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Kyrgyzstan: Kulov Acquittal Opens Door To Presidential Bid

Kyrgyz opposition figure Feliks Kulov was acquitted and released from prison yesterday. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the circumstances leading up to the arrest and imprisonment, and ponders whether Kulov will launch a bid for the presidency.

Prague, 8 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- After more than four months in detention, Feliks Kulov, Kyrgyzstan's leading opposition figure, is walking free.

A military court yesterday acquitted the 51-year-old leader of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party of charges of embezzlement and abusing power.

The evidence against him had been weak, but Kulov expressed surprise at being released:

"First, let me say there is a God. I believe, as one familiar with the law, that the decision was just. The Kyrgyz have a good saying: the truth can be bent but it cannot be broken. The court showed this."

Kulov's arrest and imprisonment this spring sparked weeks of protest demonstrations around the country and brought on international condemnation of Kyrgyzstan, once considered the region's best hope for political reform.

Many saw the arrest as simply an effort to keep Kulov--a former vice president and the biggest political rival to President Askar Akaev--from contesting the presidential election, scheduled for October 29.

Kulov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, however, that he needs at least a week to consider whether he plans a return to public life.

"For the first week, I will review the situation and consider my plans and hold consultations with my advisers. I was in jail almost five months without television or radio, only state-owned newspapers and official information. I did not receive any other information. Now the members of [my] party need to bring me up to date with the situation, and we will decide what course we take from here. In one week, I'll reach a decision."

If Kulov's background and events leading up to his detention are any indication, he is almost certain to attempt a run for the presidency.

Kulov served as Kyrgyzstan's first and only vice president in the early 1990s. He later became minister of national security, the governor of the northern Chu province, and the mayor of Bishkek, the capital city.

Kulov's problems began last year when, as Bishkek's mayor, articles began appearing in state-owned newspapers that alleged Kulov and a special commando unit were planning an assassination attempt. The target, according to the papers, could have been Akaev. Authorities launched an investigation and Kulov resigned as mayor.

Kulov has denied any part in any plot and said he has nothing against Akaev. The charges were later dropped and are now being made against another opposition leader.

Kulov then founded the Ar-Namys party to launch a bid for a seat in parliament in elections this past February. The plans were thwarted, however, by amendments to the electoral law requiring parties to be registered at least a full year before taking part in elections.

He eventually ran for parliament as an independent, beating his opponents in the Kara-Buura district in the first round of voting, but failing to win an outright victory.

In a run-off three weeks later, Kulov was declared the loser amid allegations of vote-rigging. The announcement fueled protests in Bishkek and around the country.

Appeals to nullify the results were denied.

Less than two weeks later, as Kulov was being treated in hospital for heart trouble, militia agents arrested him. He was put in jail, where he remained until last night.

(Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report)