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Central Asia Report: March 13, 2003

13 March 2003, Volume 3, Number 11

MINEFIELDS TO NEGOTIATE AS TENSE BORDER TALKS RESTART IN TASHKENT. Relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have steadily worsened during recent weeks over border issues. Thus, it was against a background of tensions and recriminations that a Kyrgyz delegation led by Bazarbai Mambetov (Kyrgyzstan's representative to the Eurasian Economic Community, bearing the rank of deputy prime minister) arrived in the Uzbek capital Tashkent earlier this week for another round of talks on demarcating the border between the two countries. The talks were due to run from 11 to 16 March, reported. Landmines, opening additional crossing points, and the future of the Kyrgyz enclave of Barak within Uzbekistan were also on the agenda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). Border-delimitation negotiations by an intergovernmental commission started in 2000 but stalled last year amid disagreement and acrimony. Only 690 kilometers of the 1,400-kilometer Uzbek-Kyrgyz border had been delineated last year, Kabar news agency remarked on 5 March.

The root cause of tension between the two states is Uzbekistan's heavy-handed, rather single-minded approach to safeguarding its own security. Insisting on its right to defend itself in the face of international terrorism, Uzbekistan unilaterally began laying landmines along its frontiers with Kyrgyzstan (and Tajikistan) in 1999. On 26 February, the Kyrgyz government in Bishkek formally protested to Tashkent over the death of a Kyrgyz citizen killed in southern Batken Oblast when he wandered unwittingly into an Uzbek minefield (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). Six Kyrgyz citizens have been killed by Uzbek mines and five injured, according to ITAR-TASS on 11 March. (Meanwhile, scores of Tajik citizens have reportedly been killed by Uzbek mines.) This latest death seems to have been the straw to break the camel's back. It prompted Bishkek to demand maps of the unmarked Uzbek minefields along its borders, as well as for some of the mines to be removed. Tashkent refused. Meanwhile, the regional administration of Batken Oblast made a similar request to its counterpart administration in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Oblast. The Batken officials claimed that the mining of the border had cost their region approximately $121,000, and they demanded compensation in this amount (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2003). The Uzbeks stonewalled.

Then, Erkin Mamkulov, chief of CIS affairs at the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, revealed on 5 March that the ministry had drafted a memorandum on security and confidence-building measures for the Uzbek-Kyrgyz frontier and that the Uzbeks were looking it over, Kabar reported. Presumably, the plan called for less reliance on landmines on Tashkent's part and more reliance on trans-frontier military and police cooperation and information sharing with Kyrgyzstan. "We recognize the importance of the fight against international terrorism," Mamkulov said, with a nod toward Tashkent's position, but grimly added, with civilian landmine deaths in mind, "we are nonetheless against letting it go on causing human losses."

Mamkulov's remarks came at a roundtable in Bishkek organized by the National Red Crescent Society of Kyrgyzstan (NRCS) and titled "Informing the Population About the Danger of Mines." In the face of Uzbek intransigence, the NRCS has resolved to conduct a mine-awareness campaign for people living in Kyrgyz border areas, the newspaper "Komsomolskaya pravda v Kyrgyzstane" reported on 7 March. If the Uzbeks won't, the NRCS itself will put up signs in Batken Oblast warning about mines, the newspaper reported. The NRCS is also organizing seminars to familiarize both adults and children with the different types of landmines and how they work, clues to spotting likely minefields, and what to do if you find yourself in one. Furthermore, the NRCS has commenced stimulating debate about whether Kyrgyzstan should join the so-called Ottawa convention, Kabar reported on 5 March. The convention, adopted in 1997, prohibits the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of antipersonnel mines.

A second source of tension between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan has been the former's decision to practically seal its border with the latter (as well as with Kazakhstan) at the beginning of 2003. In this way, President Islam Karimov acted to stem an exodus of hard currency out of Uzbekistan as Uzbek shoppers flooded into neighboring countries, searching for foodstuffs and household consumer goods that have grown scarce at home. The government imposed punishing import tariffs last summer, putting most bazaar traders out of business and emptying out Uzbek markets. As one of the consequences of Uzbekistan's decision to close the border, Barak, a 200-hectare Kyrgyz enclave surrounded by Uzbek territory, with a population of 1,500 people, has been left almost completely isolated from its own country.

