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Central Asia Report: October 17, 2002

17 October 2002, Volume 2, Number 40

REJECTION OF KULOV'S APPEAL TRIGGERS NATIONWIDE PROTESTS... On 11 October the Municipal Court in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek upheld a guilty verdict against Feliks Kulov, leader of the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party and President Askar Akaev's major political foe, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. In May, a lower court (the Pervomay District Court in Bishkek) convicted Kulov of embezzlement during his tenure as governor of Chu Oblast in 1993-97 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. While last week's ruling confirmed the guilty verdict, it cut the jail time by 3 1/2 years according to an amnesty law. Kulov's lawyer Lyubov Ivanova immediately announced that her client would appeal again to a higher court, Interfax reported on 11 October.

Kulov is concurrently serving a separate seven-year sentence that was handed down by the Bishkek City Military Court in January 2001, when he was found guilty of abusing his power as minister of national security in 1997-98. His troubles began after he clashed with Akaev in 1999 while mayor of Bishkek and resigned the post. He subsequently founded Ar-Namys and in early 2000 put himself forward as a candidate for that year's presidential elections. Within weeks of declaring his presidential ambitions he was arrested.

The appeals court's ruling against Kulov on 11 October provoked what Kyrgyz radio described as a riot. Approximately 150 of his supporters had gathered around the courthouse, temporarily blocking traffic at a crossroads in the city center. After Judge Ryspek ShukurAliyev announced his decision, spectators inside the building started jeering, shouting that the code of criminal procedure was being violated, and then began smashing tables and windows and tearing up furnishings in the courtroom, according to the radio's account. According to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, however, reactions were angry but slightly less violent, with dozens of individuals in the crowd outside throwing stones at the courthouse and breaking some of its windows. Observers agreed that Kulov was frog-marched out of the court by law enforcement officials. But the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a local NGO, spread a sensational and apparently exaggerated report that Kulov was actually beaten up by the court bailiffs and security guards as he attempted to address his supporters. At a press conference the following day, prosecutor Atai Shakir Uulu and Justice Ministry officials said the NGO's allegations were lies and that Kulov had been escorted out politely but firmly, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau and Kyrgyz radio reported.

Meanwhile the same NGO made more serious allegations in a 11 October statement addressed to Akaev. It charged that the ruling against Kulov was politically motivated, proved that the judiciary was neither independent nor impartial but in the government's pocket, and "brought to zero" all Kyrgyzstan's recent progress in democratization. Other groups took up the cry. On 12 October, the Ar-Namys Party and the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan issued separate statements also condemning the ruling and claiming that the embezzlement charges brought against Kulov were fabricated. The Republican Committee for Kulov's Defense issued a similar statement on 14 October complaining the court ruling showed that the judiciary was wholly controlled by Akaev and his government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2002). On the following day, a joint statement issued by the Institute for Human Rights and Civil Liberties and the leaders of the Asaba (Banner), Erkindik (Liberty), and Republican parties repeated the foregoing allegations and further demanded that Akaev resign.

Notwithstanding the opposition's outrage at this new evidence, in its view, that Kyrgyzstan's judiciary takes its orders from Akaev, several of last week's statements rather illogically demanded that the president intervene in the case to quash the conviction. Meanwhile, Akaev said last month at the final meeting of the Constitutional Council that the Kulov affair was outside his competence and fell under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. His public relations advisor, Bolot Januzakov, has also reiterated on several occasions that the president has no right to interfere with the legal proceedings, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service noted on 14 October.

On 8 October, while Kulov's appeal was still pending, seven of his supporters in Bishkek went on a hunger strike in a bid to secure his release. Two days later there were already 20 hunger strikers, and Chairman of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan Tursunbek Akunov announced that three more people would join the strike every day, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. As of 15 October there were 32 people holding hunger strikes around the country, including eight in the capital and 10 in Kulov's home district, Alamedin Raion in Chu Oblast. Residents of Kulov's native village of Baitik said they would stage mass protests if he were not released from prison, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) noted on 15 October. Meanwhile a demonstration got under way in the southern city of Osh but was broken up by the police, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service said on the same day. Supporters of Kulov believe their activism can yield results because the government buckled earlier this year in the face of mass protests and hunger strikes on behalf of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov. "We saw how Beknazarov was released from detention through public pressure. We intended to get Kulov freed in the same way," said Bodosh Mamyrova of the Republican Committee for Kulov's Defense, as quoted by IWPR on 15 October.

...AS DOES TRIAL OF OFFICIALS CHARGED WITH AKSY SHOOTINGS. Practically daily between 9-14 October, some 150-200 protestors picketed the government building in Bishkek in support of six law enforcement officials from Djalalabad Oblast facing trial in connection with the police violence against antigovernment demonstrations in March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The protestors were predominantly relatives, friends, and colleagues of the defendants, who are accused of ordering police to open fire into crowds in Aksy Raion, leaving five dead.

Their trial was supposed to open on 30 September in the district center Kerben but was swiftly adjourned when chaos broke out in the courtroom (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 3 October 2002). At the time, protestors threatened to organize large-scale rallies throughout the country if various demands were not met by 10 October. Those demands included acknowledgement by the government in Bishkek that some of its own members were also to blame in the March tragedy. Failure to meet those demands sparked, as promised, the latest round of demonstrations.

