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Kyrgyzstan: Protests Over Lawmaker's Arrest Seen As Crucial Test For Society

The first of some 300 people to go on hunger strike to protest the arrest of a Kyrgyz parliament deputy died on 7 February. Defenders of parliamentarian Azimbek Baknazarov, who was arrested in early January early for alleged abuse of power, insist the charges are politically motivated and designed to silence criticism of government policies. Some observers say public outrage over the case -- heightened by the hunger striker's death -- may lead to a breakdown in Kyrgyz society.

Prague, 11 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Fifty-one-year-old Sheraly Nazarkulov, deputy head of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan and a journalist for the "Asaba" opposition newspaper, died of a heart attack after a 21-day hunger strike to protest the arrest of an opposition lawmaker.

The lawmaker, Azimbek Beknazarov -- the chairman of the Kyrgyz parliamentary committee on judicial and legal reforms -- was arrested 5 January and formally charged three days later with abuse of power. The charge relates to a 1995 murder case handled by Beknazarov, who was then the Toktogul District prosecutor in southern Kyrgyzstan's Jalalabad region. He stands accused of halting the murder investigation and closing the case. Beknazarov's trial is scheduled to begin 12 February.

Beknazarov's arrest sparked a number of protests, including a hunger strike that began on 10 January. Tursunbek Akunov, chairman of the Public Committee to Protect Beknazarov, told RFE/RL recently that about 30 people were on a hunger strike in Bishkek and another 270 people were striking elsewhere in the country. Supporters say Beknazarov did not have the power to call off the murder investigation and that the recent charges are politically motivated. Some 400 people turned out for funeral services on 9 February for Nazarkulov, the first hunger striker to die.

Some members of parliament have also expressed support for Beknazarov. Representatives from seven Kyrgyz opposition parties have called for President Askar Akaev's resignation, and some have joined the hunger strike to protest what they are calling a government attack on citizens' rights.

Ramazan Dyryldaev -- who currently lives in exile in Vienna -- is chairman of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights. He told RFE/RL Beknazarov was arrested because he had been a strong opponent of Akaev's policies.

"He [Beknazarov] canceled the decision of President Akaev to transfer some territory from Kyrgyzstan to China, and he demanded the retirement of Mr. Akaev," Dyryldaev said.

Beknazarov's parliamentary committee rejected two Chinese-Kyrgyz agreements signed in 1996 and 1999 calling for the transfer of about 125,000 hectares of Kyrgyz territory to its neighbor. Relations between the government and the parliament soured over the deal, and Beknazarov launched impeachment proceedings against the president in May 2001. More recently, Beknazarov criticized a land transfer agreement signed in December between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and accused Akaev of failing to defend national interests.

Local human rights monitors say Beknazarov's arrest has intensified a crackdown by the Akaev administration. Authorities arrested 20 people who participated in a mid-January demonstration on Beknazarov's behalf in the Jalalabad region. State security officials have also reportedly harassed parliament deputies who have publicly supported Beknazarov.

The administration is also exerting pressure on local independent media, Dyryldaev says: "The situation of mass media is also very difficult because at the moment there is no independent mass media. Only pro-government mass media is functioning."

On 19 January, the Uchkun state publishing house refused to print the independent newspaper "Moya Stolitsa-Novosti," citing the lack of a contract for 2002. When the "Res Publica" weekly began printing the newspaper's materials, the publisher stopped printing that publication as well. In a joint statement, seven editors protested the move, saying the Uchkun printing house had returned to Soviet-style censorship.

The Beknazarov case has attracted little attention internationally. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek in early February released a statement saying Beknazarov's arrest "violates the human rights goals" that Akaev has pledged to uphold. But local journalists, politicians, and analysts say they are deeply skeptical of U.S. concerns over democracy and human rights in the country.

Such observers say they believe the Kyrgyz authorities are taking advantage of the West's current preoccupation with terrorism by describing their political opponents and religious activists as security threats. The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry said on 8 February that it has opened a criminal case against an alleged activist of a banned Islamic movement -- Hizb ut-Tahrir. The ministry added that two more alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members were detained in January.

While opposition legislators do not appear to be intimidated by the government crackdown, some observers are concerned that Akaev might resort to dissolving the legislature. Dyryldaev said he fears a breakdown in Kyrgyz society over the Beknazarov case.

"Akaev will be responsible for this situation [insofar] as he has ignored the protests of the people and also all the letters he received from international organizations," Dyryldaev said.

Akaev, who has refrained from commenting on the protests, disappeared from public view on 25 January with an announcement that he had gone on a two-week vacation. The Kyrgyz president today met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who thanked him for a recent constitutional amendment making Russian the second official language of Kyrgyzstan. Akaev did not comment on the Beknazarov case.

Dyryldaev called on global organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to withhold economic aid from Akaev's administration. The rights activist said the $3 billion in international aid given to Bishkek over the past 10 years has not improved the life of the country's 4.7 million people.

"The [Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights] expects the international community to cease all the funds until this conflict [is solved] and to [investigate] the activities of the government, and maybe also to stop the financial aid because it has been misappropriated for the time being until now," Dyryldaev said.

In a statement issued in late January, Gerard Stoudmann, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said there is "imminent risk of further deterioration of the internal situation" if the authorities do not quickly resolve the Beknazarov case.