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Kyrgyzstan: Aksy Commemoration A Key Test For Bakiev

A commmemoration service at the site of the Aksy events on March 16 (RFE/RL) March 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan will mark the fifth anniversary of a tragic event on March 17. On that date five years ago, a demonstration in the southern Aksy district turned violent and six protesters were killed by security forces.

In Bishkek, commemoration of the events began today with a requiem that was organized by a new opposition bloc and a performance devoted to the victims of the Aksy tragedy at the Kyrgyz youth theater

Kyrgyz NGOs and rights groups are organizing a commemoration ceremony in Aksy on March 17, which they expect will draw thousands of participants.

A Crucial Event

The Aksy killings shook Kyrgyzstan. The tragedy led to the downfall of the country's prime minister -- current President Kurmanbek Bakiev -- and forced the government to make concessions to the opposition.

"To this day, the people of Aksy and Kyrgyzstan are seeking the truth, looking for those who gave the order to fire and looking for answers," one activist told RFE/RL.

Some say that what happened at Aksy helped ready the country for the events in March 2005 -- when demonstrations across Kyrgyzstan forced President Askar Akaev from office.

No one has been held accountable for the shootings. Several months after the tragedy, authorities tried to defuse tensions by closing investigations into the cause of the violence and amnestying all involved. For many, particularly those on the scene that day, justice was not carried out.

But this week -- only days ahead of the anniversary -- Toktogul Kakchekeev, a spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor-general, announced that the investigation has been reopened.

"Today, a new way for reopening the investigation of the Aksy events has been opened after appeals by lawmaker [Azimbek] Beknazarov, human rights groups, and other nongovernmental organizations," Kakchekeev said on March 13. "Therefore, a decision was made today to summon those who were named by lawmaker Beknazarov [as former officials possibly responsible for the events] and to draw a conclusion."

A Tragedy In The Making

The original demonstration in Aksy was in support of Beknazarov, the area's representative in parliament who was detained on charges of abuse of office at the start of 2002.

The original Aksy demonstration on March 17, 2002 (RFE/RL)

At that time there were new laws restricting the right to assemble and to obtain permission to hold public demonstrations. But some 10,000 people still assembled -- mainly in the village of Bospiek -- to demand Beknazarov's release. The situation grew tense, demonstrators started throwing stones and sticks and, finally, police opened fire on the crowd. Five people were killed immediately and a sixth died later from his wounds.

Akaev initially blamed the organizers of the demonstration and the crowd for the violence. Protests started in the Aksy area and spread. For a short period crowds blocked the strategic highway that links northern and southern Kyrgyzstan.

Later, an investigation also blamed protesters, but conceded that police might have overreacted. Then a video appeared that showed police had done more than just overreact.

Protests spread from southern Kyrgyzstan to other parts of the country, and there was also an international outcry against the cruel methods used to disperse peaceful protesters.

Amid the deepening criticism and widening civic actions, Bakiev resigned as prime minister in May 2002. Bakiev later said he stepped down to distance himself from the Aksy incident.

Human rights activists and opposition groups suspected that the order for police to fire on protesters was given not by the prime minister's office, but by the president's office. But the head of the presidential administration, Amanbek Karypkulov, denied such accusations in an interview with RFE/RL shortly after the tragedy.

Justice Denied

But the failure to find out who ordered police to fire on the crowd still gnaws at many in Kyrgyzstan. Syrtbai Jaychybekov, a lawyer who has represented Aksy victims and their families, told RFE/RL that it is important to bring those responsible to justice.

"There should be a political decision here," he said. "Everything depends on that. The fact is that the investigation of the criminal case was never completed. It will not take much work to bring it to a close. I don't know what Kurmanbek Saliyevich [Bakiev] will say when he goes to Aksy, but it would not take much work to wrap this case up."

Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov (center) at an Aksy commemoration in Bishkek today (RFE/RL)

Bakiev, as Kyrgyz president, met on March 13 with representatives of some of the rights groups sponsoring the March 17 memorial. Toleikan Ismailova of the Citizens Against Corruption NGO was among those he spoke with, and she told RFE/RL that Bakiev plans to attend the Aksy ceremony.

"When we met with the president," she said. "Kurmanbek Saliyevich [Bakiev] said 'I accept your proposal and, despite having other plans, I will go.' Therefore, we have agreed with the president that we will meet close to the village of Bospiek at 10 a.m. on March 17."

Ismailova said the matter of the unfinished investigation into Aksy was also raised with the president.

"To this day, the people of Aksy and Kyrgyzstan are seeking the truth, looking for those who gave the order to fire and looking for answers to the many questions," she said. "We told this to the president, and Kurmanbek Saliyevich said 'I am not afraid of anything; I went to Aksy [in 2002] and met with people and I am ready to bring this matter to a close.'"

For Bakiev, March 17 will be an important day. He faces calls to hold an early presidential election and large rallies against him and his government are planned for April. Bakiev's performance in Aksy could help his image or fuel calls for his resignation.

(Kubatbek Otorbaev and Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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