A trial of four ethnic Uighurs in Kyrgyzstan is again focusing attention on the issue of Uighur repression. While the four are charged with serious crimes, including murder, some believe the trial is politically motivated. They say Kyrgyzstan is bowing to pressure from China, which is battling a Uighur separatist movement.
Prague, 31 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Four ethnic Uighurs are on trial in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek for allegedly committing 17 serious crimes, including killing a Chinese businessman.
All four men -- two from China and one each from Turkey and Uzbekistan -- pleaded not guilty at the start of their trial 15 August.
An investigator with the Kyrgyz Internal Affairs Ministry, Sabir Mirjalalov, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the government has strong evidence of serious crimes:
"We've based our charges on the eyewitness accounts of two individuals who were present at the crime scene. They were with the victim, named Bayzakov, when he was killed. According to the eyewitnesses, the prime suspect, Ahadov, was pointing his gun at people who were present at the crime scene to keep them from moving after he shot the victim. Second, Ahadov himself also confessed to the crime. He even replayed the whole episode at the crime scene. And most importantly, the car and gun that was used by Ahadov to commit the crime have also been found."
But the four are also accused of being members of an Uighur political group called the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Front, a separatist movement that is banned in China -- leading to concern among some that the trial is politically motivated. Kyrgyz prosecutors allege the four men were trying to start a branch of the separatist movement in Kyrgyzstan.
Tursun Islam is the head of a Uighur organization based in Bishkek called Democracy and Human Rights. In an interview with RFE/RL, Islam says he believes the four men on trial in Bishkek are falsely accused.
"The charges against the four men say that they are members of the Eastern Turkestan Liberation movement. But these charges are false, and the prosecutors couldn't provide any evidence to back up the charges at the trial."
A similar trial, also of four ethnic Uighurs, took place in March. Those four were found guilty of bombing a minibus in 1998 in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh. Two people were killed and 11 others seriously injured. At least two of the four were sentenced to death.
But Uighur activists say this trial was also politically motivated. One of the defense lawyers for the four Uighurs, Gulnur Jalalova, is appealing their case to the Kyrgyz Supreme Court. She tells RFE/RL:
"These four men have nothing to do with the bombing, and there haven't been any credible evidences to prove otherwise. We've been arguing this point on the basis of relevant law from the onset."
The Uighurs, like the Kyrgyz, are a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people. Most of the 10 million Uighurs live in northwestern China, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The province borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Beijing has been quick in the past to suppress nationalist movements among the Uighurs and has put pressure on its Central Asian neighbors not to encourage any form of Uighur separatism. Around 50,000 Uighurs live in Kyrgyzstan.
In order to curb the spread of Uighur separatism in Xinjiang province, Beijing has tightened its control of the province and strengthened cooperation with Russia and several of Central Asian countries. Uighur activists say authorities in Kyrgyzstan are simply bowing to Chinese pressure.
Justin Rudelson is a former associate at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He says China exerts a strong influence over the Central Asian states in dealing with Uighurs:
"There is a lot of pressure coming from China on the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to suppress any kind of support for Uighur militant movements in China, as well as any kind of development of armed support for Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. Because of that, there has been a focus on the Uighur communities in Kyrgyzstan and in Kazakhstan, making sure that they are not involved in any kind of militant activity."
The Uighurs in Xinjiang had been living in relative peace until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent emergence of the Central Asian republics as independent states a decade ago.
Gaye Christofferson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School of California, says that this development seemed to stir nationalist aspirations of the Uighurs for an independent country of their own.
"I think a decade ago several things happened, and the main thing that happened was that the Soviet Union collapsed and that gave hope to a lot of Uighurs that they would get their independence the way Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the other Central Asian republics got their independence."
This nationalist yearning led to several violent anti-Chinese incidents, including a 1996 uprising in the town of Ghulzha, 40 kilometers from the Kazakh border.
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Kazakh services contributed to this feature. Nadia Usaeva is a visiting correspondent from Radio Free Asia.)