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Merkel In Kyrgyzstan For 'Historic' Visit

  • RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has held talks in Bishkek with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev at the start of a two-day visit to what is widely regarded as Central Asia's most democratic country.

Merkel was met by Atambaev at Manas International Airport in an elaborate ceremony after her arrival late on July 13.

In their July 14 meeting at the presidential residence, Atambaev said Kyrgyzstan places great importance on its "historic" first hosting of a serving German chancellor.

Merkel said Kyrgyzstan has been developing its democracy and such a path leads to strengthened relations between Berlin and Bishkek.

Merkel welcomed Kyrgyzstan's recent decision to retry the case of ethnic Uzbek activist Azimjon Askarov, who is serving a controversial life sentence for a conviction of stirring up ethnic hatred and involvement in a police officer's death during ethnic unrest in 2010. She expressed hope that Askarov would receive a fair trial.

UN experts and local and international rights activists have condemned the conviction and sentence, which Askarov's lawyers say was based on a forced confession and other forms of pressure.

The Kyrgyz Supreme Court on July 12 returned Askarov's case to a lower court for a new trial.

Speaking to journalists alongside Merkel, the Kyrgyz president said the country was "ready to invite international observers, including from Germany," to monitor Askarov's retrial.

Atambaev said Kyrgyzstan "has taken into consideration" international human rights groups' calls for Askarov's release, but added, "It's not about his release. However, because of the allegations that his rights have been violated and that his trial was held with violations, the case will be thoroughly reviewed by the Chui provincial court."

The two leaders said they also discussed the issue of Islamic extremism, which has been linked to terror attacks in Germany and the West and which has been identified by Bishkek as a factor in the alarming number of Kyrgyz nationals joining militant group Islamic State (IS) in fighting in Syria and Iraq.

"We talked about Islam, particularly about the issue of Islamization, in the sense that radical Islam is being propagated," Merkel said, adding, "We were in agreement that efforts should be made to train local imams as much as possible."

Merkel said there must be "transparency about what the children who attend these schools are learning, what thoughts are taught to them there."

The German chancellor held meetings with religious and ethnic leaders after her meeting with Atambaev.

Merkel's visit to Kyrgyzstan is seen as being highly symbolic and a reward for the Central Asian country's holding of democratic elections along with its establishment of a free press and an open society in a region ruled by authoritarian leaders.

Merkel will visit Mongolia -- also known for its democratic achievements -- on her trip but is notably skipping countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, energy-rich states that have far larger economies than Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan was once home to a large ethnic German population, but there are only an estimated 9,400 remaining after many immigrated to Germany and other countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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