ALMATY, Kazakhstan — U.S. lawyers and others familiar with political conditions in Uzbekistan say riots last week that left several hundred dead were the result of a drive for greater free enterprise, not terrorism — as the government says.
A doctor in the Uzbek city of Andijan told the Associated Press that about 500 bodies were laid out yesterday at a school in the city, where police fired into a crowd of demonstrators on Friday.
Several hundred more people fled into neighboring Kyrgyzstan after the clashes, villagers said. Some reports yesterday said several soldiers were killed at the border crossing.
The demonstrators had been protesting harsh prison sentences sought for 23 businessmen accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of trying to overthrow the government.
But close observers of the case said by telephone yesterday that they thought the men had been prosecuted because the growing popularity of their free-market business practices had made them a threat to the government of President Islam Karimov.
They said a stifling bureaucracy makes it extremely difficult to start a business without paying for protection by one of a handful of powerful groups intertwined with the government that effectively run the small part of the economy that is not in state hands.
Uzbekistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, 114th out of 146 on the Transparency International ranking. It is also in the worst 10 percent in regulatory quality and rule of law, according to the World Bank, whose figures paint a steadily deteriorating situation.
In the impoverished Ferghana Valley, linked to the rest of the country by a single road over a mountain pass and heir to a long tradition of prosperity and trade, the government’s oppression was particularly resented, the sources said.
Against this background, a businessman named Akram Yuldashev in 1997 created a loose association of observant Muslim employers — ranging from market traders to factory owners — aimed at making money while promoting the public good.
These businessmen, who named their group Akramia after its founder, pledged to pool their financial resources, donate money to the poor and maintain a high standard of ethics based on religious values.
In 1999, the government jailed Mr. Yuldashev for 17 years, and late last year, it arrested 23 members of the group’s leadership. They were accused of organizing a criminal group, distributing extremist literature and organizing a banned religious organization.
Melissa Hooper, an Uzbekistan-based American lawyer who has worked with the Uzbek lawyers who are defending the 23, said the influence of Akramia’s members posed a challenge to local government officials.
Will Trigg, a lawyer who follows religious trends in Uzbekistan, said Akramia members “want economic freedom, not revolution, so they can go beyond survival.”
“They have become the largest independent group of their kind in the country, they employ thousands of people in a very poor area, and they’re very popular,” he said.