) - Shamsiddin Atamatov was in his cell in Andijon's jail on the night of 12-13 May when a group of men suddenly burst in.

"That night, we heard shootings," he recalls. "The guards in the corridor ran. We thought it was the beginning of a war. Then, people came and broke in. Everyone ran outside. We did not expect anything like that. We had no idea about what was happening."

Burkhoniddin Nuritdinov was in another cell.

"We'd never seen anything like that before," Nuritdinov says from his temporary refuge in Kyrgyzstan. "I'd never heard any shootings in my entire life. I was shocked. We went to the corridor and were standing there for a while. The crowd was growing and someone said, 'Let's go downstairs.' We went downstairs, still in shock. We gathered outside. It was very dark, there were no lights on. Someone said, 'If you want you can go to 'hokimiyat' (regional administration). We will demand our rights'. People marched toward hokimiyat."

That rally turned to bloodshed when security forces opened fire on demonstrators. Authorities claim 169 people died in the violence in and around Andijon, although rights groups say up to 1,000 civilians might have been killed.

Now Atamatov and Nuritdinov are among more than 540 refugees at a makeshift camp in Kyrgyzstan.

It's a far cry from their life as wealthy businessmen in Andijon.

There, both Nuritdinov and Atamatov owned thriving companies, until they were imprisoned in 2004.
"I was not tortured. However, there was enormous pressure. They said, 'You know very well what is going to happen to you if you don't sign a confession,' and [they] forced me to sign all the papers."

They were among 23 wealthy businessmen whose trial on charges of belonging to the banned Islamic group Akramiya triggered the Andijon unrest.

Nuritdinov and Atamatov say the religious extremism charges are trumped up -- and that they only came after the Uzbek authorities failed to find any financial wrongdoing.

"As for tortures, I experienced all kinds of them," Nuritdinov says. "I spent 11 months in prison. For the first five months, they made no charges. They just investigated documents of my company. They failed to find any economic crime in my company's activity, they brought leaflets and literature [of Akramiya] and charged us with it."

Atamatov says he confessed in belonging to Akramiya under strong pressure: "No, I was not tortured. However, there was enormous pressure. They said, 'You know very well what is going to happen to you if you don't sign a confession,' and [they] forced me to sign all the papers."

Both men say the real reason behind their trial was economic. They say someone more powerful wanted to take their business that had to prove successful and was growing.

Independent observers and human rights activists agree. They say the government is facing difficulties meeting its budgetary needs and is trying to make up the shortfall by confiscating property from wealthy people.

"My understanding is the following," Nuritdinov says. "In Uzbekistan, every sector [of economy] is monopolized. Whenever anyone else reaches the level when he can become a real competitor for a monopolist, he is accused of belonging to [the banned Islamist group] Hizb ut-Tahrir, Wahhabis, or Akramiya, or simply charged with economic-financial crimes and is done away with."

After his release from jail, Nuritdinov says he joined other protestors outside Andijon's regional-administrative building.

He says none of the protestors had any weapons -- a claim that Uzbek authorities dispute.

Nuritdinov also insists he does not know who the protesters were or who organized jailbreak and demonstrations.

"It might have been the people who were full of discontent," Nuritdinov says. "It might have been the authorities that wanted to provoke unrest and get rid of some people. They shoot at innocent babies. Why? Who needed this bloodshed? It was provocation. Authorities set several buildings on fire themselves and protestors extinguished it. People did not need anything like that."

Nuritdinov and Atamatov say they have asked the Kyrgyz government for political asylum.

They say they don't want to return to their home country -- that would mean, they say, further repression.

(RFE/RL correspondent Gulnoza Saidazimova contributed to this report.)

[For more on these events, see RFE/RL's dedicated webpage: Unrest in Uzbekistan]

Click here for a gallery of images from the violence in eastern Uzbekistan on 13-14 May.

See also:

Uzbekistan: President Karimov's Limited Options

Karimov Said To Oppose International Probe Into Crackdown

Kyrgyzstan: Aid Worker Describes Refugee Conditions

Central Asia: Are Governments Too Quick To Blame Unrest On Islamic Militants?

What Really Happened On Bloody Friday?

Where Does Crisis Go From Here?

Protesters Charge Officials With Using Extremism Charges To Target Entrepreneurs

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