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Central Asia Report: November 3, 2005

3 November 2005, Volume 5, Number 42

WEEK AT A GLANCE (24-30 October). With Kazakhstan's 4 December presidential election nearing, incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev used an address on the Day of the Republic to send a message that had all the earmarks of a campaign strategy. Vowing to make Kazakhstan one of the world's most developed countries, he said, "Over the next 10 years, we want to triple the size of the economy, [and] double the standard of living, salaries, and pensions." Campaigning has now begun in the presidential race, which pits Nazarbaev against Alikhan Baimenov, a candidate from the Ak Zhol opposition party; Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, head of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan; Erasyl Abilkasymov, a candidate from the Communist People's Party; and Mels Eleusizov, the head of an environmental movement.

Tensions over the death of lawmaker Tynychbek Akmatbaev, killed on 20 October during a visit to a prison, continued to simmer in Kyrgyzstan. The slain deputy's brother, rumored criminal kingpin Ryspek Akmatbaev, led demonstrators in Bishkek calling for the removal of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, whom Ryspek blamed for his brother's death. But parliament refused to consider the issue, and the demonstrators ended their protest after President Kurmanbek Bakiev met with a group of Tynychbek Akmatbaev's relatives and supporters. Ryspek, who did not meet with the president, saw his trial on triple murder charges postponed until 9 November. And a number of civil-society groups ended the week with a demonstration in Bishkek to protest threats to national unity and the dangers of criminal involvement in politics.

Uzbekistan intends to raise the price of the natural gas it sells Tajikistan from $42 to $55 per 1,000 cubic meters starting on 1 January, Tajik Deputy Energy Minister Akram Sulaymonov said. On the political front, Rahmatullo Zoirov, leader of the Social Democratic Party, announced that his party intends to field a candidate in the November 2006 presidential election. And the Islamic Renaissance Party condemned a recent Education Ministry decision forbidding female students from attending educational institutions while wearing a head scarf.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov proposed a presidential election in 2009 to the People's Council, but delegates rejected the idea by a vote of 2,500 to one, with Niyazov casting the lone dissenting vote in favor. Elsewhere, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov visited, securing a limited agreement on payments for shipments of Turkmen gas to Ukraine in 2004-05. On the thorny issue of 2006 shipments, Ukraine agreed to Russian participation in future price negotiations.

Jailed Uzbek opposition leader Sanjar Umarov smuggled a note out to supporters, dismissing embezzlement charges against him as "ridiculous." Umarov's lawyer later said that when he visited his client in jail, he found him to be "out of his senses." Rights activist Elena Urlaeva was released from a psychiatric hospital after protests from Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department on reports that Urlaeva had been subjected to forcible psychiatric treatment. Daniel Fried, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, told a congressional committee that the United States is still considering sanctions against Uzbekistan. Citing continued harassment by Uzbek authorities, the BBC shuttered its Tashkent bureau for six months. And Uzbek prosecutors asked for prison terms ranging from 15 to 20 years for 15 men accused of organizing violence in Andijon on 12-13 May.

VIOLENCE STRIKES KYRGYZ PRISONS AGAIN. Reports indicated that more than 20 inmates may have been killed on 1 November in unrest in Kyrgyz prisons near the capital Bishkek and in the country's southern Jalal-Abad province. Kyrgyz and Russian news agencies say Interior Ministry troops have surrounded the Moldovanovka prison, the site of a violent uprising last month in which a lawmaker was killed.

The riots started early on 1 November after authorities sought to reassert control over prisons that were left without guards following violence last month.

The center of action appears to be at Prison No. 31 in the settlement of Moldovanovka, near Bishkek. Reports say rioting broke out there on the night of 31 October after authorities sought to transfer criminal kingpin Aziz Batukaev and several other convicts to a facility deemed to be more secure.

Convicts protested that Batukaev was their only "godfather" and that he should be returned to prison in Moldovanovka.

