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Central Asia: Kyrgyz Ombudsman Could Set Regional Standard

Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun (RFE/RL) There is no shortage of injustice or official abuse in Central Asia, while the list of apparent reasons for cynicism is long. Little accountability at the ballot box. No history of independent judiciaries. Rampant accusations of judges acting on the orders of politicians or demanding bribes in exchange for favorable verdicts.

The result is disorientation, even desperation, for many.

In places like Turkmenistan and, increasingly, Uzbekistan, independent rights defenders are rare, their means are limited, and their efforts ineffectual.

Kyrgyzstan, however, offers what appears to be a unique example in the region. Kyrgyzstan's new ombudsman, former political dissident Tursunbek Akun, appears to be devoted not only to defending fellow citizens' rights but also to restructuring his institution to enable it to function better in the longer term.

While there are critical voices about the work of the "Akyikatchy" -- as the Kyrgyz ombudsman is dubbed -- the fact that Akun is a former dissident with relative independence highlights Central Asia's lone example of an ombudsman's office that just might be working.

For nearly six years, Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman -- an official appointed by the parliament to pursue individuals' allegations of rights offenses -- has acted as an avenue for public grievances. Perhaps more importantly, the Kyrgyz office of the ombudsman has remained independent from the executive branch since its inception in 2002.

Long Haul

Akun was approved by parliament to replace activist Tursunbai Bakir-uulu more than three months ago.

Speaking to journalists in Bishkek about his first 100 days in office, Akun says he has focused on restructuring the institution. He claims that a staff reduction -- from 124 to 88 -- reflects the fact that many employees were employees on paper only, and did little or no work. And it saves around 1.8 million soms ($50,000), he says.

Akun's reforms also include setting up a special public council made up of human rights activists, lawmakers, and government officials. He says the council will monitor human rights in the country and prepare recommendations for Kyrgyz authorities in order to strengthen authorities' rights record.

"The most important thing is that the ombudsman has unified efforts with human rights defenders and members of civil society. In defense of human rights, we should use not only the institution of ombudsman but also the strengths of the civil society," Akun says. "The second thing is that the reputation of the ombudsman has been somewhat devalued. We should strengthen the reputation of the ombudsman. For that, we also work with members of parliament, representatives of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the government."

Many in Kyrgyzstan see the 49-year-old Akun as a founding father of the Kyrgyz human rights movement. Akun's has been criticized, threatened, detained, interrogated, abducted, stoned, beaten, and left for dead during more than 15 years as a rights activist and anticorruption campaigner. Akun says he was detained by police 17 times under former President Askar Akaev's administration, which fell after street protests boiled over in March 2005.

Critics say there is room for improvement in the institution of ombudsman -- that although it functions independently, it has yet to become an effective mechanism for change.

One critic, Social Democratic legislator Bakyt Beshimov, says the ombudsman's office was created to show the West that Kyrgyzstan adheres to democratic standards. Beshimov charges that because Akun was nominated by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, he is dependent on the president.

Perceived Futility

"The ombudsman is dependent on the head of state," Beshimov says. "If we want to have genuine democracy, the ombudsman must be elected by human rights defenders and approved by the Jogorku Kenesh [parliament]. Only in that case will he be independent and able to work effectively."

Aziza Abdyrasulova of the nongovernmental group Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) goes so far as to say that the term "ombudsman" has been devalued by perceptions of futility.

"He didn't bear out our hopes, and so we are preparing a new bill on a [separate] police ombudsman -- but we took out the word 'ombudsman' and put in 'police commissioner' instead," Abdyrasulova says. "We are disappointed with the ombudsmen. It's our job to return trust to the institution of the ombudsman."

Akun's predecessor, Bakir-uulu, is also a well-known figure in Kyrgyzstan. His stance on some issues, particularly Muslim rights, earned him a controversial reputation. Some of his critics voiced concern over Bakir-uulu's defense of the rights of members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir organization.

There have been similar concerns about Akun.

One website visitor recently commented that the offices of both Bakir-uulu and Akun "are covered with green flags and verses from [the] Koran," adding, "In a Kyrgyz context, that means that human rights will be interpreted based on [the] Koran -- which is a scary development."

However, the online critic admitted that the Kyrgyz ombudsman has been effective in dealing with citizen's complaints. And Akun is not nearly as religious as Bakir-uulu, who is a very devout Muslim.

Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman's office says it has received more than 130,000 complaints since it was established almost six years ago.

By comparison, in neighboring Kazakhstan, Ombudsman Askar Shakirov's office says it has received 8,500 complaints from citizens and sent 2,500 requests to the government since it was established in 2002. But that institution remains under the direct supervision of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

In Uzbekistan, comparable statistics are difficult to obtain. Uzbek Ombudsman Sayyora Rashidova was appointed when her institution became Central Asia's first, in 1998. Independent critics suggest that Rashidova, the daughter of former Uzbek Communist Party leader Sharof Rashidov, is loyal to authoritarian President Islam Karimov. People who have visited Rashidova's office claim to have been followed by security officers, or even briefly detained and questioned, afterward.

Tajikistan, meanwhile, is still waiting for its first ombudsman. Earlier this year, that country's parliament adopted legislation to establish the office, but the bill has not yet been approved by President Emomali Rahmon.

Similar to so many other respects, Turkmenistan has pursued its own path; the country has an Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, which is answerable to the president. Created under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov's administration, the institute remains under executive control in a country where the head of state has virtually unchecked power.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan's Akun is full of optimism and plans for the future. He says he intends later this year to organize an international conference of ombudsmen in Bishkek under the framework of the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

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