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Central Asia Report: September 5, 2002


5 September 2002, Volume 2, Number 34

CONSTITUTIONAL COUNCIL GETS UNDER WAY IN KYRGYZSTAN. On 4 September in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, President Askar Akaev presided over the first session of the Constitutional Council. The council, which will consider proposals to amend the constitution, is due to sit until 23 September. In his speech opening the meeting, reported by Kabar news agency, Akaev said the council must wrap up its work by that date so that it wouldn't turn into "a long talk-shop" or "discussion club." Its product, he added, should be a draft law on changes and additions to the constitution to be submitted to the parliament for approval, and which should go into force by November of this year.

The Constitutional Council was established by presidential decree on 26 August. On the same day, Akaev delivered a televised address urging the importance of the council and his motives in creating it. He told the nation that amendments to the constitution to guarantee "genuine human rights" were long overdue, as conditions in the country had changed during 11 years of independence. He added that the clashes in March in Aksy between police and demonstrators testified to the existence of serious communication failures within the executive branch and in its interaction with other branches of power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August 2002). Akaev offered an additional justification for the council's work in his speech to it on 4 September, as reported by Kabar. He asserted that the tasks of building a state structure during the post-independence transition process had now been fulfilled, and it was time to move to a new stage -- presumably requiring new constitutional provisions.

The presidential decree of 26 August declared that the council should work transparently, with legislators taking public opinion into consideration "as fully as possible" and their deliberations covered by the press. But while appearing open to ideas, Akaev has dropped numerous hints that he already knows what sort of changes he wants. He disclosed a pre-existing agenda of his own on 26 August by telling the nation on television that the constitutional amendments would expand the powers of the prime minister, the government, and local authorities. Meanwhile he told the council's opening session that the post-Soviet experience proved the need for a strong presidency in Kyrgyzstan, Kabar reported on 4 September. Akaev simultaneously stressed that the country was not ready for a parliamentary system because Kyrgyz political parties were weak, unrepresentative, and irresponsible, and he even quoted "the great American democrat" Thomas Jefferson on "the tyranny of legislatures." He advised the council to consider turning Kyrgyzstan's currently two-chamber parliament into a unicameral one.

The way the council was formed also raised doubts whether its work would be an open process, or decided in advance but stage-managed by Akaev to appear open. Akaev proposed that all political parties represented in parliament be included in the council, and invited other political parties to propose representatives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August 2002). Yet he approved its composition himself as soon as it was announced and promptly appointed himself chairman, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz bureau reported on 27 August. Its 38 members included the prime minister, foreign minister, justice minister, the speakers of the upper and lower chambers of parliament, and the chairwomen of the Constitutional and Supreme courts. It also included the leaders of several opposition parties and their deputies as well as some NGO representatives.

However, opposition lawmakers were soon crying foul as they protested that they had not been consulted concerning their participation and disagreed with the council's structure. Social-Democratic Party Chairman Almaz Atambaev told RFE/RL on 28 August that he only learned of his appointment to the council from media reports, and indicated he would participate cautiously; if it turned out to be a political game he said he would quit. Deputy Adakham Madumarov of the "Kyrgyzstan" parliamentary group was more outspoken. He told Pyramid TV on 28 August that some people had been appointed to the council merely to serve as "window-dressing," and worried that he and other oppositionists might become "puppets in a political show." He inveighed against Akaev for naming himself chairman, commenting snidely that the council should be chaired by someone "whom [at least] 51 percent of the Kyrgyz people trust." Madumarov reckoned that Absamat Masaliev, head of the Communist Party, would make a more suitable, and more widely trusted, council chairman.

Kabar news agency reported on 4 September that one opposition deputy, Tursunbay Bakir uulu, did resign from the council after the head of the National Security Service (SNB), Kalyk Imankulov, accused him in the newspaper "Agym" of supporting the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Since at least last year Bakir uulu, previously the president's special representative for human rights, has publicly maintained that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a peaceful organization albeit with an antiestablishment message (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 July 2001.)

The Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev -- a recently launched opposition group of which Madumarov is a leading light (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 22 August 2002) -- formalized its objections to the composition of the council in a statement released on 2 September. It complained that the government had formed the council without any discussions with political parties or civic movements, and proposed that half of the council's members should be opposition representatives. It contended that, since only seven of the council's members were from the opposition, it was predetermined that government's wishes would prevail and "our participation in the Constitutional Council is meaningless." Furthermore the statement said that the council should be co-chaired by President Akaev and an opposition politician (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2002).

Madumarov also told Pyramid TV on 28 August that the Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev would be publishing its own proposals for constitutional amendments in parallel with the council's work. Meanwhile representatives of about 30 NGOs, media, and business groups announced plans on 30 August to set up a Public Commission for Constitutional Reform, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau and Kabar reported. The commission's co-chairman, Kurmanbek Dyykanbaev, told journalists in Bishkek that it would cooperate with the Constitutional Council by widening the debate about constitutional reform by means of meetings and roundtables around the country, and submit its recommendations to the council. Its inaugural session was scheduled for 7-8 September on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, Kabar said.

Akaev's opening address to the council established three guidelines for its work, which he described as "the principle of the three 'nos.'" The first "no" was that no topics were taboo or off-limits during the fortnight of discussions. The second "no" was that there should be no "experiments on society," but rather any proposed change to the constitution should be thoroughly examined for possible negative effects. The third "no" was that there must be no infringements on democratic rights and freedoms.

Dispassionate consideration of Akaev's maneuvers over the last 10 days suggests a fourth "no." Presented with a constitutional council sprung on the country by presidential decree, packed with presidential supporters, driven to finish its deliberations in an abbreviated period of time, and informed that its recommendations would be rammed through the legislature and translated into law within two months, Thomas Jefferson would have said this was no way to reform a constitution.

TEMPORARY SETBACK FOR PROTEST MARCH ON BISHKEK. With a mixture of intimidation and force the Kyrgyz government apparently managed to avert a protest march that was scheduled to set off on 4 September from the country's southern Djalalabad Oblast for Bishkek, akipress.org reported. But given the number of people rallying, the indications were that the march has not been permanently foiled but merely delayed.

Impetus for the march came from people in Aksy Raion, frustrated at the government's foot-dragging in identifying and punishing officials responsible for the March clashes that left five or six dead. The Aksy residents announced in July that they would organize a march if the government took no action by September. On 27 August about 70 villagers from nearby Maili-Sai declared their intention to join in on a march to the capital to demand justice, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The movement rapidly snowballed. By the following day some 3,000 people were massed in Djalalabad calling for the perpetrators of the March bloodshed to be brought to account. They combined that demand with complaints about the economic situation and calls for the release of jailed former Vice President Feliks Kulov, RFE/RL reported.

In a possibly related development, the presidential press service announced on 28 August that Akaev was dismissing Djalalabad's Deputy Governor Zhanyl Tumenbaeva from her post.

At this point the government issued a warning. In remarks to journalists on 28 August, Kyrgyz State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov hinted darkly at mischievous "political forces" planning the march, saying in practically the same breath that certain members of the opposition were still trying to destabilize the country, Interfax reported. Ibraimov also stated, without offering evidence, that some march participants would be armed. He said the government would do everything in its power to maintain order (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August 2002).

The government continued to harp on fears that the march could turn into an armed mob. Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, participating in a live question-and-answer session on Kyrgyz National TV on 30 August, warned that the march could be hijacked by Islamist activists from Hizb ut-Tahrir and become violent. By way of evidence he said the police had recently seized a cache of weapons in Djalalabad Oblast. The SNB announced on the following day that a cache discovered on 29 August in Bazar-Korgon Raion -- presumably the one Tanaev had been referring to -- consisted of 11 grenades and other explosive devices, two pistols, one rifle, and about 300 cartridges, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.

