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Kyrgyzstan: One Year Later, Aksy Deaths Were Watershed Moment In Kyrgyz History

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Aksy killings in Kyrgyzstan. People are marking the day in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and further south where the events took place. The issue divided the country and led to the most restive year independent Kyrgyzstan has seen. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier takes a look back at the Aksy tragedy and the events it sparked.

Prague, 17 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan today is marking the one-year anniversary of one of the blackest days in its short history as an independent country.

One year ago, in the southern Aksy District, a demonstration in support of a jailed local politician turned violent. Police opened fire on the crowd of more than 1,000 people. Five demonstrators were killed and dozens injured. The event sparked nationwide protests that lasted for months. Government officials in the capital, Bishkek, warned that the country was close to slipping into civil war.

About 100 people gathered today in Gorky Square in Bishkek to read verses from the Koran and remember those who died last year.

Other ceremonies are being held in the south of the country, closer to where the event took place, including in the village of Bospiek in the Aksy District.

The Aksy tragedy was the start of the most turbulent time Kyrgyzstan has known since it became independent in late 1991.

A crowd had assembled in Aksy last year in anticipation that a regional court would be handing down its verdict in the case of a local opposition member of parliament, Azimbek Beknazarov. Beknazarov was then in custody on corruption charges.

But Beknazarov's supporters suspected the deputy's detainment had more to do with his vocal criticism of a deal between the Kyrgyz and Chinese governments, which gave China some 100,000 hectares of Kyrgyz territory.

As the crowd grew, Tursunbek Akun appeared. Akun was a well-known human rights activist and opponent of the Kyrgyz government.

Gulbara Ashirova was at the front of the crowd of protesters that day, four or five meters, she says, from where the police were standing. In an interview with RFE/RL, she recalled what happened next:

"The police warned us they would fire. Then Tursunbek Akun came forward. They (the police) stopped his car. He got out and asked for the microphone to address the crowd. They (the police) pushed Akun. We shouted to leave him alone. The police came and grabbed him, and we shouted, 'Let him go!' As they pushed him into the car, the shooting started. They drove Akun away in the car, and the police started beating people back with their clubs. And then I ran away into the crowd."

For the next few hours, dozens of people -- both demonstrators and police -- sought treatment in the modest local medical facilities.

The government's immediate response after the killings in Aksy was to blame the demonstrators, especially protest organizers, for provoking the violence. Local authorities said the demonstrators started the shooting. Authorities in Bishkek said "political extremists" had organized the protests and the violence. The Beknazarov trial was postponed.

The government immediately launched an investigation into the deaths, but the opposition demanded that a special commission be formed -- composed of representatives from the government, the opposition, and nongovernmental organizations.

The demand was granted and the commission started its investigation.

While the investigation was proceeding, protests grew and spread through the country. Besides freedom for Beknazarov, the crowds were demanding that the authorities find and punish those responsible for the shootings, and increasingly, for President Askar Akaev to resign.

The report came out about one month after the Aksy tragedy and found that the police and local authorities were to blame. Local officials were named as being responsible and later jailed by the court. The news led to more protests involving thousands of people. Demonstrators blocked the main highway linking northern and southern Kyrgyzstan.

Under growing pressure, the government fell in May. The newly appointed prime minister, Nikolai Tanaev, would spend the next two months warning that the country was on the brink of civil war.

The government offered a series of compromises, including a general amnesty for all involved in the Aksy tragedy. But the protesters interpreted these concessions as a sign the government was giving in to their demands. Protests continued, and the calls for Akaev to resign grew louder.

In November, more than six months after Aksy, police in Bishkek were still trying to prevent demonstrations in the capital and forcibly loading demonstrators onto buses to take them back to their homes in the southern part of the country.

The constitutional referendum held in Kyrgyzstan last month was, in part, an attempt to rectify the problems that emerged from Aksy. Some of the changes made to the constitution were intended to prevent a repeat of the violence and alleviate the social causes that fueled it. Certainly the section where voters agreed that Akaev should remain in office until the end of his term in 2005 was intended to provide a legal basis to dismiss calls for his resignation.

The man at the center of these events, Beknazarov, remains unsatisfied. Beknazarov, who is a free man today after the case against him was suspended, still contends the people who are truly guilty for Aksy have not been punished: "The real guilty persons are the ones in the upper levels of government, the ones who are sitting in the [Kyrgyz] White House. They sent people especially to Aksy [to provoke the violence]."

Akaev viewed Aksy as the result of a "lack of democracy" on the part of local authorities but said they had been found and punished: "This is how I see the reasons for the Aksy events. First, the local authorities did not provide the necessary level of democracy. They did not act in agreement with the demands of the democracy we have reached during these 10 years. They placed more belief in the use of force than in democracy. They themselves showed they have not reached this level of democracy, but these local leaders, guilty of these actions, received the punishment they deserved."

Aksy has had a deep impact on the people of Kyrgyzstan, once considered the most peaceful and democratic of the Central Asian states. Aksy was a reminder that political and social fissures in Kyrgyzstan are widening, not getting smaller. Attempts to find a just solution to what happened in Aksy appear not to have satisfied anyone.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and correspondent Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)