Uzbek debate over Islam's role in sparking protests

Residents in Andijon and Korasuv cite economic and political frustration as their main sources of anger.

Uzbek authorities have rejected appeals for an independent inquiry into what President Islam Karimov calls an uprising by radical Islamists that led to the deaths of up to 1,000 people in the troubled Fergana Valley region just over a week ago.

But regional experts and many residents of the violence-wracked towns of Andijon and Korasuv say in interviews that, while a few armed Islamists may have triggered events, most of those who took to the streets were motivated by political frustration, economic despair, and accumulated rage over Mr. Karimov's corrupt and repressive governance.

"There is a danger of Islamic revolt in this area, though most of the people in Uzbekistan are not particularly devout Muslims or concerned with religion," says Vitaly Naumkin, a Moscow-based expert on Central Asia. "What we are seeing is a combination, where Islam provides a vocabulary and ideological pretext for rising up against the authorities, but the real reasons are old-fashioned social and economic grievances."

Both towns are in the overpopulated, impoverished, and multiethnic Fergana Valley, which straddles the borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and has frequently been the scene of inter-communal rioting and political upheaval.

Fresh protests broke out over the weekend in Korasuv, after forces retook the town of 25,000 following a five-day "rebellion." About 200 people marched Saturday to demand the release of their leader, Bakhtiyor Rakhimov, a popular farmer who boasted last week that he was fighting for an Islamic republic.

But most Korasuv residents say the main reason 700 people deposed - and beat up - the mayor on May 14 was to reopen the border with Kyrgyzstan, which lies across a fast-moving river.

The Uzbek government, in a crackdown on independent traders, sealed the frontier in 2003 and blew up the bridges, imposing severe emotional and economic hardship. "Nearly every family has relatives on the other side," says a local man, who gave his name as Saibjahon. "The goods in the big bazaar on the Kyrgyz side, mostly imported from China, are 50 percent cheaper than here," he says.

The people of Korasuv rebuilt the bridges, allowing hundreds of refugees to flee into Kyrgyzstan and reigniting a brisk border trade. Security forces marched unopposed into the town Thursday and arrested Mr. Rakhimov and others, but have so far left the bridges open.

Protesters say they want Rakhimov to be freed. "He was very popular in Korasuv because he helped many people," says Murat Khodiyev. "He was not an Islamist."

The May 13 uprising in Andijon, a city of 300,000, appears rooted in the arrest a year ago of 23 local businessmen - some of whom may have been preaching Islamic ideals - on charges of "religious extremism." One young man says he was saved from a "troubled" life by a job in one of the men's firms and an introduction to writings by Andijon religious thinker, Akram Yuldashev, who has been in prison since 1999. "[The book] showed me that the most important thing in life is to be merciful and respect other people," he says.

He says that after the trial opened, he and other supporters waited for the businessmen to be acquitted. "Even after 100 people testified that they were innocent, the prosecutor asked for three to seven years and the court found them guilty," he says.

Witnesses say about 30 armed men struck the Andijon jail on May 13, freeing the businessmen and about 2,000 other prisoners. Khodirjon Ergashev, a police officer turned human rights activist, says the "terrorists" took him hostage. Other witnesses say the rebels killed prison guards, policemen, and soldiers before holing up in a town building. As Uzbek forces poured into town, a crowd of several thousand unarmed people gathered.

Though details remain sketchy, most witnesses say security forces fired indiscriminately on the crowds. Some say soldiers followed fleeing protesters and killed them execution-style. Muzaffarimizo Ishakov, head of the Human Rights Society of Andijon region, says about 700 people died.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan say that up to 1,000 people died in Andijon and a still-murky May 14 incident in nearby Pakhtabad.

Some people seem relieved the violence was ending. "I am glad things are going back to normal. No one can win from this fighting," says Massud Mirzojev, a shopkeeper.

But others are clearly still angry. And few mention Islam as the cause of their disquiet. "My father, who worked his whole life, has a pension of $7.50 per month. I am earning $9," says Rano Abdullayeva, a cook in a cafe. "I don't blame anyone who is against this government."

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