Situation Under Control

Speaking to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Kyrgyz Justice Minister Marat Kaiypov said efforts are being made to control the situation. "The situation in the Jalal-Abad prison colony, in the Osh colony, and prisons No. 16, 3, and 27 has calmed down," Kaiypov said. "It was Batukaev who ordered [other inmates] to start a mutiny over the telephone. Now, we are trying to normalize the situation."

Kaiypov did not give details on casualties but said that the prisoners were armed and opened fire first and that they also had a sniper.

Busurmankul Tabaldiev, head of the security and defense for the presidential administration, also gave no information about casualties.

However, an unidentified official from the country's national penitentiaries department was quoted as telling ITAR-TASS that two inmates had been killed in a special operation at Moldovanovka. The official also said that the head of the national penitentiaries department was slightly wounded in the arm.

Inmates, however, say the casualty figure is much higher.

Vadim, a convict at Prison No. 1 near Bishkek, told RFE/RL that more than 20 convicts have been killed in Moldovanovka and other prisons. "In our prison, one [person was killed]. In prison 31 (Moldovanovka), 18 people were killed, and three people in Prison No. 8," he said. "Twenty-two people were killed altogether. This is what we know officially by now. We [and other inmates] saw 18 bodies taken away."

Better Living Conditions

The current crisis started on 19 October at Moldovanovka and Novo Pokrovka prisons near Bishkek when inmates rioted to demand better living conditions.

A parliamentarian, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was shot dead while trying to negotiate with the prisoners. Akmatbaev's two assistants and Ikmatullo Polotov, head of the chief administration of the penitentiary service, were also killed after being held hostage.

Akmatbaev was the third lawmaker to be killed since last March's so-called Tulip Revolution.

Following the violence, Kyrgyz authorities ordered guards and staff to leave prisons because of fear for their safety.

Following the prison unrest, antigovernment protesters staged rallies demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Felix Kulov, accusing him of involvement in Akmatbaev's murder. Kulov refused to resign, calling the protests a political provocation.

After six days, the protests ended when President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who backed Kulov, reached an agreement with the demonstrators.

Criminal Gangs

Some observers say the crisis reflects a struggle among criminal gangs.

Most experts agree that the riots also highlight the harsh living conditions in Kyrgyzstan's prisons. Meilikozu Mamataliev, head of the Jalal-Abad prison, where inmates also rioted on 1 November, spoke with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"We have some 28 people infected with tuberculosis but the situation has been improving lately," Mamataliev said. "We also have four or five people who are HIV positive. The main problem is the lack of jobs. We need to create jobs and start production. It should help. This can be done only by the leadership. The government should pay attention. They should open factory sections. We recently started furniture production. But we don't have enough money."

Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu has also brought attention to the conditions in prisons and on 1 November, he criticized authorities for the use of force in the Moldovanovka prison. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on 1 November.)

RESTIVE DAYS IN BISHKEK. When street protests toppled Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev on 24 March, Kyrgyzstan found itself face to face not only with new hopes, but new fears as well. The looting that struck the capital on the night of 24 March, though quickly quelled, symbolized for many the danger of disorder that political upheaval brings. More recent events in Bishkek have shown that the perils may in fact be greater, and their causes deeper.

A mere summary fails to convey the significance of the events that have unfolded in Kyrgyzstan since 20 October. On that day, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, a parliamentary deputy and chairman of the legislature's committee on defense and security, was killed during an ill-advised visit to a penal colony outside Bishkek. Akmatbaev's brother accused Prime Minister Feliks Kulov of complicity in the killing and subsequently organized a days-long demonstration in the capital demanding the premier's removal. Parliament responded by forming a commission.

