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Kyrgyzstan: Prison Unrest Highlights Alleged Political Power Struggle

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova --> A guard at the Modovanovka prison facility outside Bishkek on 1 November (AFP) Kyrgyz authorities are seeking to quell criticism of their handling of further violence in the country’s prisons. The government said at least four inmates were killed during riots in several prisons yesterday, while others put the death toll at around 20. Rights advocates criticized authorities for using force, while others said the government reacted too slowly to rioting that began in October -- and that some critics attribute to a power struggle among criminal gangs with high-level connections.

Prague, 2 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- One day after a second wave of recent violence hit Kyrgyzstan’s prisons, President Kurmanbek Bakiev faced down his critics in a joint news conference with Prime Minister Feliks Kulov.

Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman, Tursunbai Bakir uulu, yesterday criticized the authorities' use of force in putting down the latest prison riot.

But Bakiev was unapologetic today.

Recalling that a Kyrgyz parliamentarian and three other officials were killed when they tried to negotiate with rioting inmates in October, Bakiev warned he will not hesitate to use force again if need be.

"What happened yesterday [at the prisons] was a completely legal process in any democratic country," Bakiev said. "Dear journalists, ask yourself the following question: What happened here on the 20 October, when a member of parliament and members of official commissions who went to the labor camp [prison] were killed? If this had happened in the United States, if they killed a congressman who had entered this area or [if it had happened] in Europe, some action would be taken within an hour, without calling in any ombudsman. They [authorities] wouldn't ask anyone. They would bring about order within an hour to deal with such actions."

Yesterday's rioting affected prisons around Bishkek and in the south of the country. It was reportedly sparked by the attempted removal of around 20 prisoners, including suspected criminal gang leader Aziz Batukaev, from Prison No. 31 in the settlement of Moldovanovka near Bishkek.

Prison No. 31 was the site of rioting in October during which parliamentarian Tynychbek Akmatbaev and three other officials were killed.

Akmatbaev and his delegation had gone to the prison on 20 October to negotiate with inmates who were protesting poor living conditions.

Akmatbaev’s brother, Ryspek, is believed to be a leader of a criminal gang that rivals Batukaev’s group. Hence, Batukaev is widely blamed for the murder of the parliamentarian and the other officials.

Ryspek Akmatbaev was reportedly behind antigovernment rallies in central Bishkek following his brother’s murder. The protesters demanded Prime Minister Kulov’s resignation, accusing him of connections with Batukaev.

The riots have raised questions about the ability of authorities to control the situation in the country and maintain order in penal facilities.

But they have also highlighted allegations that the unrest is related to a struggle for power among criminal gangs with purported connections to some government officials.

Kulov himself is the subject of much speculation. A former political dissident, the prime minister spent several years incarcerated at Moldovanovka, where he reportedly met Batukaev.

“These riots have one distinctive feature: Some political leaders order [jailed criminal leaders] to organize riots in penitentiary facilities in support or against other politicians,” said Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of Erkindik, a political party that backs Bakiev but opposes the prime minister.

Turgunaliev, who is also the former father-in-law of assassinated parliamentarian Akmatbaev, organized anti-Kulov rallies after his relative’s death. Speaking to RFE/RL from Bishkek today, he insisted that Kulov bore some responsibility for the assassination.

“It’s well-known fact that Mr. Kulov has ties with people originated from Caucasus, particularly with Batukaev [who is Chechen]," Turgunaliev said. "He never denied it. When he was in Prison No. 31 [in Moldovanovka] on 25 October, he met with Batukaev. Instead of establishing order immediately, Kulov listened to Batukaev’s orders. Yesterday, there was bloodshed in prison. It could have been avoided if Kulov had taken timely measures.”

But not everyone sees connections between Kyrgyz crime groups and politics.

Edil Baysalov, who heads the coalition of civic groups For Democracy and Civil Society, ruled out allegations about ties between organized crime group and the government.

“Allegations about tight connections and integration of the government with organized criminal groups have been widely discussed since early summer," Baysalov said. "But I categorically deny connection of criminal elements to the 24 March revolution [that ousted then President Askar Akaev]. However, it is clear that they took advantage of disorder, chaos, and indecisiveness of the new government.”

Sodiqjon Makhmudov is head of the Osh-based human rights group Luch Solomona, which monitors the situation among penal facilities. He refused to speak of alleged ties between government officials and the underworld, but added that the recent prison unrest reflects overall political instability in the country.

“I believe there is a power struggle in all parts of Kyrgyzstan at the moment," Makhmudov said. "Current government officials are trying to take power from former officials, who resist. I think this is the reason for these current events.”

The allegations, true or not, are arguably harming the image at home of Kyrgyzstan’s new leaders.

Rights activist Baysalov, who welcomed the so-called Tulip Revolution in March and endorsed the country’s new leadership, has taken a more critical stance recently. Bakiev’s tardy reaction to the rioting has been his major weakness, Baysalov said.

“Even we, supporters of Bakiev, ask [about the speed with which the government reacted] and criticize him," Baysalov said. "So far, [Bakiev’s supporters] rationalize it with his lack of experience. It’s been less than 100 days since he came to office. But there is also an opinion that some people in Bakiev’s government tried to take advantage of the crisis in order to weaken or even to oust Prime Minister Kulov.”

Observers insist the Kyrgyz government must demonstrate stronger determination to investigate parliamentarian Akmatbaev’s murder and recent prison unrest.