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Central Asia Report: March 21, 2002

21 March 2002, Volume 2, Number 11

BLOODSHED AND RIOTING AS POLICE FIRE INTO CROWDS OF BEKNAZAROV SUPPORTERS. Three days of clashes between Kyrgyz police and supporters of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov in Kyrgyzstan's southern Aksu District, Djalalabad Region, left at least five dead and 62 injured, RFE/RL and AP reported on 19 March. The violence started after some 2,000 people gathered in several villages in the vicinity of the town of Toktogul, where Beknazarov's trial on charges of abuse of power was being held. Police fired into a crowd of about 100 demonstrators who were marching to a protest rally in the village of Kerben on the evening of 17 March, the day before the verdict was due to be announced. Thousands of antigovernment protestors around Aksu District convened the next evening to demand President Askar Akaev's resignation. The Kyrgyz national security service estimated that 80 percent of them were young people, Interfax said. There were reports of sporadic rioting on 19 March as well. Reuters and AP said one more person had been shot and killed by the police, while about 20 demonstrators and police were injured. The government denied the reports and insisted that calm had been restored.

Tension had been rising all week, as local rallies demanding Beknazarov's acquittal grew larger by the day starting on 11 March, when the three-day trial resumed following a one-month interval. After police dispersed 250 picketers around the courthouse in Toktogul on 13 March, meetings of Beknazarov supporters swelled to 800 people two days later, 1,400 people on 15 March, and 2,000 people on the day of the fatal shootings, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. As Interfax pointed out on 18 March, however, indignation about the Beknazarov case was not the only motivation behind the rallies. Some protestors were demanding that all people waiting in prison for their trials to begin should be released. Others were complaining that the government should allocate more plots of land to local residents, the news agency reported.

Beknazarov was arrested on 5 January, accused of abusing his position as a district prosecutor in Toktogul seven years ago, when he allegedly failed to bring manslaughter charges against an investigator, Djaparaly Kamchybekov, who killed a man in a brawl in 1995, because the investigator was a friend of Beknazarov's. His supporters, however, say the charges are politically motivated and are part of a vendetta against him by President Akaev. As a parliamentary committee chairman, Beknazarov has loudly criticized the president for signing border agreements with Beijing that cede swathes of Kyrgyz territory to China without the consent of the legislature. Since his arrest, hunger-strikers across the country have demanded that Akaev cease "persecuting" Beknazarov, and for the past month five schools in Aksu District have shut down as parents kept their children at home to protest Akaev's action (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 16 March 2002). The public prosecutor demanded that Beknazarov be sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, according to RFE/RL (but Kyrgyz radio reported on 15 March that the prosecutor demanded 15 years).

A bulletin issued on 15 March by the Geneva-based International Organization Against Torture expressed concern that Beknazarov was not getting a fair trial. It noted reports that the presiding judge dismissed out of hand all motions by the defendant's lawyer; that files from 1995 potentially offering evidence of Beknazarov's innocence were tampered with, and pages were missing; and that Beknazarov was beaten while in custody. The bulletin further suggested that Kamchybekov, who testified at the trial, was tortured into making false statements incriminating Beknazarov. According to RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau, Kamchybekov turned up in court with a badly bruised face and proceeded to testify that he was not merely a friend but a relative of the defendant, saying that was why he was not charged with a crime. (Meanwhile, his own father denied to RFE/RL on 15 March that he was in any way related to Beknazarov.) An investigation in 1995 into the case found that Kamchybekov had acted in self-defense and absolved him of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, criminal charges were brought against him on 9 November 2001, and three weeks later he was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment after a summary trial that many Kyrgyz say was a preparatory move orchestrated by the government to strengthen the case against Akaev's real target, Beknazarov.

Against this backdrop, 2,000 protestors mobilized near Toktogul on 17 March to wait for the verdict, among them a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the chairman of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Tursunbek Akunov. Police special forces opened fire without warning on peaceful demonstrators, participants told RFE/RL. But Kyrgyz government officials described an angry, aggressive mob of drunks and hooligans against which law-enforcement officers were obliged to act in self-defense. Kyrgyz Interior Minister Temirbek AkmatAliyev told local TV and radio on 18 March that demonstrators hurled stones at police, tried to storm the headquarters of the internal affairs department in Kerben, and set fire to three public buildings. He said that some attackers fired rifles and small-caliber guns at the police, and that wounds sustained by policemen and bullet holes in the walls of buildings proved this. Meanwhile, other demonstrators were converging on a nearby hydropower station, and special vehicles were bringing alcohol for the rioters, AkmatAliyev claimed. The police addressed them, failed to calm them down, retreated, and fired warning shots into the air. As the mob attacked, 47 policemen and 15 local residents were wounded, he said.

