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Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Deputy Beknazarov Stripped Of Seat In Parliament

A court in Kyrgyzstan today convicted opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov of abuse of office and stripped him of his seat in parliament. The judge gave Beknazarov a suspended sentence. Earlier in the week, the Kyrgyz government resigned over allegations of state responsibility for the shooting deaths in March of six demonstrators protesting on Beknazarov's behalf.

Prague, 24 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov, who today was handed a suspended sentence for abuse of office and stripped of his parliamentary seat, told some 300 supporters today he will appeal the verdict.

"From the beginning, the authorities needed not me but my parliamentarian mandate. That is the only thing they were aiming for. But I will not stop and I will appeal the verdict to the regional court within the framework of the law," Beknazarov said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights praised the fact that Beknazarov was free, but did not welcome the verdict as such. Jens-Hagen Eschenbacher, the organization's spokesman, stressed the importance of complying with fair trial standards during a possible appeals process. He also said the priority now is to establish dialogue between the country's political groups.

"We think that this is essential now, that the government and the president engage in a meaningful dialogue with all political forces in the country, as well as with the civil society," Eschenbacher said.

Beknazarov is a popular politician whose detention on charges of abuse of office sparked public demonstrations in the southern Aksy Raion. The shooting deaths of six demonstrators by police in mid-March caused a public outcry that led to this week's resignation of the Kyrgyz government after a special commission blamed state officials for the bloodshed. Demonstrators also blocked the country's major north-south highway for days, and had threatened to resume the blockade if today's verdict in the trial of Beknazarov was unsatisfactory.

Chinara Jakypova is the director of the International War and Peace Reporting Bureau in Bishkek. Ahead of the verdict, she told RFE/RL that today would mark a turning point.

"Beknazarov's trial will begin 24 May and will expire the ultimatum for the blocking of the road [from] north [to] south. And [on 24 May], we will know to what point the protesters are satisfied by the [resignation] of the government," Jakypova said.

Beknazarov was arrested in January and released conditionally in March following the violent demonstrations in Aksy. But the country has been gripped by political and social crises since the incident.

This year's demonstrations have been the first well-organized action against the state. In addition to supporting Beknazarov, protesters were demanding the cancellation of a deal to transfer disputed territory to China, the resignation of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, and the release from prison of former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov.

Jakypova said there is no influential opposition among the country's 32 political parties because Akaev has not allowed the legalization of any political force in the country. She suggested the first step toward solving the crisis would be to include opposition parliamentarians in the new government.

"There are some well-known and effectively strong opposition parliamentarians who are very influential in southern Kyrgyzstan. One of these deputies -- among the most prominent ones -- is Adaham Madumarov. This young politician is sufficiently charismatic and could be included in the government's structure," Jakypova said.

Besides, Jakypova said, the nomination to the government of opposition figures from the south of the country -- where antigovernment sentiment is strong -- will reduce the gap between north and south.

As a step toward negotiations, Akaev told journalists yesterday he is ready for dialogue with the opposition, suggesting opposition leaders prepare and hold a "roundtable meeting." But Jakypova warned that Akaev is among the most mercurial of Central Asian leaders, and that it is difficult to predict how he intends to get through this situation.

Jakypova said a main priority for the new government will be to implement economic reforms.

"In order to calm down the passions in Kyrgyzstan, we need decisive economic changes. I think that as long as there is no serious economic change, and the enormous problem of corruption is not stopped, all these [political] resignations will have absolutely no effect," Jakypova said.

Natalia Ablova is the director of the Kyrgyz-American Human Rights and Rule of Law Bureau in Bishkek. She told RFE/RL that Akaev's administration has waited too long to respond to the crisis, which has led to the radicalization of his critics.

She said the entire country wants reforms, despite the launch of a government campaign that supports the president and discredits the protesters.

"Even the moderate [people] criticize the president, even the nonpolitical people. They all want him to go. They all want reforms. They all want changes. I believe even those people who are supporting the president now by making those stupid statements in pro-governmental papers want changes," Ablova said.

Ablova said that Akaev, seeing protesters demand his resignation, decided instead to sacrifice people close to him. She said the president's sincerity is now being tested and that it remains to be seen whether he will build a coalition government.

Some observers point out that Akaev's government is facing a decision with no easy answers. On the one hand, the opposition may interpret concessions as a sign of weakness, prompting an intensification of antipresidential activities. On the other hand, a clampdown on the opposition is unlikely to bring any respite from rising tensions in the country.