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Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Leader Sentenced To Jail Term

Kyrgyz opposition leader Feliks Kulov was convicted this week by a military court for abusing his power several years ago as minister of national security. The controversial verdict, which many say was politically motivated, ends a court process started last year. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports the verdict is likely to further damage the country's image as a relatively democratic Central Asian nation.

Prague, 24 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- History is repeating itself in Kyrgyzstan.

Once again, demonstrators are gathering on the streets of the capital Bishkek in support of popular opposition leader Feliks Kulov, who is once again in jail on questionable grounds.

And once again those inside and outside the country are questioning how committed Kyrgyz authorities are to democratic reforms and human rights.

Kulov, a former minister of national security and mayor of Bishkek, was sentenced on Monday to seven years in jail by a military court at a closed trial.

Today, some 30 people gathered in front of the government building in the capital to protest the verdict. Kulov's political party -- Ar-Namys -- has already filed a request to hold larger demonstrations.

According to the charges, Kulov abused his authority while serving as national security minister in 1997 and 1998. The court found Kulov guilty of purchasing and using devices to listen in on telephone calls, and promoting an officer by forging a signature.

Those are the official charges against Kulov, but many believe it was his political ambition rather than any alleged misdeed as security minister that is the real reason he's again in prison.

Kulov's brother, Marsel, spoke for Ar-Namys after the verdict was announced:

"We believe, as Feliks Shashanbaevich also believes, that this [court trial] was a political order."

The timing of the conviction, several years after the alleged crime, has raised suspicions. The charges first surfaced in late 1999 after Kulov declared his intention to run for a seat in parliament the following March, with an eye on the presidential election later that year. Kulov lost his bid for parliament under questionable circumstances, following a run-off that was criticized by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Less than two weeks after losing the election, Kulov was detained, and a group of some 100 loyal supporters started months of protests in the longest demonstration in Kyrgyzstan's history as an independent country.

Kulov remained in jail until August 7, when a military court acquitted him of the charges. The court, however, later reviewed the acquittal and decided the case needed to be tried again.

The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation (IHF), has released a statement criticizing the verdict. Brigitte Dufor, IHF's assistant executive director, says her organization views the process against Kulov as being politically motivated:

"It is our assessment that this trial was politically motivated. It was an unfair trial. We have been following the case of Mr. Kulov for months and months now, and we really know that the basis for these charges was not alleged crimes that would really fall into what the charges defined, but it was rather meant at excluding him from politics and silencing him. And also, if we look at the whole process, it seems quite obvious to us that they wanted to prevent him from running in the presidential elections." Kulov is expected to appeal.

IHF's Dufor says Kulov's case is not unique.

"It is becoming, unfortunately, a practice in this country to charge opposition figures, members of civil society, and journalists in order to silence them."

Dufor's view is echoed on the streets of Bishkek, as reflected in this comment by a member of Ar-Namys:

"If they convict such a well-known, powerful person for such a small offense, then what can the common people expect?"

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