On 29 August, an Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) report pointed out that Akaev would probably have never faced five months of swelling anger, political opposition, demonstrations, marches, acts of civil disobedience, and calls for his resignation, if he had just taken swift action against those responsible for the tragedy in March. A Kyrgyz citizen quoted by IWPR put it simply: "All we wanted was the punishment of those who killed our six countrymen, but the authorities ignored us."

On 30 August, the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office at last filed charges of abuse of power against six officials involved in the Aksy clashes, RFE/RL and AP reported. The six men, all of whom had already been dismissed from their posts, were the head of the district administration, the district prosecutor, the chief of the district police department, the chief of the provincial police directorate, his deputy, and a department head. All were under house arrest, Deputy Prosecutor-General Kurmantai Abdiev told journalists on 30 August.

Yet at the same time, Abdiev and a senior official from his office justified the police's actions in Aksy on 17-18 March, saying that video recordings confirmed that police acted legally when they opened fire on demonstrators (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2002). All of the six officials have said that the police got orders from above to shoot into the crowds. But in the immediate aftermath of the clashes, when the then-Interior Minister Temirbek AkmatAliyev was asked in parliamentary session what law gave police the right to fire at citizens, AkmatAliyev failed to answer (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 21 March 2002).

Despite the long-awaited arrests, protestors continued to muster. On 31 August, which is Kyrgyz Independence Day, 300 participants held a meeting in the village of Bozpiek in Aksy Raion and decided to embark on a march to Bishkek on 4 September, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The opposition deputy Azimbek Beknazarov and Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights Chairman Ramazan Dyryldaev were in attendance. At the meeting it was announced that the citizens' advocacy committee for the victims of the Aksy tragedy was signing on to the Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev. On 2 September, some 3,000 people attended two similar meetings in Djalalabad Oblast to support the protest march (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2002). Meanwhile ITAR-TASS said that hundreds of people were coming from outlying regions to the town of Tash-Komur.

In Bishkek on 3 September, Prime Minister Tanaev took aim at protestors again when he told the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of parliament) that an investigation should be made into how opposition parties planning the march were financed, Interfax reported. He accused "so-called human rights organizations" of deliberately fuelling tensions and aspiring to power.

On the morning of 4 September, the day when the march was supposed to get under way, Kabar news agency reported that protestors convened in front of the Barpy Theater in Djalalabad. Parliamentary deputy Bektur Asanov told Kabar that around 500 people gathered. AKIpress said there were only 50. Representatives of the municipal prosecutor's office emerged to tell the marchers that their rally had not received government authorization and was illegal. Asanov claimed that law-enforcement officials then broke up the meeting without provocation. By contrast, Interior Ministry spokesman Dzholdoshbek Buzurmankulov claimed that protestors had attacked a policeman, AP reported. Five people were arrested. The rest of the crowd milled around for an hour and then went home, AKIpress said. A spokesman for the governor of Djalalabad told the news agency that the only people marching were "a few people," mainly relatives of Beknazarov, who had set off by foot for Tash-Komur.

NAZARBAEV BLAMES 'THIRD FORCE' AS ANOTHER JOURNALIST BEATEN. On the evening of 28 August, three masked men attacked independent journalist Sergei Duvanov outside his apartment in Almaty, beat him viciously with rubber truncheons and slashed him repeatedly with a knife, RFE/RL and AP reported. His neighbors discovered him bloody and unconscious in the stairwell, and he was hospitalized with a concussion and trauma to the skull. He remains in hospital in a serious but stable condition. He is the second journalist to be targeted in three weeks. Artur Platonov, TV host of a popular political analysis program critical of the government, was also beaten severely last month (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 22 August 2002).

