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Central Asia Report: May 29, 2003


29 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 19

AKSY WOMEN PROTEST ACQUITTALS OF LOCAL OFFICIALS. However much Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's regime tries to close the book on the bloody events of March 2002 in Aksy, stubborn opponents of his government, whether professional activists or ordinary citizens quixotically seeking justice, simply won't let the matter rest. That was the message from the latest protest action by a group of Aksy women who were outraged when provincial officials convicted in connection with the shootings won appeals and were released.

On 16 May, a military court overturned the convictions of the three men who had officially been held responsible for the March 2002 bloodshed in Aksy Raion, when police fired into crowds of supporters of opposition politician Azimbek Beknazarov, killing six. After much foot-dragging by the authorities in the capital Bishkek, seven provincial law-enforcement officials were eventually put on trial in the town of Osh in December 2002, not for direct involvement in the Aksy killings but rather for "exceeding their official powers by hindering an unsanctioned protest." Three were found innocent of the charges. The other four -- Djalalabad Oblast prosecutor Zootbek Kudaibergenov, regional police chief Kubanychek Tokobaev, his deputy Abditmal Kalbaev, and Aksy prosecutor Abdylkalyk Kaldarov -- were given sentences of two to three years' imprisonment. Kaldarov has since died. Then, after having spent six months in jail, Kudaibergenov, Tokobaev, and Kalbaev were found not guilty on appeal on 16 May and released. The acquittals reinforced many people's belief that the state had never been serious about punishing those genuinely guilty for the tragedy anyway -- that the prisoners were scapegoats for higher-ups in Bishkek, who had taken the rap on the understanding that the government would secure them an early release. The court's decision means that, from the state's point of view, nobody is culpable for the deaths in Aksy (except perhaps Kaldarov).

Eighteen women, relatives of those killed in Aksy, demonstrated in front of the government building in Bishkek on 16 May to protest the acquittals. They also sought an audience with Akaev to press their demand that the responsible officials be brought to justice. What happened next is a matter of dispute. The women say police roughly manhandled and arrested them. According to Communist Party leader Klara Azhybekova, who joined the protest and was rounded up together with the Aksy women, the peaceful demonstration was broken up after only 10 minutes. They were hustled into a bus, detained all day at Pervomayskii police station, and some of them were beaten, Azhybekova said as cited by Deutsche Welle on 18 May. The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) added that they were held for 10 hours. RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported that Nurbubu Urkinbaeva (whose brother was shot dead in Aksy) was beaten by the police and hospitalized with a concussion on 16 May. Azhybekova and fellow picketers Zhumagul Kulova (sister of jailed opposition leader Feliks Kulov), human rights defender Topchubek Turgunaliev, and his colleague Abdraul Zhanuzakov were subsequently charged with disturbing the peace and fined, Deutsche Welle said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zholdoshbek Busurmankulov denied that the women were actually detained, much less beaten. He maintained that they were taken to the police station to have their identities checked (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 May 2003). He did not explain why this process took 10 hours. Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov, facing questions from the Legislative Assembly (lower house of Kyrgyzstan's parliament) on 23 May, similarly rejected claims that any of the protesters had been beaten or hospitalized, Akipress reported. Four days previously, the Legislative Assembly had discussed the allegations of police brutality against the demonstrators. It ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate the matter, Khabar news agency reported. But as of 27 May the prosecutor-general had ignored the order, and was not responding to inquiries from parliamentary deputies, according to KCHR.

Meanwhile the 18 women from Aksy launched a hunger strike the day after their encounter with the police, pledging to starve until they got to see Akaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2003). They held their hunger strike in the apartment of Beknazarov, who represents their constituency in parliament. Beknazarov's apartment block was immediately ringed by uniformed and plain-clothes policemen. On 20 May, these were joined by special police units armed with submachine guns, Eurasianet.org reported. On the same day Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, acting as intermediary for the protesters, apparently managed to persuade the authorities to take a softer line. He arranged meetings between five representatives of the protestors and Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, presidential security advisor Bolot Januzakov, and Akaev's Chief of Staff Misir Ashyrkulov. Ashyrkulov received the women's written appeal for justice for the death of their relatives, and promised to pass it on personally to Akaev, who was in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. On 22 May, at the urgings of doctors, human rights organizations, and Bakir-uulu himself, the hunger strike that had started on 17 May was ended. The women told a press conference in Bishkek that they were going home peacefully, but would resume their protest if the government had not acted on their demands before the Third National Kurultai, or Assembly (a congress of opposition groups) convened in July, RFE/RL said.

The immediate consequences of the Aksy women's protest have been twofold: to return the spotlight to the inconclusive nature of the official investigation into the March 2002 killings, and to re-ignite a debate about police brutality and the political use and abuse of law enforcement in Kyrgyzstan. On 19 May, the opposition Ar-Namys Party issued a statement in which it condemned the arrest and beating of the women and accused the authorities of using the police as a political tool to suppress dissent, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Bakir-uulu told a press conference on 21 May that, although the police had used excessive force on the women, they had done so on their own, without orders from their superiors. Nevertheless, on the following day the ombudsman wrote an open letter to Akaev calling for an end to "acts of lawlessness" perpetrated by Kyrgyz law enforcement officers against citizens exercising their constitutional rights. Bakir-uulu maintained that the police had become more aggressive towards ordinary citizens since a personal rivalry, well-reported in the media, developed between Interior Minister Subanbekov and his deputy, Keneshbek Duishebaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May 2003). Duishbaev responded on 26 May, telling journalists that Bakir-uluu's criticism of the law enforcement officials was unjustified. The ombudsman's account of both the police's treatment of the female protesters and their subsequent hunger strike was incorrect, Duishbaev added, but without offering an alternative version of events (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003).

