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Kyrgyzstan: Outspoken Ombudsman Possesses Unique Regional Voice

Central Asia is a region where few dare challenge the will of the presidents. Most officials follow their president's lead, and what attempts there are to find an official to act as a bridge, a mediator, between the people and the government are usually made to serve the interests of the authorities. But there is one man, the ombudsman in Kyrgyzstan, who routinely voices opinions that contradict the government's views.

Prague, 22 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Forty-six-year-old Tursunbai Bakir Uulu has been Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman -- the country's first -- since 21 November 2002.

Neighboring Central Asian states have ombudsmen or offices where people can voice grievances about officials or policies and hopefully find someone to help them. But none seems to be as active as Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman.

Bakir Uulu's office was woefully underfunded in the days after he was elected to his post by parliament's lower house, the Legislative Assembly, so he simply threatened to shut it down. International organizations applied enough pressure to keep the operation running.

But Bakir Uulu still seemed conscious of finances when he spoke with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service earlier this week.

"One of the mains tasks of an ombudsman is to conserve state money, settle complaints before they go to court, the prosecutor, the police, or other state offices, to take care of these complaints on the spot. Thank God we have managed to do such work," Bakir Uulu said. "Many people are resolving their problems with the help of our mediation. This is also one of the functions of an ombudsman."

Tursunbek Akun is one Kyrgyzstan's leading human rights activists. Akun speaks of Bakir Uulu with great respect.

"The position of ombudsman is a state institution. Because of that, if there would be somebody in that post instead of Tursunbai Bakir Uulu, someone who likes power and who has ambitions to show himself off, that person might be happy to join the leaders of the state," Akun said. "However, Tursunbai did not accompany them very much. He has been neutral toward them, preserving his distance from them, and he has not been mixed up with them."

Tursunbai Bakir Uulu is a teacher by training, a historian, and a doctor of philosophy. After Kyrgyzstan became independent in late 1991, Bakir Uulu became one of the leaders in the Erkin Kyrgyzstan (Free Kyrgyzstan) Progressive-Democratic Party. He was elected to parliament in 1995 and again in 2000.

Bakir Uulu was at the center of efforts in 1999 to free four Japanese geologists who had been taken hostage by armed militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

In the end, he was successful, after some support from the government and a good deal of shuttle diplomacy that brought him on one occasion to Taliban-ruled Kabul.

Since becoming ombudsman, Bakir Uulu has championed causes that in neighboring states would have likely cost him his job.

He came out against a decision by the Kyrgyz government to allow the U.S.-led coalition to use a base on Kyrgyz territory for operations in Afghanistan.

He is against the banning of the Islamic movement Hezb-ut Tahrir and the hunt for its members, not just in Kyrgyzstan, but all over Central Asia. Hezb-ut Tahrir advocates the creation of an Islamic caliphate, or state, but says it does not call for violence to obtain that goal.
Since becoming ombudsman, Bakir Uulu has championed causes that in neighboring states would have likely cost him his job.

Uzbek authorities blamed the group for a string of bombings and shootings in April that killed 47 people -- mostly the attackers themselves. Bakir Uulu had this to say shortly after the violence.

"Hezb-ut Tahrir don't do such [violent] actions. I agree with the leader of [the opposition] Uzbek Erk Party leader Mohammad Solih that if everything is prohibited in Uzbekistan, and they continue to persecute the people, then the people might be forced to act using violent methods," Bakir Uulu said. "This is axiomatic. This opinion does not need any proof. Let's talk about 1999 [attacks in Tashkent]. They did not prove that was done by Hezb-ut Tahrir. The same was with the Almaty explosions investigation [in 1999]. I visited the temporary detention cells in Bishkek prisons, and I studied the criminal cases [connected with Hezb-ut Tahrir]. There was no evidence. There are only suspicions."

Bakir Uulu has publicly said that members of Hezb-ut Tahrir should not be persecuted, despite the fact that the group is outlawed in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Bakir Uulu also has joined calls in Kyrgyzstan for the release of jailed opposition party leader Feliks Kulov. Kulov is a former Kyrgyz vice president, provincial governor, national security service chief, and mayor of Bishkek. He was jailed in 2001 after being convicted of embezzlement. Kulov's supporters say he was jailed because he posed a serious challenge to incumbent President Askar Akaev.

Bakir Uulu is asking that Kulov be released from prison early in August. Prison officials say he will remain incarcerated until November 2005.

Uzbekistan has an ombudsman -- Sayyora Rashidova, the daughter of former Uzbek Communist Party leader Sharaf Rashidov. Some who have tried to use Rashidova's office claim that militia members were waiting to detain them.

Few in Kazakhstan know the name of their ombudsman -- Bolat Baikadamov. He is described as a quiet man who shies away from controversy.

Turkmenistan has a presidential center for human rights. But international rights and press freedom organizations point out that President Saparmurat Niyazov is one of the major obstacles to progress in human rights and press freedom.

Tajikistan has an unofficial committee on human rights headed by Deputy Prime Minister Saidamir Zuhurov, who is also responsible for overseeing the country's law-enforcement agencies. Observers have questioned Zuhurov's objectivity, considering his ties to law enforcement.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, as well as RFE/RL's Uzbek, Tajik, and Kazakh services, contributed to this report.)