PRAGUE, May 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On May 13, 2005, Uzbek security forces violently cracked down on protesters demanding that 23 businessmen who were on trial in the eastern city of Andijon be granted fair hearings. The businessmen were prominent in Islamic charitable work and rights activists say they believe the government fabricated the charges in order to confiscate their assets.
Uzbek authorities claim the Andijon operation was ordered after what they describe as foreign-funded, armed Islamic insurgents took city officials and law enforcement officers hostage and executed them. They also say the unrest claimed 187 lives that included protesters and security officers.
Rights groups both inside and outside Uzbekistan, however, say the civilian death toll was in the hundreds. They also accuse Uzbek security forces of killing a number of defenseless people after the Andijon protests were quelled.
The Uzbek government has rejected international calls for an independent probe into the Andijon events. It has also issued arrest warrants against a number of fugitives it says are responsible for the unrest.
Among them are a four Andijon residents whom Kyrgyz authorities detained in June 2005.
Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized Zhakhongir Maksudov, Odilzhon Rakhimov, Yaqub Toshboev, and Rasulzhon Pirmatov as asylum seekers, Kyrgyz judges have denied them refugee status.
The four are awaiting trial in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, where they have been kept since their arrest. The London-based Amnesty International rights watchdog says they are in danger of being forcibly extradited to Uzbekistan, where they could possibly face torture and other ill-treatment.
Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that another Uzbek national was being held prisoner in Osh and that he, too, was wanted in Tashkent in connection with the Andijon unrest. He was arrested in September in Osh, where he had been living since fleeing Andijon.
A Fifth Appears
As it turned out, Fayoz Tojikhalilov -- who describes himself as the "fifth" Andijon refugee -- is sharing a prison cell with his four countrymen. Uzbek officials say he was involved in the killing of a prosecutor and want him returned.
Tojikhalilov is a relative of one of the 23 businessmen, whose trial triggered the unrest in Andijon. This, he says, is what prompted him to leave the city after the security forces had reasserted control over Andijon.
"I was working during those days. Even two days after the May 13 events, I was still working. I owned a company, I had employees. I was a wealthy man. Even on May 13, I had some business to attend to. After May 13, it became clear that the [authorities] would bring accusations against me because I was a relative of [one of the defendants.] Even if I had 50, 100, or 1,000 witnesses to testify [that I did not take part in the unrest], they would not have believed me."
Tojikhalilov says that after the Andijon unrest Uzbek authorities tried a number of his relatives and sentenced them to up to 15 years in jail.
Although he admits he was among those protesters who picketed the Andijon court to demand a fair trial for the 23 defendants, he denies he or any of his four countrymen were involved in the unrest.
"[The Uzbek authorities] claim that most of us organized the May 13 events," Tojikhalilov said. "They're holding us responsible for what happened there. But this has not been proved. Yes, we went to a demonstration to tell about the problems we had. That was the reason why we went there. We'd never been tried or jailed before."
Fears Of Torture And Death
Tojikhalilov describes his detention conditions in Kyrgyzstan as "good" and says none of the Osh Uzbek detainees can complain of harassment or discrimination.
But he says he and the four other Uzbeks believe they will be executed if returned to Uzbekistan. "If they return us to Uzbekistan, only death awaits us there," he said. "Besides, they won't shoot us upon our arrival. They will torture and torment us before that. There is no other way. May God save us. We try not to think about those things. We try to think only about good things, to be kind to each other. Today we're here and we strive to make each day a beautiful one."
As Tojilkhalilov goes on, his voice chokes with emotion. Then he starts sobbing.
"What can I do? It's been a year since I saw any of my family members," he said. "I wish them patience. I hope we'll meet again in brighter days. I can't speak about this without crying. The other day (eds: May 13), a well-known woman from the opposition was released from jail. Her name is [Nodira] Hidoyatova. She said that being in jail gave her an opportunity to test herself. It's the same for us here. We've seen great examples that helped us live with dignity in this world. It's very important for us."
In its annual report of rights violations worldwide, Amnesty International this week said that -- following unfair trials -- 73 people have received jail sentences of up to 22 years in connection with the Andijon unrest.
It also says that "dozens of people" are believed to have been sentenced to death and executed.
(RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch contributed to this report.)
Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan on May 19, 2005 (epa)
NO PLACE TO GO: More than 400 Uzbeks who fled in panic in the hours and days after troops opened fire on demonstrators in Andijon one year ago have been granted political asylum outside Central Asia. In limbo for weeks in Kyrgyzstan as they and the world tried to come to grips with the bloody events of May 12 and 13, they feared for their lives and the lives of family members as the official crackdown continued.... (more)
For an annotated timeline of the Andijon events and their repercussions, click here.