Criminal Boss

What all this actually means is not quite what it appears at first glance. The story begins with Tynychbek Akmatbaev's brother, Ryspek Akmatbaev. Referred to even in media reports by his first name, Ryspek is a near-legendary figure in Kyrgyzstan. Described by the news agency as a "criminal kingpin," Ryspek had been on the lam since 2001, "Moskovskie novosti" reported on 28 October. After Akaev's fall in March, Ryspek took up an offer from then Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov to emerge from the shadows and face trial on murder charges. As part of the deal Beknazarov offered, Ryspek was allowed to await his court date not in a jail cell, but as a free man after signing an affidavit pledging not to leave the country.

One of the inmates in the penal colony where Ryspek's brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, met his untimely end was Aziz Batukaev, an ethnic Chechen and reputed crime boss, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Numerous reports have alluded to a feud between Batukaev and Ryspek. A clue to the origins of that feud may lie in the charges Ryspek faces. As reported on 28 October, Ryspek is charged with the 2003 murder of Khavaji Zaurbekov, who was Batukaev's brother-in-law.

The precise circumstances of Tynychbek Akmatbaev's death remain obscure and disputed. The parliamentary commission set up on 25 October to investigate the incident is supposed to report its findings by 15 November. The significance of the event lies in the impression it has created in the popular consciousness: that the brother of an underworld boss headed a parliamentary committee on defense and security, and then got whacked in a gangland beef with all the earmarks of a blood feud.

Different Kind Of Demo

Against this backdrop, Ryspek and his supporters took to the streets. Kyrgyzstan has had a banner year for demonstrations, but this one was different. As "Novye izvestiya" described it on 24 October: "They are all strapping, young, strong guys dressed in athletic clothes. There are no women among the demonstrators." With this back-up, Ryspek began to air his demands, chief among them the removal of Kulov from the post of prime minister. Ryspek told on 22 October that "[Prime Minister] Feliks Kulov is guilty. He set this up together with Aziz Batukaev."

Ryspek and his supporters put up yurts, field kitchens, and portable toilets in front of the parliament, which suddenly experienced difficulty gathering a quorum. When the legislature finally met on 25 October, it created a commission to investigate Akmatbaev's murder but declined to consider the issue of Kulov's removal, arguing that the decision belongs to the president.

The political maneuvering was not as important as the symbolism. If the sight of Ryspek and his men decamped before parliament seemed to deter lawmakers from performing their appointed duties, some parliamentarians made time to arrange a personal audience with Ryspek. They were not alone. As "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 October, the stream of visitors eager to pay their respects to Ryspek included "Interior Minister Muratbek Sutalinov and National Security Service head Tashtemir Aitbaev." The newspaper noted, "Television pictures of these heads of the security agencies shaking hands with the leader of a criminal group were broadcast across Kyrgyzstan." In a potent indication of the deference accorded Ryspek, parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev was only allowed to meet with him after the speaker's bodyguards surrendered their arms.

Deputy Tynychbek Akmatbaev was killed on 20 October Ryspek's anti-Kulov demonstration acted as a magnet not only for ministers, but for the relatives of other slain legislators of dubious repute. On 10 June, businessman and deputy Jyrgalbek Surabaldiev was gunned down in Bishkek. Rumor had linked Surabaldiev to the funding of pro-Akaev provocateurs on the eve of the 24 March unrest that felled the president, although initial reactions described the murder as a business-linked contract killing. And on 21 September, a gunman shot and killed deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev, head of Kyrgyzstan's National Olympic Committee, an avid supporter of the opposition to President Akaev during the March events, and a businessman with rumored links to crime groups in the country's south.

"Yes, the relatives of Bayaman Erkinbaev and Jyrgalbek Surabaldiev want to join us," Ryspek told on 24 October. He explained, "[T]hey have documents that accuse Kulov of other murders of deputies." The relatives did, in fact, join Ryspek's demonstration, "Kommersant-Daily" confirmed on 26 October.

