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Kyrgyzstan: Critics Say Revised Amnesty Is An Attempt To Block Opposition Leader's Release

Kyrgyzstan's lower house of parliament last week passed a revised amnesty law that had previously been vetoed by President Askar Akaev. Critics say revisions in the law were made in an attempt to block the release from prison of opposition leader Feliks Kulov, a charge the government strongly denies.

Prague, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An amnesty law in honor of the 10th anniversary of the adoption of Kyrgyzstan's constitution and the official 2,200th anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood is due to come into force this year, as soon as President Askar Akaev signs it.

The parliament's lower house, the Legislative Assembly, agreed last week to revise an amnesty law that had been passed in April but which was subsequently vetoed by Akaev.

Akaev had demanded that the law be changed to include the requirement that those serving sentences for economic crimes would be eligible for amnesty only after they reimburse the state for at least one-third of the damages for which they were convicted.

The new amnesty law deals with those convicted of minor crimes or prisoners considered to be the sole breadwinners in their families. According to the Kyrgyz AKI press agency, more than 500 prisoners will be released and the terms of around 4,500 convicts will be reduced. A further 1,000 prisoners are expected to pay damages and be released.

Some opposition politicians and analysts say the revisions to the law were simply intended to prevent the country's best-known opposition leader, Feliks Kulov -- a former Kyrgyz vice president -- from being released from jail, where he is serving a 10-year sentence for embezzlement.

Emil Aliev, the deputy leader of the opposition party Kulov heads, the Dignity party, says "This amnesty law will not apply to Kulov's case. It was specially designed by the [Kyrgyz presidential administration] to block Kulov's release [from prison]."

Aliyev says that for Kulov to pay one-third of the $471,000 he was convicted of embezzling while serving as a Kyrgyz official in the 1990s would represent an admission of guilt.

Zamira Sydykova, editor of the independent newspaper "Respublika," agrees: "This [new amnesty] law was passed in order to prevent Kulov from being released from jail because President Askar Akaev has repeated that Kulov does not have any legal opportunity to be released [because of an unjust sentencing]. [Kulov] just has the option to appeal to Akaev [under the amnesty] for a pardon, saying: 'I am guilty, only you can release me.' And Akaev has publicly referred to that single option two or three times."

Meanwhile, in an interview from prison with RFE/RL, Kulov ruled out the idea of taking advantage of the amnesty law: "This is unacceptable. This is improper for me to say, but even if they threaten to shoot me, I won't be appealing for a pardon."

Acacia Shields is a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, a prominent New York-based international human rights watchdog. She says her organization does not support amnesty laws as a remedy for unjust verdicts.

Shields says people who are wrongly imprisoned -- including Kulov -- should be released, compensated, and their criminal records cleansed.

"We consider the charges against [Kulov] to have been trumped-up charges. We regard him as a political prisoner. We don't look for political prisoners to jump through further hoops in order to please the government that has unjustly convicted them. We call for their release," Shields says.

She continues: "This particular amnesty law seems to be very much in line with a somewhat mercenary approach to convicts in Kyrgyzstan. And it seems as though the government's interest in this case is money."

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 Dignity party and put himself forward as a candidate in presidential elections scheduled for October 2000. But he was subsequently arrested on charges his defenders say were a pretext for silencing him.

In 2001, a court found Kulov guilty of abuse of power during his tenure as national security minister from 1997 to 1998. In 2002, he was found guilty of embezzlement as both governor of the northern Chui Oblast, where he served from 1993 to 1997, and as Bishkek mayor from 1998 to 1999. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, which was increased to 10 years last May.

In July, President Akaev strongly reiterated that Kulov's conviction was not politically motivated: "In [our] country, there wasn't, there isn't, and -- I hope -- never will be any political prisoners."

Earlier this month, the European Parliament nominated Kulov to receive the 2003 Andrei Sakharov Prize, which will be presented in December. The prize recognizes individuals or organizations for their efforts to bring democracy, freedom of the press, and the rule of law to their respective countries.

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