The government's position is that the order to shoot was issued by local authorities without its knowledge, and certainly without its approval. In the words of the presidential representative to the Legislative Assembly (lower chamber of parliament), Usup Mukambaev, as quoted by Interfax on 10 October, "The decision to use firearms was made at the local level, so it is necessary to continue the trial of heads of district and regional police departments and prosecutors."

But supporters of the six accused see an operation to shift blame and scapegoat local officials while the real culprits go free. The crowd outside the government building demanded the recall of Kyrgyzstan's Ambassador to Turkey Amanbek Karypkulov, who headed the presidential administration in March and is widely suspected by oppositionists to be the man who really gave the order to shoot. In May, Karypkulov resigned from the presidential apparatus under a cloud, but was named ambassador to Ankara two months later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October 2002). The crowd also called for former Minister of Internal Affairs Temirbek AkmatAliyev and Djalalabad Oblast's former prosecutor, Zootbek Kudaibergenov, to be brought to justice. Some said they would start a hunger strike if the accused were not released from jail, and women threatened to immolate themselves on the street. Their determination appeared to yield some results. Interfax said on 11 October that Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov had quietly opened talks with seven representatives of a committee for the defense of the accused policemen. On the same day, Prosecutor-General Chubak Abyshkaev told the legislature that a criminal case against Kudaibergenov had been filed and he was already under interrogation, RFE/RL reported. But he refused to drop charges against the six men already accused.

The trial was scheduled to resume in Kerben on 15 October. A final demonstration in Bishkek on the previous day was dispersed by police, ITAR-TASS reported. But by this time small protests were breaking out in the south of the country like brushfires. On 12 October, about 200 gathered in Alai Raion and made identical demands to the demonstrators in the capital, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Two days later, a protest march on Bishkek got going from Osh Oblast, but was apparently stopped by police and fizzled out. A bus carrying yet more supporters of the six accused was headed for the capital on 15 October when it was intercepted by the authorities in the town of Toktogul, RFE/RL said.

In this atmosphere, Prosecutor-General Abyshkaev told the parliament on 15 October that the trial was being postponed again to allow for further investigation into the circumstances of the deaths of five killed in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2002). He maintained that fresh testimony offered by unspecified accused local officials shed new light on the case. If so, the material was digested remarkably quickly. On the next day, Chairman of the Osh Military Court Bakyt Arabaev announced that the trial would now open in the town of Mailuu-Suu on 17 October, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Switching court venues at the last moment was a technique the authorities used in the trial of Azimbek Beknazarov to wrong-foot his supporters planning to attend the proceedings.

KAZAKHSTAN PREPARING TO ACCEPT NUCLEAR WASTE. The emotive issue of nuclear materials in Kazakhstan -- site of the Semipalatinsk test range, where the Soviets tested more than 460 nuclear bombs over a 40-year period ending in 1989 -- appeared to be coming to a head again last week, with the news that the European Commission (EC) would be helping the country improve control over the storage of nuclear waste. An EC expert told a press conference in Almaty on 11 October that his organization would be providing 2 million euros ($1.96 million) over the next two years toward the cost of a video monitoring system, measuring instruments, and a sealing and tracing system to ensure the safety of radioactive materials in containers in the uranium workshops of the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in East Kazakhstan Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2002). The plant produces beryllium and dry fuel for nuclear reactors, and is the largest single producer of nuclear fuel in the entire CIS.

The plant is also notorious as the site of a nuclear accident in September 1991, when an explosion caused radioactive beryllium to leak into the air above the town on Oskemen (former Ust-Kamenogorsk). The EC-administered safety program should prevent any such accidents reoccurring in the future, according to the 11 October press conference. Nevertheless, such unhappy experiences associated with Kazakhstan's nuclear legacy -- and the fact that an estimated 800,000 of the country's 15 million inhabitants live in contaminated areas around the Semipalatinsk test site, according to Kazakhstan's Research Institute for Radiation Medicine and Ecology -- underlie the recently renewed dismay of local environmental groups at the news that the government plans to go into business importing other countries' nuclear waste for long-term storage. The necessary legislation is currently under review by the Kazakh parliament, RFE/RL reported on 11 October.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev publicly broached the controversial idea of burying radioactive waste at Semipalatinsk as long ago as August 2001, when he discussed plans drawn up by Kazatomprom, the Kazakh atomic industry agency, which estimated that the country could bring in up to $40 billion over the next three decades by receiving other countries' radioactive waste for disposal (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 30 August 2002.) The huge sums involved explain the government's enthusiasm but have not convinced everyone. When various local NGOs including Tabighat (Nature) and the Electronic Mass Media Journalists Union met in Almaty on 3 October to discuss the issue, the majority of those present condemned the idea, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service said.

Kazakh Commercial TV said on 8 October that Kazakhstan had been chosen by the International Atomic Energy Agency to receive nuclear waste from Bulgaria. Radioactive materials from Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear-power plant could start coming into the country as soon as the following week, the television said. In all likelihood the transaction will open a new chapter in Kazakhstan's nuclear history, from weapons producer to radioactive garbage dump. A lucrative business -- yet one which many Kazakhs, already aghast at the suffering that Semipalatinsk has caused, may come to feel has an unpleasant, if not contaminated, air about it.