The story changed when Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev told journalists on 18 March that police had been forced to fire on the crowd (not merely into the air) out of self-defense, Kabar news agency reported. AkmatAliyev had said earlier that one demonstrator died from a knife wound while another was hit by a brick. But records from local hospitals confirm that several patients were admitted with bullet wounds, RFE/RL reported the next day. Then AkmatAliyev acknowledged to the Legislative Assembly (the upper house of parliament) that the police had in fact opened fire on demonstrators, explaining that live ammunition was used as a form of crowd control because his ministry has no money for more benign alternatives such as rubber bullets or teargas. Asked in session what law gave police the right to fire at citizens, the interior minister failed to answer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2002). Some protestors admitted to AP on 18 March that they threw stones, but said they did so only after the police attacked them first with truncheons and then started firing into the crowd. It is unknown who, if anyone, gave the police the order to begin shooting. A union of five Kyrgyz opposition parties immediately demanded that Akmataliev, the prosecutor-general, and the head of the national security service be suspended pending investigation of their roles in the tragedy, AP reported. This demand has been ignored so far by the authorities.

President Akaev addressed the nation on 18 March over radio and TV. While expressing sorrow for the deaths, he squarely blamed opposition politicians for manipulating citizens for their own ends through lies and demagoguery, and characterized the "unauthorized mass rallies" in Aksu District as "a plot." He attacked the protests as an attempt to subvert legal procedure, and part of a long-term campaign by "well-known political figures" �- his opponents -� to destabilize the country. Most ominously, he said that these latest incidents prove that the opposition does not understand that freedom entails responsibility. Without a proper balance, a young society could fall into an "abyss" of anarchy and mob-rule. But since his opponents have shown themselves too irresponsible to make mature use of their freedom, he said that as president he has an obligation to reestablish peace and order in the country using all powers vested in him by the constitution.

As a first measure, 1,500 fresh policemen were immediately airlifted into Djalalabad Region, and a government commission arrived in the area to try to talk to the protestors, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported on 18 March. On the same day, the Prosecutor-General's Office announced that a criminal case on the riot has been opened, and an investigation is underway by a special commission of the Legislative Assembly, Kabar said. Also on 18 March, AkmatAliyev stated that Bishkek decided not to declare a state of emergency or impose a curfew in the region to avoid provoking further unrest, the news agency reported. Meanwhile, Akaev sacked the Aksu District administrator, Shermamat Osmonov, although no official explanation for his removal was offered.

On 19 March, the authorities finally bowed to public pressure by freeing Beknazarov �- but not acquitting him or dropping the case against him �- in return for a promise not to leave the country and to urge his demonstrators to stop the protests (see "Protests Lead To Release Of Jailed Deputy,", 19 March 2002). The judge announced that the trial was temporarily suspended, without suggesting when it might resume. Yet although Beknazarov's supporters welcomed the president's decision to set him at liberty, at least temporarily, neither Akaev nor his government has given any sign that they truly understand why Beknazarov's plight has found such resonance among the populace at large. As Eurasianet noted on 18 March, Akaev's heavy-handed approach to eliminating a political opponent sparked widespread resentment, while his public silence on the issue �- and his blithely taking a long holiday while dozens of people countrywide were on hunger strikes �- drew more anger. The death of 51-year-old hunger striker Sherali Nazarkulov, who suffered heart failure in early February after 22 days without food, marked a turning point, Eurasianet commented. Akaev's lack of reaction to Nazarkulov's death, his belief that he could simply ignore public sentiments, and his increasing reliance on censorship and police methods to deal with dissent may have persuaded many Kyrgyz that there are few options left to express discontent and effect change in their country beyond extreme measures, radical protests, and the threat of violence.

CHINESE MILITARY BEARING GIFTS VISIT CENTRAL ASIAN NEIGHBORS. A delegation led by General Xiong Guangkai, the Chinese People's Liberation Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, arrived in Kyrgyzstan on 15 March to sign a protocol on military cooperation with Defense Minister Esen Topoev, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Beijing will give about $1.2 million of military-technical assistance to strengthen Kyrgyzstan's security, especially in the south of the country, Topoev told a press conference. President Akaev also met the delegation to discuss continuing security and counterterrorist cooperation under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

