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Kyrgyzstan: Court's Ruling Leaves Questions On Press Freedom

By Narynbek Idinov-Kyrgyz and Don Hill

PRAGUE, August 8 (RFE/RL) -- The Kyrgyzstan Supreme Court's decision to order the release from jail Tuesday (August 5) of Zamira Sydykova, chief editor of the independent Res Publica weekly, leaves unanswered key questions about press freedom in the Central Asian republic.

Authorities freed Sydykova and appear to have restored her right to work as a journalist. But her colleague, Alexandr Alyanchikov, fared less well. The court reduced his 18-month prison sentence to one year and suspended it. He is free but forbidden to write for the press.

The Supreme Court in Bishkek annulled four libel convictions against Sydykova. But Sydykova told RFE/RL two days ago that she still doesn't know the scope of the court's decision. She was released from prison but hasn't received any documentation regarding her status.

Akylbek Matkerimov, who chaired Tuesday's court session told RFE/RL in Bishkek that the Supreme Court did not acquit Zamira Sydykova fully. He said the court only corrected mistakes that had been made by lower courts. He didn't elaborate.

Sydykova was convicted in May of libeling the president of the state gold company, Kyrgyzaltyn, and sentenced to 18 month imprisonment. She had spent 74 days in custody when the court ordered her release.

The libel charge arose from four articles published between 1993 and 1996 in which the writers criticized the executive, Dastan Sarygulov, for his management of funds flowing through the state-owned gold firm.

Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontiers, and other international organizations had lobbied Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev for her release.

Briggite Duffeaut, who identified herself as the chairperson of the International Federation on Human Rights, based in Helsinki, was in Bishkek Tuesday for the court session. She told RFE/RL that she considered the court ruling a political decision, not juridical one. The independent Human Rights Committee of Kyrgyzstan charged Tuesday that government officials exert tremendous pressure on the country's judges.

The Kyrgyz Republic became independent in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993, it adopted a constitution that guarantees civil rights including press freedom. But the Freedom House Survey of Press Freedom this year rated Kyrgyzstan, in the survey's words, "not free" in the area of media control legislation, political pressure, economic influences, and repression. A 1992 law calling for freedom of the press requires registration of news media and prohibits what the law calls violating the privacy or dignity of individuals.

As the Sydykova case demonstrates, a conviction for libel in Kyrgyzstan can bring imprisonment and banishment from journalism. In developed democracies, libel ordinarily is a civil offense, not a criminal matter.