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Kyrgyzstan: Authorities Try Unusual Offer In Effort To Silence Protesters

The appeal of Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov was due to be heard today in a court in southern Kyrgyzstan. Beknazarov's supporters have gathered once again in support of the lawmaker but have so far not responded to an unusual deal from the country's new prime minister. Nikolai Tanaev last week offered to have seven protesters who are in custody released in return for a guarantee of no more unsanctioned rallies.

Prague, 18 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The situation in Kyrgyzstan is reaching a critical point, and decisions made in the next few days could dictate which direction the country will head for the next few years. Once again, large demonstrations are in progress, and once again the government appears to be more interested in trying to thwart the protesters than negotiate with them.

Up to 8,000 people protested today in the southern city of Djalalabad. This weekend, some 10,000 are expected at a rally in Kyrgyzstan's second city, Osh. The event that sparked these latest expressions of dissatisfaction -- the case of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov -- has taken some unexpected turns this week, turns that will likely not please Beknazarov's supporters.

More than 1,000 people began a 100-kilometer march from the town of Tash-Komur south to Djalalabad on 12 June as a sign of support for Beknazarov. Beknazarov is appealing last month's court decision that found him guilty of abuse of power while he served as an investigator in the Djalalabad province in the mid-1990s. He received a one-year suspended sentence but could lose his seat in parliament.

Beknazarov's supporters have said since his January arrest that the charges against him are politically motivated and have more to due with Beknazarov's opposition to a Kyrgyz-Chinese agreement ceding about 100,000 hectares of Kyrgyz land to China.

All the Tash-Komur protesters, plus several thousand more who joined along the way, arrived in Djalalabad yesterday, where the court was scheduled to hear his appeal. Late yesterday, however, the Djalalabad regional court announced that the venue of the trial had been changed to Toktogul, north of Tash-Komur, some 100 kilometers in the opposite direction from where they began the march in the first place.

In March, when a court was originally ready to hand down a verdict in Beknazarov's case, clashes erupted between Beknazarov's supporters and police in the Aksy Raion. Police opened fire and killed five demonstrators. Beknazarov's trial was postponed.

A subsequent investigation into the tragedy found that local authorities and police were responsible for the violence. The Kyrgyz government resigned last month as a result of the investigation.

But it did not stop the protests as Beknazarov's case came before a court only days after the government resigned. He was found guilty, given a one-year prison sentence for abuse of power, and was released due to time already served.

A protest in Tash-Komur earlier this month turned violent and police arrested more than 40 demonstrators. The protesters were trying to block the country's main artery, the Bishkek-Osh highway. All but seven protesters were eventually released.

Kyrgyzstan's new prime minister, Nikolai Tanaev, then made an unusual offer in an effort to stop the protests. He said he would free the last seven detainees if the organizers of the protests would agree to certain conditions. "The first condition is a written guarantee to stop any kind of actions that restrict the freedom of movement for other citizens," Tanaev said.

The government also wants the protesters to drop calls for the president to resign, to end its protests against the Chinese land deal, and not to hold any more unsanctioned meetings.

Acacia Shields, the Central Asian researcher at the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch, said there are problems with the offer. "I don't think I'd call it a legitimate offer. It sounds more like blackmail. Anyone who understands how a free judicial system and independent judiciary operates would understand that you can't hold one group of people in custody based on the actions or nonactions of another group of people," Shields said.

Beknazarov said he will not attend the trial in Toktogul because he was not given what he claims is the legal 10-day prior notice of a venue change.

The judge in the trial said Beknazarov's presence at the court is compulsory and has ordered police to escort him to Toktogul. Beknazarov said such a move is illegal but that he will not resist.

(Naryn Idinov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)