On 16 March, the Chinese delegation arrived in Kazakhstan, where Xiong began by meeting Kazakh Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov and Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev, Xinhua reported. Discussions focused on prospects for bilateral military cooperation and the regional security situation following the war in Afghanistan. Altynbaev announced that China has pledged $3 million in aid with "no strings attached" to the Kazakh armed forces, in the form of office and communications equipment and military hardware for Special Forces subdivisions, Interfax-Kazakhstan said. Immediately undercutting the "no strings attached" provision, however, Xiong went on to tell a press conference that aid to Kazakhstan has "a reciprocal basis" and emphasized that Astana actively opposes the idea of an independent Taiwan and fully supports Beijing's One-China policy, the news agency reported. Xiong also met President Nursultan Nazarbaev on 18 March, AFP and Interfax said. Xiong noted that China is carefully monitoring the American military buildup in Central Asia and is paying "close attention to how long the troops will stay," according to AFP. China's concern about the Pentagon's plans for Central Asia, and the diminishment of its own influence that the American presence would seem to imply, is probably germane to Beijing's decision to build bridges by increasing its military aid to the local governments in the region. As "The Washington Times" commented on 19 March, Xiong is arguably China's top military spy and arguably the country's most important military figure. His signing of military documents personally, in Central Asia and later in the week in Pakistan, was an attempt both to flatter and impress regional governments into taking China seriously as a long-term partner.

...AND TURKS, TOO. Ankara has also been courting military partners in the area more actively, as Turkish armed forces Chief of General Staff General Husein Kivrikoglu toured Central Asia during the past week. In Ashgabat on 12 March, he confirmed to Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov that his country is ready to implement a protocol on training Turkmen military personnel. On the following two days, he visited Kyrgyzstan, where cooperation documents were signed following up on a Turkish military aide package worth $1 million that was delivered to Kyrgyzstan on 9 March, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau said. Akaev asked Kivrikoglu for Turkey's help in getting Kyrgyz troops included in UN peacekeeping contingents serving in Afghanistan.

Another $1.1 million in military assistance is going to Kazakhstan, which Kivrikoglu visited on 15 March. Part of that aid will go toward modernizing air bases around the Kazakh capital, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported, adding that the country already received almost $3 million in Turkish aid in 1998 to upgrade military communications and buy vehicles. Furthermore, a Turkish-Kazakh cooperation agreement was signed on 15 March providing for collaboration between the nations' navies and air forces and training Kazakh cadets in Turkish military colleges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2002). Kivirkoglu told journalists in Astana that, although the United Kingdom is the nominal head of the antiterrorist coalition in Afghanistan at the moment, Ankara is negotiating with alliance members to become one of the coalition leaders in Afghanistan, where 276 Turkish soldiers are serving with the international peacekeeping battalion, Interfax said.

Finally, Kivrikoglu made a stop in Tashkent on 18 March in Tashkent, promising the Uzbek armed forces a further $1.2 million in assistance at a meeting with President Islam Karimov.

KAZBAT DELAYED, PENDING REVIEW. Whereas President Akaev expressed eagerness to dispatch Kyrgyz soldiers to Kabul as peacekeepers, the future of the proposed Kazakh, 600-strong peacekeeping battalion ("Kazbat"), which was supposed to set off for Afghanistan next month, appeared increasingly in doubt. Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister Malik Saparov told a parliamentary committee on 14 March that Kazbat will not be joining the UN peacekeepers until a memorandum of understanding is signed with the UN and domestic legislation is passed on social welfare for the Kazakh force, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 15 March. Saparov added that certain financial issues have not been resolved: While Kazbat servicemen will receive 15,000-20,000 tenge ($98-131) per month during peacetime, it has not been decided what they will be paid while on active service in Afghanistan, although Saparov said he reckons that $600 per month should be the minimum. He revealed that 541 men have already been taken on for Kazbat, of whom 110 are conscripts and the rest are contract servicemen.

Yet as some observers pointed out, the fact that Astana had been planning to send Kazbat to Afghanistan in April without having resolved basic issues of pay, social welfare for the soldiers, and the legal status of the force was rather surprising. On the other hand, the sudden decision to push Kazbat's departure into the indeterminate future for legal-technical reasons may be a face-saving measure on the part of the authorities, who are coming to grips with the fact that Kazbat is unpopular among voters. According to a poll reported by "Kazakhstan Today" website on 22 February, about 35 percent of respondents are dead against sending their compatriots to Afghanistan, with a further 32 percent saying that Kazakhs have already suffered enough in Afghanistan as a result of the Soviet Union's invasion on the country in 1979. Meanwhile, Kazakh veteran groups have protested the planned deployment of Kazbat on two recent occasions, saying there is no reason to make the new generation relive the sort of Afghan experiences that they suffered through under the USSR (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 15 March 2002).