And there were others. Nurlan Motuev, who has seized the Kara-Keche coal mine and defied government attempts to evict him, also appeared at Ryspek's side in Bishkek, "Vechernii Bishkek" reported on 25 October. Motuev's mine seizure has been something of a media sensation in recent weeks, widely seen as proof of the central government's inability to impose its will. With Motuev's arrival in Bishkek, the picture was complete -- it was as though every symbol of lawlessness in Kyrgyz society had come together in a rebuke of parliament, the prime minister, and president.

NGO Criticism

Adding to the sense of state power under siege was the cautious response of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who maintained a studied silence in the immediate aftermath of Akmatbaev's murder. Bakiev expressed his "complete trust" in Kulov on 26 October, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. But the president's failure to take a strong stand on the demonstration in Bishkek prompted a number of civil-society NGOs to issue a critical statement on 26 October, reported. What the NGOs, which included the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society and Citizens Against Corruption, found particularly galling was Bakiev's willingness to meet with a delegation of Akmatbaev's relatives and supporters on 28 October, the same day Ryspek's trial was set to begin. The NGOs told the president: "You are preparing to receive a delegation of the protesters outside parliament on the first day of the trial of Ryspek Akmatbaev, who is accused of committing serious crimes, murders, and assaults. In receiving the accused, you put pressure on the court."

As it happened, 28 October witnessed an easing of tensions. The meeting between President Bakiev and Tynychbek Akmatbaev's relatives and supporters took place on 27 October, not 28 October. Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the Erkindik Party, told a news conference that Ryspek did not attend the meeting. After the meeting with the president, the slain deputy's supporters agreed to end their demonstration before parliament until the investigation of Akmatbaev's murder is complete. Kulov's supporters, who had been demonstrating for several days only a few hundred meters away from Akmatbaev's backers, ended their protest as well. Parliamentary deputies set off for their districts to meet with constituents. Ryspek's trial date was postponed until 9 November. And finally, civil-society groups held a demonstration of at least 500 people in Bishkek on 28 October to express their support for the Bakiev-Kulov tandem and their opposition to the criminal world's involvement in politics.

Though the first act of the drama appears to be over, the basic issues remain unresolved. Ryspek has vowed that if he is acquitted in his upcoming trial, he will run for the parliamentary seat his brother's death has left vacant. Kyrgyzstan's judiciary does not have a strong record of independence, and Ryspek's new-found respectability and prominence, as demonstrated by his meetings with ministers and ability to mass supporters, promise a severe test of the country's anemic courts. The circumstances of Tynychbek Akmatbaev's death await clarification. Ryspek's standing demand for the removal of Prime Minister Kulov is yet another storm cloud on the horizon.

The political fallout from Tynychbek Akmatbaev's death is far from over, but the fears it has awakened are already clear. One is that the state's institutions remain as fragile today as they were when protesters overran government offices on 24 March and sent President Akaev fleeing into exile. Another is that into the resulting vacuum will rush individuals who resolve conflicts not by the force of law, but by the law of force. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on 30 November.)

UZBEK AUTHORITIES PREFER THEIR CHALLENGERS BEHIND BARS. Observers say the government of Uzbekistan has taken steps to curtail the activities of many of the country's rights workers and opposition leaders since the bloody suppression of the Andijon popular uprising in May. One, activist Yelena Urlaeva, was committed to a psychiatric hospital for nearly three months before being released last week. Others are in police custody, including opposition leader Sanjar Umarov and activist Mutabar Tojiboeva. With Uzbekistan nearing the end of trials of the alleged Andijon perpetrators, RFE/RL reports on the continued repression of many of the country's activists.

Yelena Urlaeva could hardly hold back her tears. Speaking to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in Tashkent, she described her release late last week from a psychiatric hospital where authorities had forced her to undergo treatment.

"I was already asleep. At 10 o'clock, medical staffers came to me and said: �Yelena, get your things. They've come for you,'" she told RFE/RL.

It was the end of the third psychiatric committal for Urlaeva, a well-known human rights activist. When she was returned yet again in August, many saw the move as part of a campaign by authorities to crack down on the opposition.

