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Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Figure Freed -- Was It Clemency Or Pressure?

One of Kyrgyzstan's leading opposition figures was released from jail this week by special presidential decree. Such amnesties are not uncommon in Kyrgyzstan ahead of Independence Day celebrations (31 August), but never has an amnesty been given to someone sentenced for plotting to kill the president. Was this an act of clemency or a response to growing pressure both from within Kyrgyzstan and by the world community? RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the case of Topchubek Turgunaliev:

Prague, 22 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Topchubek TurgunAliyev is no stranger to Kyrgyzstan's prisons. The 60-year-old opposition figure -- one of the founders of the Kyrgyzstan Democratic Movement in 1990 -- served several months in jail on two previous occasions.

Amnesty International declared TurgunAliyev a "prisoner of conscience" each of the three times he was sent to jail -- in 1995, 1996, and again last year, when he and several others were sentenced to at least 16 years in prison on charges that they were plotting to assassinate Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev.

The Bishkek City Court later reduced Turgunaliev's sentence to six years and granted amnesty to all the others. All had written letters to Akaev apologizing and pleading for clemency. Turgunaliev, however, refused to write a similar letter, saying to do so would be the same as admitting his guilt.

But on 20 August, Akaev signed a special decree granting TurgunAliyev a pardon in honor of the upcoming 10th anniversary of the country's independence. Kyrgyzstan's state secretary, Osmonakun Ibraimov, announced what had been rumored for days:

"You know that Topchubek TurgunAliyev had actively participated in the democratic movement in Kyrgyzstan during the first years of our independence. And the president has signed the decree [pardoning him] on the eve of the celebrations of the 10th anniversary [of Kyrgyz independence], on the eve of the 31st of August."

Some in Kyrgyzstan credit TurgunAliyev with helping Akaev become selected as the head of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990. The Kyrgyz president may have taken that into consideration when he signed the special order earlier this week. But another contributing factor may have been that Turgunaliev's imprisonment had also been the focus of intense interest from Kyrgyz opposition parties and non-governmental organizations, as well as the international community.

More than 10 NGOs and independent journalists in Kyrgyzstan had sent an appeal to Akaev asking for Turgunaliev's release. The head of the Bishkek office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Chinara Jakypova, had said that Turgunaliev's service to his country should earn him an early release. And the United Nations sent Hina Jilani, the secretary-general's envoy for human rights, to Kyrgyzstan earlier this month. She was denied permission to visit Turgunaliev, who was then being treated for high blood pressure in a prison hospital.

Jilani said afterward that she would report what she had found in Kyrgyzstan to the UN General Assembly and to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

State Secretary Ibraimov said Akaev, in making the decision to pardon Turgunaliev, had acted on recommendations and advice from the Commission on Clemency, several NGOs, and Kyrgyz political parties. Turgunaliev's wife had also appealed for her husband's clemency.

After his release, TurgunAliyev thanked some of those whom he felt had helped win his freedom:

"I am grateful to our opposition political parties, our non-governmental organizations. And to an even greater extent, I am grateful to international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and other organizations. And to Radio Liberty and the BBC who work tirelessly, day after day, thinking of keeping Kyrgyzstan on a normal path of development."

TurgunAliyev also vowed to continue his political fight:

"I have never asked myself whether I should leave the political arena. Even during the time I spent as a political exile in the most terrible of labor camps. Even then I did not ask myself this question. All the more today."

Jerzy Wieclaw is head of the Bishkek office for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He says the work of these NGOs and political parties is invaluable to Kyrgyzstan's development. But Wieclaw says there are still too many obstacles to the activities of these groups in the country. Wieclaw also mentioned the role that the OSCE played in securing Turgunaliev's release:

"The political parties and the leaders of political parties have to have the maximum of freedom in their activities according to local laws and the international obligations which were taken by Kyrgyzstan, including the OSCE obligations. It is not a secret to say that we raised the cases in connection with TurgunAliyev and other politicians who came under persecution several times and in different contexts."

It cannot be discounted that Akaev simply showed mercy by having a 60-year-old man released from prison. There has been a precedent. Akaev pardoned a journalist in 1995 who had also been found guilty of slandering him for writing that Akaev owned property in Turkey and Switzerland.

But it is also possible that this latest pardon is the result of the growing power of domestic and international criticism, which officials in Kyrgyzstan, in the end, simply could not ignore.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)