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Kyrgyzstan: Protests Lead To Release Of Jailed Deputy

Demonstrators in the bloodiest rioting in Kyrgyzstan since independence 10 years ago appear to have won a victory today. Parliament member Azimbek Beknazarov was released from prison after spending about two months in jail. The release came after three days of riots that killed at least five people. Details surrounding the violence are sketchy, but it appears nearly certain that any halt to the violence is temporary.

Prague, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Demonstrators in Kyrgyzstan's southern Jalal-Abad region appear to have won what they wanted, but only after three days of rioting that claimed at least five lives and left dozens injured.

The demonstrators were demanding the release from jail of member of parliament Azimbek Beknazarov, who was arrested in January on charges of abusing his office.

Early today, authorities freed Beknazarov provided that he not leave the country and that he urge his supporters to stop the protests.

The conditions of Beknazarov's release are not yet clear. Earlier, President Askar Akaev had said only a court order could free him. Officials have not dropped their case against Beknazarov.

The details of how the violence broke out on 17 March are still sketchy.

Akaev, in a television address last night, accused the political opposition of using the demonstrations to try to destabilize the country.

But Beknazarov, in an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service today following his release, placed the blame on the authorities.

"The responsible authorities -- I told them a month ago to stop this. I said there could be bloodshed. I made several statements [about the demonstrations]."

The case against Beknazarov dates from 1995 when he was a regional investigator. He is charged with failing to properly investigate and prosecute a suspect in a murder case. The suspect is a personal acquaintance of his.

Beknazarov's supporters, however, say the charges are political and relate to Beknazarov's public disagreement with Akaev over the controversial issue of ceding territory to China in a border dispute. Beknazarov opposed the move.

The protests began shortly after Beknazarov was taken into custody in January but were mostly peaceful until this past weekend. The violence started when a crowd tried to storm the local administrative buildings and set fire to several buildings, including houses belonging to police officials.

Local police say the deaths and injuries resulted from rocks thrown by fellow demonstrators. But hospital records show that several of those admitted were treated for bullet wounds.

The question of who ordered the police to fire on the crowd remains unanswered, though Interior Minister Temirbek AkmatAliyev says it's possible that no one ordered the police to start firing. They simply fired in self-defense.

Both AkmatAliyev and State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov have called for an investigation and say those responsible will be brought to justice. Akaev sacked the head of the Aksy district, Shermamat Osmonov, last night, but there has been no word on why he was dismissed.

Reports say some rioting is continuing in spite of the release. Reuters and the Associated Press report that police shot and killed one person today and that around 20 demonstrators and police were injured.

The Kyrgyz government says all is calm in the district.

Beknazarov says he believes the violence will continue.

"My view has not changed. As I said to the people, [the authorities have only taken] a 'time out' after three or four days of clashes between the people and the authorities."

Kyrgyzstan is currently hosting foreign troops from the U.S.-led coalition against international terrorism and word of the unrest spread quickly.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, in Washington yesterday, underscored the U.S. government's commitment to respecting human rights in countries that are cooperating in the coalition against terror.

"As we've underscored before, we see the respect for human rights as an essential part of the fight against terrorism, and we continue to support human rights and civil society and democracy in all the areas where we're also cooperating in the fight against terrorism."

The court has not yet set a date for resuming the case against Beknazarov.

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