Last month, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev met with Barak residents to discuss their grievances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). On 7 March, he told a session of the parliamentary Committee on Law and State Order that either Tashkent must open a border crossing on preferential terms for Kyrgyz citizens or the Kyrgyz residents of Barak must be physically resettled to Kyrgyzstan proper (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). As Mambetov arrived in Tashkent to calm tensions and push forward border talks, Barak was also high on the list of matters to discuss. Tanaev told Kyrgyz parliamentarians on 7 March that the future of Barak should be resolved by the time Mambetov's talks finish, Interfax reported.

Apparently signaling a new spirit of flexibility and compromise on the eve of the talks, the Uzbek side indicated for the first time that it was willing, after all, to share maps of the unmarked minefields laid along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz frontier, ITAR-TASS said on 11 March. Such a promise was reportedly made to Tanaev over the telephone by Uzbek Prime Minister Utkir Sultanov. The maps should materialize sometime in the middle of the talks, the news agency said. But whether Tashkent will also share maps of the deadly minefields it has laid along the frontier with Tajikistan, which has suffered most from Uzbekistan's unilateral pursuit of security, remains to be seen.

GUILTY VERDICT UPHELD AGAINST KAZAKH JOURNALIST. On 11 March, the Almaty Oblast Court in the regional center Taldykorgan rejected opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov's appeal against his conviction for raping an underage girl (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). In fact, the court not only upheld the guilty verdict against him, it also found him guilty of a more serious crime than before, although it did not alter the original sentence of 3 1/2 years in prison.

On 28 January, a lower court (the Karasay Raion Court) pronounced the journalist guilty of the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl. Many observers believed that the charges against Duvanov, a prominent critic of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his government, were fabricated and politically motivated. Duvanov's defenders said the trial had been unfair and announced they would appeal the guilty verdict. But lawyers for the prosecution were also displeased with the outcome. Professing disappointment at the lenience of the punishment -- they had demanded a sentence of seven years -- they too promised to appeal (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 30 January 2003).

The Karasay court had ruled in January that Duvanov was guilty (under Article 120, Paragraph 1 of the Kazakh Criminal Code) of raping a minor. However, the Almaty Oblast Court this week upped his conviction to deliberate rape of someone known by the perpetrator to be a minor (Article 120, Paragraph 2D). This, according to a 11 March press release by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, is "a much more serious offense under Kazakh law." It usually carries a minimum sentence of five years in prison. By toughening the verdict against Duvanov, the appeal court rejected his appeal and showed it was siding with the prosecution's appeal. Nevertheless, the Almaty court seemed to be looking for a compromise between the two sides, mindful of the international outrage that the Duvanov case has generated. Earlier, the Karasay court had been no less aware of the international pressure. Its shot at compromise apparently had been to split the difference between the prosecution's demand for a seven-year sentence and the defense's demands for acquittal and to plump for 3 1/2 years. The Almaty court's attempt to square the circle was to accede to prosecution demands by toughening the verdict, yet leaving the prison term of 3 1/2 years unchanged.

According to Yevgenii Zhovtis, the head of the Kazakh branch of the International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, who served as one of Duvanov's public defenders, the higher court had not imposed a sterner punishment to match the graver crime thanks to all the "positive references" that had been received about the journalist (such as the letters of support from international watchdog groups), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 11 March. In essence, Zhovtis was saying that Kazakhstan was afraid of a new torrent of international criticism if it lengthened his client's sentence.

At the same time, Zhovtis reiterated his opinion to AFP that the conviction, orchestrated by the government, was meant to muzzle an outspoken critic. The International League for Human Rights was no less blunt in an open letter to Nazarbaev on 11 March. "Based on the recent history of persecution of opposition activists and journalists, and in particular Duvanov, the league fears that the guilty verdict against this journalist was made in retaliation for his outspoken and persistent criticism of Kazakhstan's high[-ranking] officials, including the president [Nazarbaev]." But Almaty Oblast Prosecutor Zhaqsylyk Baytukbaev took issue with such implications and denied them strongly to journalists on 12 March. "Neither [Duvanov's] beliefs, nor his views or creative work are involved in this criminal case," said Baytukbaev, as quoted by Interfax. "We wish to state that if we are building a democratic country, then we must ensure that everyone is equal before the law."

