A man who was among 23 Islamic businessmen jailed pending their trial on extremism charges in eastern Uzbekistan said Friday that all were freed from prison overnight.
Abduvosid Egomov, 33, said that the Akramia Islamic group was responsible for organizing the overnight jailbreak in the town of Andijan, which brought thousands of protesters into the streets.
"We are not going to overthrow the government. We demand economic freedom," Egomov told The Associated Press.
"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. The Uzbek people have been reduced to living like dirt," Egomov, pale and thin, said as he sat on the grass inside the local government compound.
As he spoke, his colleagues broke up pavement stones to reinforce the metal fence surrounding the compound, in hopes of staving off security forces.
The trial against the 23 inspired one of the largest recent public shows of mounting anger over alleged rights abuses by the ex-Soviet republic's government.
The men, arrested in June, are accused of being members of the Akramia religious group and having contacts with the outlawed radical Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Authorities accuse Hizb-ut-Tahrir of inspiring terror attacks in Uzbekistan last year that killed more than 50. The group, which claims to eschew violence, denied responsibility.
Akramia unites followers of jailed Uzbek Islamic dissident Akram Yuldashev, who was accused of calling for the overthrow of the predominantly Muslim country's secular government - an accusation he denies.
The group's members are considered the backbone of Andijan's small business community, giving employment to thousands of people in the impoverished and densely populated Fergana Valley.
BAGILA BUKHARBAYEVA, Associated Press Writer