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Kyrgyzstan: Bishkek Wants U.S. To Hand Over Airman

U.S. airmen on guard at the Manas Air Base outside of Bishkek (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) March 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Some Kyrgyz officials are accusing 20-year-old U.S. serviceman Zachary Hatfield of murder in the killing of an airport employee in Bishkek and want to put the American on trial. But U.S. officials say Hatfield reacted in self-defense and point to a bilateral agreement that gives Hatfield immunity from prosecution.

Hatfield was on guard duty on December 6 at Bishkek's Manas International Airport, where some U.S. forces are stationed in support of operations in Afghanistan.

He was guarding the section of the airport reserved for U.S.-led coalition forces when he saw Aleksandr Ivanov, an airport employee, approaching. Hatfield saw a knife in Ivanov's hand and believed him to be a threat. Hatfield fired two shots into Ivanov's chest, killing him.

There are some in Kyrgyzstan who are opposed to the U.S. base in Bishkek and these people will undoubtedly raise the Hatfield incident when calling for the U.S. to remove its troops and planes from the country.

Immune From Prosecution

Because of an agreement between the U.S. and Kyrgyz governments, Hatfield has immunity from any charges made by Kyrgyz authorities, something the Kyrgyz government first noted. But now some Kyrgyz officials are questioning that agreement.

The initial outcry about the killing faded until March 19 when Toktogul Kachekeev, the spokesman for the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office, indicated the Kyrgyz government has changed its view on the air-base killing.

"We demand the extradition of Mr. Hatfield for the killing of a Kyrgyz citizen in a violent way, in order to bring him to Kyrgyz justice," he said. "However, whether or not to extradite him must be decided by the Americans themselves."

Hatfield is immune from prosecution in Kyrgyzstan because the Kyrgyz government signed an agreement giving immunity to U.S. service personnel serving at bases outside the United States. After the shooting incident, U.S. officials agreed to Kyrgyzstan's request not to transfer Hatfield out of the country until the investigation into the incident is completed and both governments are satisfied.

Humiliating Offer

But the matter of compensation for Ivanov's widow and family remained unresolved until this month when the U.S. government offered slightly more than $1,000 to Marina Ivanova. This brought the issue back in the spotlight.

Many in Kyrgyzstan objected to a wealthy country like the United States offering such a pittance as compensation for the death of the provider of a family.

But the U.S. compensation offer seems less significant after a $50,000 agreement between the slain airport worker's widow and the airport company for which he worked, as Ivanova's lawyer Galina Skripina explained.

"Since the company Aircraft Petroleum has come to an agreement with Marina Ivanova about a payment over the course of the next six months, and since those conditions suit us, and agreement was signed [on March 13] in court and Marina Ivanova dropped the lawsuit as there was no longer any reason to pursue [legal action]," she said.

The compensation agreement for the $50,000 payment was with Aircraft Petroleum, where Ivanov worked.

Revisit Immunity Agreement?

Tursunbek Akun, the head of the human rights department in the Kyrgyz president's administration, linked the issue of compensation and immunity for U.S. service personnel.

"Considering that the Ganci [Manas] air base belongs to the U.S., they should pay compensation," he said. "The problem is aggravated by the fact that American soldiers have immunity [from Kyrgyz prosecution]. Our parliament was deeply mistaken in accepting this law. In fact, foreign soldiers, if they commit a crime on the territory of Kyrgyzstan, they should be liable to the Criminal Code according to the Kyrgyz Constitution."

The deputy speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, Kubanychbek Isabekov, joins Akun in that view.

"The agreement needs to be looked at again," Isabekov said. "Anyone who commits a crime on the territory of Kyrgyzstan should answer to the laws of that country. The issue is not that Kyrgyzstan is a small country and the U.S. is a great power. They say that the U.S. is a democratic government. Then, in such a situation, the person who committed a crime should answer for it here [in Kyrgyzstan]."

Not Retroactive

That does not seem to be good news for Hatfield. But Kyrgyz political analyst Orosbek Moldaliev said even if the agreement is reviewed and changed it likely would not affect Hatfield's case.

"It's groundless," Moldaliev said. "It turns out that [the prosecutor-general] simply raised the question [of handing over the U.S. soldier]. Even if there were changes and amendments to the agreements [on the use of the Manas base,] it would come into force after being signed. In matters of signing contracts, the U.S. has a lot of experience. We do not have such experience."

If true, Hatfield may not ever appear in a Kyrgyz courtroom. But in the court of Kyrgyz public opinion there is growing criticism to a killing with no recourse to punishment and a compensation offer that many consider offensive.

Whatever the outcome for Hatfield, there are some in Kyrgyzstan who are opposed to the U.S. base in Bishkek and these people will undoubtedly raise the Hatfield incident when calling for the United States to remove its troops and planes from the country.

(Kubatbek Otorbaev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

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