Meanwhile, prosecution lawyer Vasilii Martynovskii was indignant that the court's new ruling had increased Duvanov's culpability without increasing his punishment. He told a press conference on 12 March that the court's decision had been "illegal" and pledged to appeal it, Interfax reported. The defense team also said it would file another appeal, this time to have the case heard in the Kazakh Supreme Court, RFE/RL reported on 11 March. At the same time, a second prosecutor, Erik Nurshin, announced that the alleged rape victim's mother was considering filing civil suits demanding compensation from Duvanov and certain media representatives for the humiliation and "moral damage" that she and her daughter had suffered.

Western human rights groups continued to express concern about the Duvanov case and to call for his release. So did a group of Kyrgyz rights activists, political figures, and independent journalists who demonstrated outside the Kazakh Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on 11 March to show solidarity with Duvanov. The picket was organized by the Association of Independent Electronic Mass Media of the Countries of Central Asia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). On the same day, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that observers were being barred from a trial that the authorities had said would be open. A press release from the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office, carried in the newspaper "Kazakhstanskaya pravda" on 12 March, claimed that observers had been admitted to the courtroom, but as the proceedings made it increasingly clear that Duvanov was incontrovertibly guilty of rape, the observers allegedly walked out voluntarily "without waiting for the court hearings to come to an end." This is not what happened according to Interfax, however. The news agency reported on 11 March that observers were permitted to attend the opening of the hearings but before long the presiding judge ordered them to leave.

TAJIK CONSTITUTIONAL COMMISSION STARTS WORK DESPITE DEPUTIES' RESERVATIONS. In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the commission to coordinate proposals by parliamentarians on amending the constitution held its first sitting on 6 March, Tajik television reported. The commission, which was chaired by Deputy Chairman of the Assembly of Representatives (the lower house of Tajikistan's parliament) Abdulmazhid Dostiev, was created by legislators on 5 March, following last month's decision to hold a nationwide referendum in June on altering certain key articles of the constitution (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 February 2003). Foremost among them is Article 65, which bars a president from serving two consecutive terms. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov is currently scheduled to step down in 2006 at the end of a seven-year term, which was approved under new constitutional provisions passed in 1999. A referendum approving changes to Article 65 would pave the way to extending Rakhmonov's term in office.

At its first session, the commission endorsed most of the government's suggestions for changes to the constitution, Asia-Plus reported on 7 March. Yet, according to the news agency, opposition and pro-government parties alike oppose a referendum on changing the length of a president's term in office -- an amendment that, in their view, was proposed solely to benefit the present incumbent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2003). The opposition "Tajikistan Times" website testified to unease among political parties across the spectrum about the referendum in a report on 3 March. It quoted Rahmatullo Valiev, executive secretary of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, as saying that the president already had enough power, with complete authority over appointing governors, judges, district heads, and local officials. "Frankly, if we pass this proposal, Tajikistan's president will become like the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union...," VAliyev said. According to Latif Hadya from the Social Democratic Party, "heads of state [in Central Asia] think of themselves as kings, emirs, begs, caliphs, but not as a person elected by citizens, a public servant. They intend to use every opportunity to retain in their hands power as leaders of the country for life."

Meanwhile, Muhiddin Kabiri, deputy leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), was shown by the "Tajikistan Times" to hold the same views as his boss, IRP leader Said Abdullo Nuri. In a 26 February statement, Nuri objected to any tampering with the constitution for at least 10 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003).

Social Democratic Party leader Rahmatillo Zoirov told Asia-Plus on 12 March that if there were to be changes to the constitution, they ought to be directed toward strengthening the legislative branch and government and ensuring the independence of the judiciary, both of which are currently ruled by the power of the executive. Zoirovl also spoke in favor of decentralizing power, with more decision-making authority being devolved to the provinces.

Hesitations and objections notwithstanding, reviews of the proposed constitutional amendments were going ahead. The parliamentary Committee on Social Issues, Family, Health, and Women's Affairs met to consider excising or seriously revising the current provision describing free health care as a citizen's right. Furthermore, there were questions whether secondary education should be merely compulsory or both compulsory and free, Asia-Plus reported on 11 March.