That campaign appeared to gain strength following the government's violent suppression of a popular uprising in Andijon in mid-May.

Urlaeva was arrested in August for publishing a cartoon of the national emblem of Uzbekistan and for being in possession of material that criticized the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Some rights activists also suggested that authorities detained Urlaeva ahead of Uzbekistan's Independence Day (1 September) to prevent her from organizing public demonstrations.

Local activists welcomed Urlaeva's release, but expressed concern about many others still remaining in custody -- including Sanjar Umarov, the leader of the Sunshine Uzbekistan opposition group, who was detained on 22 October.

Umarov, an oligarch with business interests in Uzbekistan and the West, formed his group in April in the wake of the Tulip Revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Since then, he has regularly called for the dismissal of the Uzbek government, and openly criticized Karimov for the military crackdown on the Andijon protesters.

Umarov was arrested soon after calling on Uzbek authorities to start a political dialogue. He had also written a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for stronger ties with Russia, and declaring his intention to seek a solution to the current political crisis in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office announced on 26 October that Umarov had been charged with embezzlement and fraud. Sunshine Uzbekistan said the arrest was politically motivated.

Umarov's lawyer, Vitalii Krasilovskii, visited his client in prison last week and expressed concern about Umarov's declining physical and mental health. Krasilovskii also told RFE/RL that he has yet to see documents related to Umarov's arrest and the charges against him. He has also been refused further access to his client.

"From that time, I haven't been able to learn anything about him. I can't even ask over the phone about the state of Sanjar Umarov's health. It's irresponsible! They [authorities] intentionally want to keep me from knowing anything [about Umarov.] This is the only thing I can think of," Krasilovskii said.

Mutabar Tojiboeva, another well-known right activist, was detained on 7 October and prevented from attending a human rights conference in Dublin, Ireland.

Tojiboeva's lawyer, who asked not to be named, has also been refused access to his client, despite her alleged poor health. "Mutabar's condition is very bad," he said. "She started a hunger strike. They [prison authorities] said I should appeal to the prosecutor's office as they can't give her medicine. They said, �We have too much work, too many people.' But she's been bleeding."

The website on 30 November published a list of Uzbek political and rights activists detained since the 13 May uprising in Andijon. The list, compiled by the independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, includes the names of 19 men and women.

Topping the list is Saidjahon Zaynabiddinov, head of the Andijon-based Appelyatsiya rights group. Zaynabiddinov monitored the trial of the 23 Andijon businessmen that led to the May uprising. He was arrested on 23 May after giving interviews to foreign media outlets.

The most recent arrest is that of Human Rights Society member Nasim Isakov, who was detained on 27 October in the central Uzbek city of Jizzakh.

"Eight members of the Human Rights Society have been detained," Tolib Yoqubov, the Tashkent-based head of the society, told RFE/RL. "Most people understand who the real criminals are behind the Andijon events. It's normal that those criminals intended to hide their wrongdoings and accuse others. Members of rights groups, opposition parties, and even ordinary people, who have been arrested recently, were not involved in the Andijon events. They are not criminals."

Jahongir Mamatov, an Uzbek opposition activist living in the United States and the chairman of the Congress of Democratic Uzbekistan, said that after the Andijon uprising, Uzbek authorities resorted to the same method of mass repressions they have used many times in the past.

"Terrible repressions start after every big event," Mamatov said. "[President] Islam Karimov arranges [a demonstration or uprising] in order to suppress growing opposition. He then eliminates the society's leading opposition forces. It's his policy."

However, Mamatov said these tactics have not been enough to counteract the effect of the Andijon uprising. He said people are increasingly aware of the repressive nature of the Karimov regime.

The Andijon events prompted the United States and the European Union to call for an independent international inquiry. The EU earlier this month also introduced sanctions against Uzbekistan similar to those imposed on China following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on 30 November.)