The Andijan protests were triggered by the arrest and trial of twenty-three successful local businessmen on charges of religious extremism, of being members of an underground Islamic group called Akramiawhich refers to the religious teachings of Akram Yuldashev, a former mathematics teacher from Andijanand of preparing to overthrow the government. They had been arrested in June 2004 and went on trial on February 11, 2005, in the Altinkul District Court.
Throughout the trial, relatives and supporters of the defendants gathered daily outside the courthouse to protest the trial. The demonstrations were orderly and quiet and grew to include several hundred people. On May 12, 2005, the last day of the proceedings, over 2,000 people gathered. The court was scheduled to announce the sentence that day, but instead postponed the hearings indefinitely. That same day, the protestors learned that several young men who had participated in the demonstrations had been arrested.
The long-simmering tensions and protests over the case of the twenty-three businessmen finally boiled over into open violence on the night of May 12. Around midnight on May 12-13, a group of between fifty and one hundred men attacked a local police station and then stormed the Ministry of Defenses barracks no. 34, seizing weapons and a military vehicle. The armed group then broke through the gates of the Andijan prison, where the twenty-three businessmen were held. They freed the businessmen and hundreds of inmates. The men then moved to take control of the hokimiat (provincial administration building) and took some law enforcement and government officials hostage. These men committed serious crimes, punishable under the Uzbek criminal code. But neither their crimes nor the peaceful protest that ensued can justify the governments response.
Throughout the morning of May 13, the armed group mobilized its supporters using mobile phones, urging people to gather for a protest rally in Bobur Square, in front of the hokimiat. The crowd attracted other Andijan residents who hoped to voice their anger about depressed economic conditions and growing government repression. By noon the crowd numbered up to thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of whom were unarmed protesters.
At various points during the day, troops in APCs and military trucks periodically drove by, firing randomly into the edge of the largely unarmed crowd. The government had also deployed snipers above the square, but neither the snipers nor the drive-by shooters appeared to be directing fire at persons who were posing any threat. Protesters and observers interviewed by Human Rights Watch all stated that there were almost no armed men on the square itself, and there is no evidence to suggest that the security forces made any attempts to focus their fire on legitimate targets such as the few gunmen in the square. Means of restoring order or dispersing the crowd short of lethal force do not appear to have been used.
Towards the evening, government troops blocked off the square and, without warning, opened fire, killing and wounding unarmed civilians. People fled the square in several groups, the first group using as a human shield numerous hostages seized earlier in the day. As they tried to escape, hundreds of people were shot by snipers or mowed down by troops firing from APCs. The scale of the killing was so extensive, and its nature was so indiscriminate and disproportionate, that it can best be described as a massacre.
A group of more than six hundred survivors fled to the Kyrgyz border in a ten-hour march during which they were also fired on by Uzbek soldiers or border troops. Several people were killed during this further ambush. Ultimately, after negotiating safe passage into Kyrgyzstan, the group managed to cross the border safely. A camp was set up for the refugees directly on the border, just inside the Kyrgyz province of Jalal-Abad; in early June it was moved deeper into Kyrgyzstan. In late July all but fifteen of the asylum seekers were evacuated to Romania. Another eleven were evacuated to the United Kingdom in mid-September.
Separate investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the OSCE found that Uzbek government forces were responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. Contrary to accounts provided by the Uzbek government, these reports also found that the large-scale demonstration that took place in Andijan on May 13 was not related to Islamic extremism, but to the expression of peoples grievances regarding the economy, poverty, and abuses of the judicial system.