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Kyrgyzstan: Authorities Still Not Willing To Take Blame For Violence

Investigations into the violence that racked demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan last month -- leaving at least five people dead -- have concluded that the police in the southern Djalalabad region were excessive in carrying out their duties. Few law-enforcement and government officials, however, have recanted on their version that it was the demonstrators, and not the police, who were responsible for the outbreak of violence.

Prague, 11 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There is still no general agreement about who started shooting in two southern Kyrgyz villages last month. What is certain is that at least five people are dead as a result, and that several officials in the Djalalabad region where it happened are now out of work.

There is mounting evidence that on 17 and 18 March, police fired on demonstrators protesting the jailing of a popular political figure. But police in the region, backed by a number of government officials, say it was the crowd that fired first, followed up by throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

It is a problem the Kyrgyz government would rather avoid right now as the country has gained some international spotlight for its proximity to Afghanistan and its participation in the United States-led campaign against international terror. However, the evidence gathered by several special commissions on the tragic events indicates the Kyrgyz government will be facing a significant scandal at a time when it is vulnerable to international scrutiny.

The protests started back in January when parliamentary Deputy Azimbek Beknazarov was taken into custody for alleged abuse of office while he was the district investigator of the Djalalabad Province in 1995. The protests spread from Beknazarov's native region north to the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Public demonstrations against perceived bias or injustice in the political and judicial systems happen frequently in Kyrgyzstan and some have lasted several months. The demonstrations in the Aksy district of Djalalabad proved to be the latest example.

A verdict in Beknazarov's trial was expected to be handed down on 18 March. The day before, a large crowd, numbering by some estimates in the thousands, gathered in this rural area and marched toward the district center in the town of Kerben. The country's president, Askar Akaev, would later say they were spurred on by extremists. The government called these shadowy supposed ring-leaders "a small group of political intriguers."

From the time when police blocked the crowd's route, the story of what happened differs. The head of the local criminal-investigation department, Alikhan Rakishev, said police were armed but did not start the violence.

"There were four [police] who shot in the air. No one was fired at; maybe some ricochets hit people. Everything was done [by the police] within the boundaries of the law, in self-defense. They shot in the air. If [the police] had not had guns they would have been killed. The first shots came from the crowd," Rakishev said.

Rakishev believes the protests and the violence were organized by someone behind the scenes, but he did not name anyone. Violence erupted the next day in Kerben itself. There are others in the region and government who support Rakishev's version of what happened, even after a parliamentary commission investigated and handed in its report last week.

More damaging is a video tape of the event that surfaced last week. Opposition deputies obtained the tape, taken from a cameraman at the scene, and brought it to Bishkek. The Legislative Assembly (lower house) of the Kyrgyz parliament was set to view it on 4 April but first decided not to consider the report gathered by its own commission. The assembly then decided to view the tape in a closed session, at which point 13 deputies walked out and aired it for the media and human-rights organizations. When the Legislative Assembly finally saw the tape the next day, few wanted to discuss its contents.

Deputy Kubatbek Baibolov saw the tape and explained what he felt it showed. "On the video it was clear the police started shooting first. It is the responsibility of their commanders. Parliament has asked the government to take responsibility," Baibolov said.

Deputy Jenish Eshankulov did not believe the police acted first until he saw the tape. "My view [of the events] has turned around 180 degrees since seeing the video. I don't see how parliament can sit and watch while violence is used against the people," Eshankulov said. The authorities may have made matters worse for themselves by trying to demonize the demonstrators in the first days of the crisis. Footage shown on state television showed battered police who reportedly sustained far more injuries than the protesters.

But medical documents from local hospitals show few police were treated for serious injuries while five demonstrators were killed by gunshots and a number of other protesters were wounded and beaten.

The governor of Djalalabad, the regional prosecutor, and the local chief of police all asked earlier this week to be relieved of their duties. President Akaev flew to the region on a surprise visit Wednesday to accept their resignations. The president did not meet with any of the demonstrators or relatives of those killed before heading back to Bishkek the same day.

The deputy whose jailing started all this, Azimbek Beknazarov, was released from custody on 19 March. He still faces charges, but he is free to move within the country and in fact even attended a session of parliament last week. No new trial date has been set.

The court system also appears to be in no rush to try another jailed politician, Feliks Kulov, who is being charged with embezzlement despite the fact that he is already serving a seven-year term for previous -- and to some, dubious -- convictions. Kulov's trial date has been moved, a sign that the Kyrgyz government may be anxious to let passions cool for a time.

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