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Kyrgyz Court Convicts Ex-Officials Over Protester Deaths

The three defendents in the Aksy trial: Tokobaev, Kudaibergenov, and Dubanaev (RFE/RL) October 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A Kyrgyz court today handed down verdicts in a landmark case into the deadly crackdown on a demonstration in the southern city of Aksy more than five years ago.

The Bishkek Military Court convicted a former prosecutor and local police chief, but acquitted a former Interior Ministry official over the deaths of six protesters in 2002.

The shooting deaths led to looser restrictions on public assembly, but also prompted widespread outrage that ultimately brought down the government of then-Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Several defendants were cleared of any charges relating to the Aksy events in a trial that took place under the administration of the country's first post-Soviet leader, Askar Akaev.

But the case was reopened in March at the request of the victims' relatives, activists, and lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov -- who was the focus of the Aksy demonstrations. Those requesting a new investigation were hopeful that authorities who came to power after the country's 2005 revolution would allow a more thorough inquiry into the use of deadly force against the demonstrators.

Suspended Sentences

The Bishkek Military Court took the rare step of sending judges to the southern Jalal-Abad province to consider whether three former officials were involved in the shooting -- or the shoot-to-kill order.

Today, former prosecutor Zootbek Kudaibergenov and the former provincial police chief, Kubanychbek Tokobaev, were given five-year suspended sentences, so they are unlikely to serve any jail time. A third defendant, former First Deputy Interior Minister Sadyrbek Dubanaev, was acquitted.

Kudaibergenov expressed disbelief after today's sentencing, telling RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the evidence presented in court had established his innocence. Kudaibergenov said he had nothing to do with the order to use deadly force against any of the thousands of people at the ill-fated rally. "I did not issue this order -- my deputy issued it. I had not even seen the order. You heard about it during the trial," he said.

Former Jalal-Abad police chief Tokobaev told RFE/RL that he could not understand why the case was reinvestigated after the earlier acquittal. The judiciary "is just contradicting its previous decisions by issuing this verdict," he said. "The court could not prove the so-called 'new developments' in the case that led it to reverse the [original] acquittal. The investigation did not prove it either."

Officials On Trial

Six people died on March 17 and 18, 2002, when police opened fire on a crowd that was protesting against charges of abuse of office against Beknazarov, who was then the district's representative in parliament.

Sartbai Jaichybekov, who represents the victims of the Aksy tragedy, said today's sentences were too lenient, and claimed it is impossible to bring former or current state officials to justice. "If it were an average citizen in their position like that, they would spend their lives rotting in jail. But those [former officials] are always getting a better deal for themselves. That means there is no way to jail officials," Jaichybekov said.

There were widespread protests after the Aksy killings, and demonstrators blocked a key highway connecting northern and southern Kyrgyzstan and held major rallies in Bishkek and elsewhere.

Then-President Akaev and other Kyrgyz officials warned at the time that the unrest risked throwing the country into "an abyss of chaos."

The investigation and ensuing trial did not result in convictions, and Kyrgyz officials appeared eager to put the matter behind them.

Relatives of the victims and Kyrgyz rights activists have consistently demanded that other high-ranking officials at the time of the Aksy tragedy be questioned -- including former President Akaev, who now lives in exile in Russia, and his successor, current President Bakiev.

(RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Yrysbai Abdyraimov contributed to this report.)

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