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Uzbek Crowd Storms Prison In Anti-Government Protest

Residents Walk by Soldiers in Position
Uzbeks walk with raised hands as soldiers take positions in the main square of Andijan, Uzbekistan, Friday. (Efrem Lukatsky - AP)

The indicted Andijon businessmen have denied the charges against them. Their relatives and supporters had been peacefully protesting outside the courthouse since the trial began in February. The prosecution of the businessmen, and the closure of their enterprises, has resulted in the loss of as many as 1,000 jobs, residents told the BBC.

As the trial finished this week, prosecutors called for lengthy prison sentences for all of the defendants, sparking a wave of anger across the city, according to Saidzhakhon Zainabitdinov, chairman of a local human rights group. "The prosecutor's speech caused these huge rallies," Zainabitdinov said in a phone interview from Andijon. "All the protests became more intense."

Early Friday morning, shortly after midnight, a group of armed men stormed the local prison, freeing at least 2,000 prisoners, including the 23 businessmen, according to Zainabitdinov. Intense gunfire continued, and by daylight, large groups of armed men were roaming the streets and had taken control of a number of government buildings in the city center.

There were also reports that a number of soldiers and police were taken hostage by the protesters, including 10 policemen tied up in the main local government building. "If the army is going to storm, if they're going to shoot, we are ready to die instead of living as we are living now," Abduvosid Egomov, one of the freed businessmen, told the Associated Press from inside a seized government compound in the city center Friday afternoon. "The Uzbek people have been reduced to living like dirt."

Another one of the freed businessmen, speaking to the Andijon correspondent for a Russia-based Uzbek news site, called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to mediate between the protesters and government forces. "We don't want mass bloodshed and victims," the businessman, who described himself as one of the 23 defendants, told the Web site.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday evening that the situation was stabilizing and was an "internal matter" for the Uzbek authorities.

As well as convicted criminals, the Andijon prison held many political prisoners who were accused or convicted of Islamic extremism and links to terrorist organizations. Human rights groups say many of those swept up in the government's campaign were innocent of the charges or merely religious dissenters. The arrests, coupled with the area's grinding poverty, have led to resentment that has further radicalized the population, according to analysts.

"There is acute dissatisfaction with Karimov's regime, and it's fueled by police-judicial terror against non-sanctioned Islamic movements and very strong poverty," said Sergei Panarin of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "If you don't provide any room for a constitutional opposition, eventually you are going to get an opposition that has a religious or Islamic character."

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