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Kyrgyzstan: Reversals Reveal Flaws In Justice System

Prague, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A series of cases has raised questions about Kyrgyzstan's justice system, and, especially, how it deals with human rights and press freedom. Observers say a trend of reversals of lower court decisions shows the political motives behind the original charges.

Take the case of Topchubek Turgunaliev. Turgunaliev, an opposition leader, was accused of embezzlement, abuse of power and forgery. He was sentenced to ten years in imprisonment by a district court in Bishkek in January, 1997. He appealed, and the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan changed the verdict in February. It upheld only one accusation (abuse of power), and reduced Turgunaliev's sentence to four years in a penal colony.

Yrysbek Omurzakov, a journalist for the independent Res Publica weekly, was accused of libeling a factory manager in an article published in January, 1997. A district court could reach no verdict in a trial in May, but, in September, convicted Omurzakov, and sentenced him to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony. A Bishkek municipal court upheld the verdict in November - but ruled that the journalist should be pardoned under a new amnesty law. Omurzakov appealed to the Supreme Court, and this month (Jan. 20), the Supreme Court found him guilty of a civil - rather than the criminal - offense, and fined him the equivalent of 100 minimum monthly wages (600 dollars). He will not have to pay, because of the amnesty law.

Four other journalists of the Res Publica weekly, including chief editor Zamira Sydykova, were accused of libeling the manager of a state company in several articles published in 1993-1996. In May, 1997, a district court sentenced Sydykova and one of her correspondents, Alexander Alianchikov, to 18 months in a penal colony. The two other journalists were fined. Alianchikov was released in June, when a municipal court suspended the sentence, but the court upheld the sentence again chief editor Sydykova. In August, the Supreme Court threw out the case and ordered Sydykova freed.

Opposition leaders and rights organizations say local officials aggressively pursued each of these cases, and that their influence was clear.

Opposition leader TurgunAliyev had the right to serve in a colony near the capital, where his family lives, but he was sent to the remote district, on the border with Tajikistan. After protests from members of Parliament members, and domestic and international human rights organizations, he was allowed to return to a penal colony near the capital.

Journalist Omurzakov spent 79 days in detention, before a municipal court ordered his release. When a local court convicted him months later, he was not ordered to return to detention.

Journalist Sydykova reported abuse during her two months in a penal colony.

A top government official (anonymous) tells RFE/RL that Kyrgyzstan's government is aware of the animosity toward journalists by local officials, and that the local officials will go to extremes to try to silence any criticism by the media. But journalists tell RFE/RL that they believe top government officials have also influenced these cases.

Each verdict was changed only after strong protests from both domestic and international human rights organizations. Amnesty International, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontiers, and other organizations sent protest letters to Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akayev. The President's office insisted Akayev could not intervene in legal questions, but Akayev announced in December, that opposition leader TurgunAliyev could be pardoned, if he apologized. TurgunAliyev rejected the offer, saying he was not guilty in the first place.

Kyrgyzstan announced legal reform after it gained independence in 1991. But, President Akayev announced at the first congress of Kyrgyz judges in 1994 that there had been no reform at all. And, in 1996, Akayev repeated his strong criticism.

Opposition politicians and independent journalists continued to be tried in 1995-1997 according to the old Soviet criminal code, adopted in the 1960s. The Kyrgyz Parliament passed a new criminal code last June, while the trials against some of the journalists were in progress. But, it retained the old Soviet clause in the new code, under which a journalist who criticizes a state official, can be accused of criminal libel, and sentenced to up to three years in jail.

The new code has also been criticized by domestic and international human rights organizations. And, in December, President Akayev's office said journalists convicted of libel will be fined - not sent to jail. Any other citizen is still subject to time in jail.

Opposition leaders and journalists note progress - no matter how perverse - but, they and rights organizations note what they call Kyrgyzstan's pattern of oppression. They also note that none of those who leveled the politically motivated charges - which resulted in lengthy periods of detention - and, none of the lower court judges faces accountability for his or her actions.