They called themselves "the Brotherhood." Devout Muslims and astute businessmen, they grew to include about 200 associates. They ran bakeries, garment and shoe factories, carpentry and leatherwork shops, even a medical center and charitable activities.
They were the business elite of this city of 300,000 in eastern Uzbekistan's poor but densely populated Fergana Valley, known as a hotbed of Islamic fervor.
But the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov saw them as a threat, and put 23 members on trial last year as alleged religious extremists running a criminal organization. All but one were imprisoned during the proceedings.
As the trial approached its conclusion, a volatile mixture of political and religious repression, poverty and radical Islam exploded in violence and death on May 13, raising concerns about the political stability of a key U.S. ally in Central Asia. The Pentagon said last week, without providing details, that activities at a U.S. base here that support operations in Afghanistan had been scaled back because of concern about the events in Andijon.
Witness accounts from reporters for Western wire services, local human rights activists and others in Andijon have indicated there was brutality on both sides on that day of bloody clashes, which began when armed fighters staged a jailbreak, freeing the imprisoned businessmen.
According to a defense lawyer who offered the most detailed account yet of what happened, the freeing of prisoners and subsequent protest rally that ended in a fierce government crackdown was organized not by some shadowy terrorist group, but by the imprisoned businessmen's frustrated and angry relatives and friends.
As described by Rashanbek Khadzhimov, a lawyer who took part in the businessmen's defense: "Their friends, their colleagues who were still free, and their relatives just lost their heads. If I had known what they were thinking I would have stopped them.
"But they decided that all other means had been exhausted and total injustice was being done, and they could bear it no longer. They decided to resort to force."
The government placed the death toll in the town of Andijon at 169, although human rights activists and others said hundreds more had been killed. The dead included armed militants and unarmed civilians who had come into the street to support the freed businessmen and to complain about unemployment, low living standards and Karimov's authoritarian rule. The death toll included at least 32 police and soldiers, according to the government.
Khadzhimov's account of clashes in the early stage of the uprising largely matches the official government version, expressed by Karimov at a news conference in Tashkent, the capital. The president and other government officials, however, have cast a broader net of blame against alleged underground and international terrorist groups. The lawyer said the revolt was a local affair.
"It was a collective decision on their part, but it was also a spontaneous decision," he said. "They attacked a police unit where there were only five policemen on duty and they seized at least 100 Kalashnikovs. They attacked a military unit and got some more weapons there.
"Then they made their biggest mistake. When they were freeing their friends from prison, they released the most horrible criminals who were there and gave them guns. They released from prison, together with the flower of the nation, the scum of the nation."
Some of the subsequent violence that the government blames on supporters of the 23 businessmen was committed by criminals who were released and given weapons in the jailbreak, Khadzhimov said.
The actions of those who freed the prisoners also came as a shock to others sympathetic to the businessmen, who many human rights activists believed were being prosecuted on trumped-up charges as part of the government's long-standing repression of political and religious dissent.
New York-based Human Rights Watch and other rights groups estimate that about 6,000 people are imprisoned in Uzbekistan as political dissidents or for nonviolent activity such as praying at unregistered mosques, holding religious meetings in homes and reading or distributing religious literature.
Karimov is a former Communist who has run Uzbekistan since 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. His government characterizes the imprisonment of thousands of alleged Islamic radicals as part of a battle against terrorism and an effort to preserve Uzbekistan's secular society. But human rights organizations in Uzbekistan and abroad have warned for years that the repression might trigger a violent backlash.
Kodyrzhon Ergashev, chairman of the Andijon chapter of the International Committee for Human Rights, was among those who thought the businessmen were being unfairly persecuted.
Ergashev said he learned of the uprising from a prisoner he had helped defend.
"He called from a cellphone and said he's out," Ergashev said. "He said he was released by an armed group that killed several guards, then released all prisoners and demanded that they should join their ranks, distributing automatic rifles to them from a truck that was parked near the prison. Then shooting began in town, and I went to see what was going on."
Ergashev went to a government building in the town center taken over by the militants.
"It was guarded not by the police but by people in civilian clothes with Kalashnikovs," he said. "Outside and inside the building I counted about 50 armed men, all aged between 20 and 40. Inside the building, on the floor, I saw several policemen and regional officials with tied legs and arms.
"Some armed men were preparing Molotov cocktails, and some were beating the hell out of police and security officers they had captured."
Ergashev said he was taken to see the leader of the rebellion, Sharifjon Shokirov.
Khadzhimov, the lawyer, explained that Shokirov was the younger brother of Shakir Shokirov, one of the 23 businessmen, who owned a garment factory employing 35 women. Their father, Bakaram Shokirov, served prison time in 1998 on charges of religious extremism, together with Akram Yuldashev, the lawyer said.
Yuldashev, an original organizer of the Brotherhood, had written a religious tract liberally quoting the Koran that was viewed as a spiritual guide by the group's members, the lawyer said. He and the elder Shokirov were released in a 1998 amnesty, but after bomb explosions in Tashkent the following year that were blamed on Islamic radicals, Yuldashev was arrested again, and he is serving a nine-year term, he added.
The association that called itself the Brotherhood was labeled by outsiders as Akramia, after Yuldashev's first name.
A third son of Bakaram Shokirov had been arrested in 1998 with his father, and he died in prison, the lawyer said.
It was against this background that Ergashev came face to face with Sharifjon Shokirov in the occupied government building.
"When I was entering the building I was walking over the corpses of dead policemen," Ergashev recalled. "I asked Shokirov directly, 'What do you want to do? The entire world community was on your side. You were supported everywhere, and now I saw dead bodies outside this building. What does it mean?'
"He said, 'We were forced to do it. We were protecting ourselves and the people. There is poverty all around, corruption and tyranny. There is no choice but to resist it any way you can.'
"I understood that I could do nothing to stop them, and said goodbye and went downstairs, but on my way out I was detained, tied up and made a hostage," Ergashev said.
Late that afternoon, as government troops closed in on the nearby square, where thousands had gathered in a protest rally, militants left the building with their hostages.
Ergashev said he was with a group of about 30 hostages tied together at the front of a huge column of people that walked from the center of the city toward the outskirts.
"Hostages first, then unarmed civilians, then armed men," he said. "Only four hostages survived after an armored personnel carrier opened fire on the crowd. I was among them. I don't know why they opened fire seeing that uniformed policemen, their comrades, were walking tied up in front of the column. I guess the order to shoot came from the very top and they just couldn't disobey it, hostages or no hostages."
Khadzhimov said that Karimov may have had good reason to view the Brotherhood as a political threat.
"Of course in their conversations among themselves, the Brotherhood members may say, 'We are not going to explode bombs, we are not [the banned religious group] Hizb ut-Tahrir, we will not spread leaflets, but we will come to power simply by expanding our businesses and working properly,' " he said. "I could understand that they were saying those things. But there was nothing criminal about it."
The decision of the imprisoned men's backers to free them by force "was a gesture of despair," the lawyer said.
"They were driven to it by all these years of arrests and persecution," he said. "My nephew, Abduvakhid Kutakov, who was among them on that night, briefly came home and said, 'We won! The victory is ours!' He was found dead the next day with a bullet in the back. So what victory was he talking about?'"
Holley reported from Moscow and Loiko from Andijon.