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT REVIEWS LAW ENFORCEMENT FOLLOWING RAIDS ON POLICE HQ. Law and order has remained high on Kyrgyzstan's agenda since the 15 May raids on the Djalalabad Oblast and city police headquarters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2003). An estimated 10 attackers assaulted policemen and escaped to Aksy Raion after seizing about 30 weapons, including Stechkin and Makarov pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles. On 20 May, Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov and Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov were formally reprimanded at a government meeting for not preventing the raids. On the same day, the top officials of Djalalabad's municipal police department were dismissed en masse, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.

Some of the suspected attackers were captured quickly together with stolen weapons, but initial reports said there was no evidence to link the gang to any terrorist organization. But on 23 May Deputy Chairman of the National Security Service Boris Poluektov said that the attacks on the police stations were part of a "coup d'etat," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Poluetkov added that two of the organizers of the alleged coup had escaped to Turkey. He was speaking to Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly on the first of three days of parliamentary hearings about public safety in the country. Poluetkov apparently provided no direct proof to back up his coup d'etat theory, but did refer to a larger pattern of acts of violence recently committed in Kyrgyzstan. He said his service did not rule out the involvement of Uighur separatists and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the December 2002 bombing of a Bishkek market and the May 2003 bombing of a currency-exchange office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003).

Poluetkov also tried to draw a connection between the fact that the attackers headed for Aksy Raion with their weapons, and the area's well-known disaffection with the government thanks to its handling of the March 2002 killings. According to a 27 May statement by the Kyrgyz Committee of Human Rights, Poluetkov suggested that the attackers were hoping to win local people's support and foment a rebellion. On 21 May, Interior Ministry spokesman Zholdoshbek Busurmankulov hinted darkly that there could be a connection between the Djalalabad raid and the demonstration and hunger strike by 18 Aksy women in Bishkek, Deutsche Welle reported. These insinuations seem to have foundered quickly for lack of anything substantial to base them on. But the fact that Poluetkov and Busurmankulov would even express such ideas publicly points to deep distrust, and some paranoia, on Bishkek's part toward Aksy residents and citizens from southern Kyrgyzstan generally.

On 27 May, the Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution calling on President Askar Akaev to improve the monitoring and supervision of law enforcement. Deputies also demanded that the country's law-enforcement agencies provide a report by 23 June as to what measures have been taken to improve the situation, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Meanwhile Interfax reported on 28 May that Kyrgyzstan had reinforced its border with Uzbekistan in the wake of the attacks of the Djalabad police headquarters and the bomb explosion in Osh. Kyrgyz Border Service chief Kalmurat Sadiev told journalists that at least 36 border violators, "some of them members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," had been detained this year. He added that beefed-up border protection would be "conducted physically" in valley areas and by means of "technical methods" in the mountains. Uzbekistan unilaterally boosted its own security measures along its frontier with Kyrgyzstan on 16 May immediately after the raid in Djalalabad was reported. A decree by President Islam Karimov called for reinforcing the border guard, toughening checks at police and customs posts, and strengthening the protection of military and strategic facilities near the Uzbek-Kyrgyz frontier, uzreport.com said.

RUSSIAN ARMY BECKONS TAJIK UNEMPLOYED. Before the rise and triumph of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century, service in the armies and navies of foreign kings and princes was a common option for dispossessed, disinherited, and desperate men with no prospects at home. That tradition may be reviving in Tajikistan following Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to allow citizens of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries to serve in the Russian forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 April 2003).

Tajikistan's leadership has welcomed Putin's announcement, according to First Deputy Chairman of the ruling People's Democratic Party Davlati Davlatov, who suggested that the new dispensation may have been specially aimed at Tajiks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May 2003). The opportunity was intended "for citizens of the CIS countries, especially of those states with which Russia has strategic cooperation and friendly relations.... I believe [Putin] meant Tajikistan first of all. And we are positive about that," Davlatov told Interfax-AVN on 22 May. He acknowledged that Tajikistan could not provide jobs for its "human resources surplus, especially among youth of 18 to 30," and with some 600,000-800,000 citizens (out of a total population of about 7 million) working as migrant laborers abroad, he indicated that many Tajiks might look at Russian Army life as a relatively attractive option.

Davlatov is known as a strong proponent of Tajik-Russian military cooperation. He told Interfax on 21 May that the presence of Russian military forces in Tajikistan contributed to regional stability, and that he fully supported the formal establishment of a Russian military base in Tajikistan on the basis of the current deployment of Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division. "I think that enhancing the Tajik Army is in Russia's interests as well," Davlatov added.

However, the Tajik Defense Ministry announced on 26 May that it was radically reducing the number of servicemen to be sent to Russia for officer training. Whereas 100 Tajik future officers used to be trained in Russia annually, this year the number will drop to 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). Instead, Tajik military personnel will be studying in Canada, India, Iran, and the United States, which, unlike Russia, have offered training free of charge.

Meanwhile, President Imomali Rakhmonov has ordered that the study of Russian language again become compulsory in Tajik schools beginning in September, "Krasnaya Zvezda," the official newspaper of the Russian military, reported on 22 May. The paper connected Rakhmonov's decision with the fact that Tajik men wanting to enter Russian military service generally have poor Russian-language skills (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May 2003). In short, Russian is being reinstated in the curriculum as a kind of vocational training, taught for the same reason that schools might teach plumbing or carpentry -- because it is reckoned to be a skill that Tajik youngsters need to get a job in the region's only viable labor market. If Tajikistan's leaders are really counting on the Russian Army to mop up a significant portion of its unemployed and otherwise disposable youth, observers may be torn whether to salute their pragmatism or deplore their apparent satisfaction with this wretched option. One also wonders who will be left for Tajikistan's western-trained officers to order around when they return home.

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