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Kyrgyzstan: Protesters Demand Kulov's Release, President's Resignation

Prague, 9 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some 100 people gathered today outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to protest the 10-year prison sentence handed down to leading opposition politician Feliks Kulov.

Protesters blocked the road leading to the village of Baitik, where Kulov was born. They asked for Kulov's release from prison on embezzlement charges and for the resignation of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev.

The protesters also complained about the precariousness of their lives, unemployment, and the delay in the payment of wages and state allocations. The protest was peaceful.

Around 2,000 of Kulov's supporters also rallied yesterday, banging on court windows and blocking roads in an attempt to prevent Kulov from being taken into detention.

"Akaev resign! Freedom for Kulov!" shouted protesters.

Kulov and his supporters say the embezzlement charges are politically motivated and are an attempt by Akaev to silence one of his rivals. Kulov -- head of the opposition Ar-Namys Party -- had sought to stand against Akaev in the October 2000 presidential elections but was barred after he refused to submit to a controversial Kyrgyz language test.

A court in Bishkek yesterday found Kulov and his associate, Aleksandr Gasanov, guilty of embezzlement and sentenced them to 10 and six years in prison, respectively. They were also fined more than $400,000. The court also stripped Kulov of the right to hold public office for three years after serving his sentence.

The court found that Kulov had embezzled some $200,000 while governor of the Chu region from 1994 to 1997 and as mayor of Bishkek from 1998 to 1999.

Kulov is already serving a seven-year jail term after being convicted in January 2001 by a closed court of abuse of power during his tenure as head of the National Security Ministry.

The court ruled that the two sentences should run concurrently and that Kulov's property should also be confiscated. Kulov's lawyer Lyubov Ivanova said the sentence will be appealed.

After yesterday's verdict, Kulov said the case had what he called a "political character" and that the verdict had been ordered from above with the aim of removing him from the Kyrgyz political stage.

"We have been talking for two days. The last word was said today. We have presented all our arguments and evidence. Normally, the judge needs a few days to draw up all that. [Today's verdict] means that our arguments and evidence have not been taken into account. This is why I say that this verdict has been prepared in advance, against the rule of law," Kulov said.

Kulov cautioned his supporters against a repeat of events in March in the southern Aksy district, when protesters upset about the trial of Azimbek Beknazarov, a reformist member of parliament, clashed with police. Six people died and dozens were injured in the clashes.

A local human-rights watchdog group also criticized Kulov's trial. Ramazan Dyryldaev, chairman of the Kyrgyz Committee on Human Rights, told RFE/RL that the hearing was biased and that defense arguments were ignored.

"I have always said that there is no real justice in Kyrgyzstan. And [what happened] today shows it once more. The verdict is politically motivated. The [Kyrgyz] leaders ordered that [10-year sentence]," Dyryldaev said.

In an e-mail sent after yesterday's verdict, Dyryldaev said the judge and top officials in Akaev's administration had invited members of the media to witness Kulov's sentencing. Dyryldaev said this shows the government intends to refute claims that the sentencing was unfair and closed.

(RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service's Ainura Asankojoyeva contributed to this report.)