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) press release on 30 August, Duvanov's assailants told him, "you know why we're doing this" and "next time we'll make you a cripple." Duvanov, who is editor of the weekly bulletin of the International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (IBHR), and who writes free-lance for opposition publications, has reported extensively on corruption and human rights violations in Kazakhstan. He also recently stood for election as a candidate for Akezhan Kazhegeldin's opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, as the online journal "The Analyst" noted on 28 August. But Duvanov achieved particular notoriety for an article titled "Silence of the Lambs," published on the Internet on 6 May, accusing President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his circle of having stashed over a billion dollars of state money in secret Swiss bank accounts. Duvanov was subsequently interrogated about the article for three hours by the National Security Committee (KNB) and threatened with charges for insulting the honor and dignity of the president under Article 318 of the Kazakh Criminal Code (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 11 July 2002).

Theories abounded, more and less credible, about the 28 August attack. Interior Minister General Qayirbek Suleymanov told a press conference on the following day that the assault was probably the work of criminal associates of two well-known oligarchs recently sentenced to prison terms. He refrained from naming Mukhtar Abliyazov and Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, leaders of the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK), but it was clearly who he meant (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2002). A second version proposed by Suleymanov was that the attack was masterminded by "opposition forces" in order to bring Kazakhstan and its government into poor repute, "RFE/RL Kazakh News" reported.

Meanwhile the editor in chief of the newspaper "Epokha," Seydakhmet Quttyqadam, told RFE/RL on 29 August that he was convinced the attack had been organized by Kazakh secret police. Activists from DVK and the Forum of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan said the same at a joint meeting held in Almaty on 3 September. Suleymanov has denied that the secret services were involved.

Meanwhile HRW said on 30 August that "persons close to Duvanov" were certain he was being punished in retaliation for his criticism of the government and Nazarbaev in particular. IBHR Director Yevgenii Zhovtis, who is acting as Duvanov's attorney, said there was "no doubt [the attack] was a political act" aimed at "silencing an opposition journalist" and "scaring other dissidents," AP reported on 29 August.

Washington was less willing to point the finger but nevertheless condemned the attack strongly, Reuters reported. At a press briefing at the U.S. State Department on 29 August, spokesman Richard Boucher said the assault appeared to "[fit] a pattern of harassment of Kazakhstan's independent media," and he promised to "continue to raise our concerns about what appears to be a distinct and ongoing pattern of human rights abuses and violations of fundamental civil liberties in Kazakhstan." Similar language was used by Gerard Stoudmann, the director of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, who referred to "an emerging pattern of harassment of media professionals and human rights defenders in Kazakhstan," AFP reported on 3 September.

Nazarbaev's reaction to the attack on Duvanov was in marked contrast to his public indifference on previous occasions this year when independent media representatives have been threatened, beaten, or had their offices firebombed by unidentified "hooligans" (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 11 July 2002). On those occasions his refusal to condemn the incidents in a prompt or sympathetic fashion tended to draw suspicion onto the government itself. The president has apparently learned from his mistakes. This time a statement released on 29 August by the presidential press service said Nazarbaev was "deeply outraged" by what had happened to Duvanov.

Nazarbaev, too, had a theory about who had perpetrated the deed. "The head of state is convinced that this provocative act was specially planned and paid for by people who are not friends of our country," the statement said. Presidential advisers referred to a "third force" within the government working to undermine his authority and grab the reins of power, IWPR reported on 30 August. Allegedly the "third force," neither pro-government nor openly oppositional, is a rival group working to discredit Nazarbaev's rule from the inside. It was unclear whether the government was claiming that the long series of assaults on Kazakhstan's independent media in 2002 was also the work of the "third force."

The president has instructed Interior Minister Suleymanov to take charge of the Duvanov investigation personally and run down the three attackers with the help of the KNB, IWPR said. Whether real or fiction, hunting the "third force" would be a convenient diversion for a regime that is increasingly criticized internationally for its repressive policies and human rights violations.

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