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Kyrgyzstan: Why Do Authorities Allow Opposition Leader Kulov To Speak From Prison?

Feliks Kulov has a distinguished resume. He has variously served as Kyrgyzstan's vice president, national security minister, and the mayor of the capital Bishkek. But Kulov, as the country's best-known opposition leader, has also spent a total of over 1,000 days in prison. While in custody, Kulov has given numerous interviews to the media, and has often been unsparing in his criticism of the political developments in the country. Why do authorities allow Kulov to publicize his views from the confines of his jail cell?

Prague, 26 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Feliks Kulov was arrested for the first time in March 2000, on charges his defenders say were a pretext for silencing the opposition leader.

But since then, Kulov has granted numerous interviews to foreign and Kyrgyz media from his jail cell. He has not been sparing in his criticism of the government. In an interview earlier this year with RFE/RL, he had this to say: "For the first time, we [openly] declare that we oppose President Askar Akaev and all political parties that support him. When we created the [Ar-Namys] Party three years ago, in many cases we supported the president. But today it is impossible to support the country's leaders, despite the fact that one has to say that there are still a few positive things in what [Akaev] is doing."

He has also accused authorities of stepping up political repression to defend their official policy decisions. In a March interview with the independent "Moya stolitsa" (My Capital) newspaper -- which itself closed earlier this month after a string of lawsuits by state officials left it bankrupt -- that officials were using "foolish and illegal actions" to crack down on their opponents.

In yet another interview, he said authorities were increasingly using "obedient" judges to punish the opposition media. He has also openly linked his arrest to his intention to run for president.

Kulov's troubles began in 1999, when he resigned as mayor of Bishkek, accusing the Kyrgyz leadership of "liquidating" political opponents. He set up the Ar-Namys, or "Dignity," Party. Kulov then put himself forward as a candidate in presidential elections scheduled for October 2000, but was subsequently arrested -- more than once -- on a variety of charges linked to his political career.

In 2001, the court ruled Kulov was guilty of abuse of power during his tenure as national security minister (in 1997-98). In 2002, he was again found guilty of embezzlement as both governor of the northern Chui Oblast (1993-97), and Bishkek mayor (1998-99).

Kulov is set to serve at least the next several years in jail. His arrests and imprisonment sparked weeks of protests and hunger strikes around the country. A wave of international condemnation crashed over Kyrgyzstan, once considered the Central Asian region's best hope for political reform.

It seems like a case Kyrgyz authorities would prefer to sweep under the rug. So is it surprising that instead they have given Kulov so much access to the press despite the fact that he is serving a prison sentence?

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in New York, says no. She told RFE/RL that allowing prisoners to grant interviews is common practice everywhere from the former Soviet Union to Europe and the United States -- despite the fact that the right is not guaranteed by international law.

"Prisoners have the fundamental right to maintain contact with family and certain reputable friends. That right is made clear in United Nations Standard [Minimal Rules] for the treatment of Prisoners. There is no right made clear in international standards that they must have the right to be interviewed for the press. That's up to the discretion of prison staff," Denber said.

Generally, Denber said, several factors can be used to prohibit prisoners to speak to the media: when they are under investigation or on trial, when the charges involved are sensitive, or when the case involves state security or privacy issues.

But it is still unclear why a high-profile political prisoner like Kulov would be allowed to speak to the press -- especially as many of his relatives and party members have complained of harassment.

Natalia Ablova is director of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Bishkek. She said Kyrgyz authorities are not happy with Kulov's critical messages to the media. But with pressure coming from Western governments and international organizations, as well as the Kyrgyz public, she said they have no other choice.

"There was pressure on the [Kyrgyz] government, and [authorities] would like to demonstrate that at least he was allowed this. Since his first arrest in the year 2000, there has been pressure because the case was believed to be politically motivated, along with all the [following] cases against him, all the lawsuits, all the accusations. Because he was a prominent political figure and he was a presidential [candidate]," Ablova said.

Acacia Shields is a researcher in the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. She said Kulov's prison interviews do not mark a significant step forward. She said if the international community was successfully using its leverage to pressure authorities in Bishkek, Kulov would be released -- not speaking to the press from the confines of his jail cell.

"While it's useful for all of us in the outside world to have access to Feliks Kulov's opinions when he's able to give interviews, obviously our main concern is that he shouldn't be in prison at all. So he should be able to give interviews from his home," Shields said.

Shields recently spent a month in Kyrgyzstan trying, and failing, to meet with Kulov face-to-face. She said this amply illustrates his limited access to the outside world -- and the government's determination to keep it that way.

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