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Kyrgyzstan: The Fall Of Opposition Leader Kulov

Opposition leader Feliks Kulov is an example of how far one can fall from political prominence in Kyrgyzstan. Today, a court rejected Kulov's appeal of a January verdict of guilty from a military court, which sentenced the former national security minister and would-be president to seven years in jail. And Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor general is already preparing to charge Kulov formally with other crimes that could keep him in jail for 15 more years.

Prague, 19 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court today listened to and rejected the appeal of opposition party leader Feliks Kulov at a closed hearing. The head of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party was jailed in January after having been convicted of abuse-of-power charges dating back to 1998, when he was Kyrgyzstan's minister of national security.

But even as Kulov heard his appeal denied, he was facing new charges related to alleged financial dealings while he was governor of the Chu Province from 1993 to 1997 and mayor of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in 1998 and 1999. Now, it appears that the man who once was considered the main rival to President Askar Akaev in the 2000 presidential election could end up spending most of the rest of his life in prison.

Kulov's court appearance today was an attempt to overturn a military court's ruling six months ago that Kulov had abused his ministerial power by purchasing phone-tapping devices without approval and forging documents that promoted his friends within the Security Ministry. Last year, Kulov spent more than four months in jail on the same charges before he was acquitted by a military court and released.

Kulov then sought to become a candidate in the presidential race already in progress. But not long after he started the registration process, a military review board overturned his acquittal and ordered a new trial. The second trial, in January, convicted Kulov.

The new charges against Kulov are embezzlement and abuse of office. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison in addition to the seven he is already serving. Kulov is charged specifically with forgery and embezzling some $635,000 when he was the Chu Province governor and mayor of Bishkek.

The number-two man in the Ar-Namys party, Emil Aliev, says the new charges are meant to convince Kyrgyzstan's citizens, international human rights organizations, and others who have defended Kulov that he is, in fact, a criminal.

"The original accusations failed to convince the people because the court process was held behind closed doors. Despite the fact that the charges dating back to his time as governor were already decided in Kulov's favor by the Constitutional Court, [the authorities] have raised the issue again to create a mountain out of a molehill."

Through much of Kyrgyzstgan's 10 years of independence, Kulov has been close to the pinnacle of power. He founded Ar-Namys shortly after he resigned as Bishkek's mayor in April 1999. He had problems registering his party, but Ar-Namys gained popularity because of the former security chief's "tough-guy" image.

Not long after Kulov finally succeeded in registering Ar-Namys, the party was declared ineligible for the February 2000 parliamentary elections. New election regulations demanded that to compete, a party had to be registered one year prior to elections.

Kulov attempted to run on another party's ticket, but eventually ran as an independent. A controversial first round left Kulov in a run-off against a candidate from a pro-government party. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would later question the results of both the first-round and the run-off, which saw Kulov lose in a stunning upset. The head of the local election commission reportedly hung himself one week after the second round.

Kulov's defeat was perceived as unfair by many in Kyrgyzstan, and demonstrations on his behalf were held in his home district and in the capital. The protests gained new force when Kulov was arrested less than two weeks later while recovering from heart problems in a Bishkek hospital.

Kulov has already served about one year in jail. If found guilty of the new charges, he would be in his early 70s when he leaves jail if he serves the full terms.

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