Prague, 14 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- He's been described as Kyrgyzstan's only political prisoner.
So, much interest was sparked this week when an aide to Feliks Kulov said the leading opposition figure is likely to be released from jail on 1 June.
But it appears it's still too soon for Kulov and his supporters to celebrate. The report was soon squelched by the Justice Ministry.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry's prisons department, Sergei Sidorov, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the aide, Emil Aliev, "expressed the thought that Kulov will be released on 1 June. Where did he get that from? It was a product of his own imagination. The [prison department] leadership categorically denies this and says the following: No one from the leadership of the department ever said anything like this, never pronounced these words."
It's the latest twist in a roller-coaster saga that has taken Kulov from senior positions of power, to leading opposition figure, to political prisoner.
President Askar Akaev has denied that the charges against Kulov were politically motivated.
In the 1990s, he held various top posts -- vice president, interior minister, regional governor, national security minister and mayor of Bishkek, the job he left in 1999 to found the opposition party Ar-Namys.
By then, Kulov was an outspoken critic of the Kyrgyz authorities. And that's when his troubles really began.
In March 2000, he was arrested and charged with abuse of power. An initial acquittal was reversed, and in 2001 Kulov was sentenced to seven years in jail. At another trial in 2002, he was sentenced to 10 years in jail, this time for embezzlement.
Kulov's arrests and convictions sparked protests at home and drew condemnation from abroad.
Speaking from his jail cell last December, Kulov said: "I get strength from knowing that people believe in me. They don't believe that I am guilty. That gives me strength."
Supporters say the charges were all politically motivated -- claims that Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has denied. "The criminal cases against Kulov were launched at a time when there was still no talk of Kulov as an opposition figure," Akaev said last July. "At that time, he was working in government offices in high positions. He was chairman of the National Security Committee, then mayor of the capital, Bishkek. As soon as law enforcement bodies began to investigate, immediately the Kulov cases were given a political coloring."
Kulov's case has been in the international spotlight since he was first detained.
Four years ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) appealed for his release from pretrial detention. But Kulov's supporters admit they were disappointed that his case was not brought up during a recent visit to Bishkek by Solomon Pasi, the current OSCE chairman.
Aaron Rhodes, who heads the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna, told RFE/RL today that "it's not just Kulov that's been forgotten." "A lot of the human rights problems in Kyrgyzstan have become more routine and more accepted, and this is a matter of tremendous frustration to the human rights community in Kyrgyzstan," Rhodes said. "We do think that it's something that should be a matter of continuing concern for Kyrgyzstan's partners in the international community and also nongovernmental organizations."
To be sure, Kulov's plight has not completely slipped off the international agenda.
Rhodes said his organization visited Kulov in prison earlier this year. Last September, Kulov was nominated for the European Parliament's top human rights award, the Sakharov prize. And rights activists continue to push for his release.
Now, Kulov's supporters are organizing another event to highlight his case. They plan tomorrow to march the roughly 50 kilometers from Bishkek to the prison where Kulov is being held, in the Chui region.
Aliev, who is deputy chairman of Ar-Namys, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the aim of the march is "to appeal to the Kyrgyz people and to the international community to remind them that Feliks Kulov is a political prisoner. He is jailed against the law. Even the unlawful term has expired, but the authorities are still keeping him in jail. The participants of the march want to draw the attention of the international community to this matter," Aliev said.
International attention played a part in the previous release of other opposition figures in Kyrgyzstan, including the prominent human rights campaigner Topchubek Turgunaliev.
Kulov's supporters still hope similar pressure can secure Kulov's release.