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Central Asia Report: November 7, 2002

7 November 2002, Volume 2, Number 42

OPPOSITIONISTS CLAIM GOVERNMENT BEHIND RAPE CHARGE AGAINST JOURNALIST. Kazakh independent media's struggle for legitimacy and survival suffered a new setback on 7 November as prosecutors formally charged opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov with the rape of a 14-year-old girl. If convicted, Duvanov could face up to 10 years in jail, RFE/RL reported.

Duvanov, who edits the weekly bulletin of the International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Almaty, and is one of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's most outspoken critics, was taken into custody at his dacha in the village of Qainar outside Almaty on the morning of 28 October. On the following day, he was due to fly to the United States to deliver a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on Kazakhstan's human rights situation and to receive a journalism award from the New York-based International League for Human Rights. The circumstances of his arrest were described in a statement issued by Duvanov, and by Rozlana Taukina, president of the Journalists in Distress foundation, speaking at the National Press Club in Almaty on 28 October. On the evening of 27 October, a group of his neighbors, accompanied by the unidentified girl whom he assumed was their friend, came over to his dacha to use his sauna. After they left it, Duvanov returned to the sauna and lost consciousness after drinking strange-tasting tea prepared by the girl, which he now believes was laced with a strong sedative. He was woken the next morning by Interior Ministry officers and, informed that the underage girl's mother had made an allegation of rape, taken to the local remand prison.

The Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) noted on 30 October that many of Duvanov's supporters believed his arrest, although carried out by local police, was actually arranged by the National Security Committee (successor to the KGB). The National Security Committee, Kazakh political analyst Nurbulat Masanov told IWPR, "controls the prosecutors' offices, courts, and certain media."

Suspicions grew that central government itself had orchestrated Duvanov's arrest following a press conference convened by the Almaty police department on the afternoon of 28 October, when officials distributed a so-called press release titled "Theses for the news conference." The document, it turned out, had been faxed from the presidential press service in the capital Astana and contained instructions on how to field journalists' questions related to his arrest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 2002). Among other things, police were told to stress that "all of Mr. Duvanov's constitutional rights are being respected." Yet more suspicious, however, was the fact that the time log on the fax read 6:48 a.m. on 28 October, indicating it had been sent about 90 minutes before Duvanov was picked up by the police.

On 31 October, Interior Ministry spokesman Nurtay Agubaev said that he had sent the fax. Meanwhile, a presidential adviser, Ermukhammed Ertisbaev, confirmed to RFE/RL on the same day that it had been sent from the presidential press service's fax machine. Challenged about the 90-minute discrepancy, Ertisbaev said the fax machine's timer had been set wrong. That was the official position taken on 1 November by the chief of the presidential press service, Eset Qosubaev, who, as quoted by Interfax-Kazakhstan, stated that his organization "[had] nothing to do with the content of the document," although he acknowledged the machine had been made available to Agubaev. However, no explanation was given why an Interior Ministry official would be sending a fax from the presidential office -- or why he would be coaching local police at all on how to respond to journalists.

While the authorities maintained that Duvanov's journalism was irrelevant to their case, many Kazakh oppositionists and international observers saw it as another heavy-handed attack against a critic of the regime. RFE/RL President Thomas Dine deplored the move in a statement, calling the circumstances "more than suspicious" and warning, "This continuing harassment of journalists in Kazakhstan does not bring credit to the Nazarbaev government" (see "RFE/RL Condemns Arrest of Kazakh Journalist,", 31 October 2002). In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to comment on Duvanov's arrest, saying he lacked sufficient information to do so, but he noted a "string of abuses, the pattern of harassment" against the independent media in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2002). Human Rights Watch said in a press release, "Duvanov's longstanding history of criticizing government policy...raise[s] suspicions that this has all the makings of a politically motivated case" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 2002).

Duvanov was charged in July under Article 318 of the Kazakh Criminal Code with insulting the dignity and honor of the president, after publishing an article titled "Silence of the Lambs" accusing Nazarbaev and his circle of having stashed more than $1 billion of state money in secret Swiss bank accounts. The legal proceedings have since stalled. Then, on 28 August, on the eve of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference in Warsaw, Poland, where Duvanov was scheduled to discuss human rights and the media in Kazakhstan, he was attacked by three masked men outside his Almaty apartment, viciously beaten, and slashed with a knife (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 5 September 2002). Despite his injuries, he attended the meeting. Most recently, as IWPR noted on 30 October, his mother was injured in a hit-and-run car accident.

At first, Duvanov was only supposed to be held in jail for three days. (Strictly speaking, he had not been arrested but was being detained without charge.) But when his original term of detention expired on 31 October, the Almaty Oblast prosecutor extended it by 10 days, Interfax reported. He was finally charged on 7 November. Meanwhile, Duvanov had embarked on a dry hunger strike on 29 October, refusing any form of sustenance after he was denied permission to accept food parcels from his family and supporters, Interfax-Kazakhstan said. As of 7 November, he had still accepted neither food nor water. According to Yevgenii Zhortis, who heads the Kazakh office of the International Bureau for Human Rights and is serving as one of Duvanov's lawyers, his client could no longer walk by himself and needed to be helped into the interrogation room every day. He said Duvanov's life was in danger, RFE/RL reported on 6 November. But he added that the authorities had examined Duvanov and decided to start force-feeding him through a catheter, Interfax-Kazakhstan said the same day. On 7 November, OSCE representative Freimut Duve warned the Kazakh authorities that they bear full responsibility for Duvanov's life while under arrest. He added that the pattern of incidents involving the prisoner has triggered concerns that the case may be politically motivated (see "Kazakhstan: OSCE Concerned by Charges Against Journalist,", 7 November 2002).

On 6 November, some of the leaders of the Committee for Sergei Duvanov's release -- Nurbolat Masanov, Gulzhan Ergalieva (deputy chairwoman of the People's Congress Party), and Aleksandr Skryl (a staffer on the weekly human rights bulletin that Duvanov edits) -- announced that they had begun a hunger strike aimed at stopping the legal proceedings against their colleague, saying the case was fabricated and politically motivated, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Another member of the committee, Amirzhan Kosanov, who also chairs the Executive Committee of the opposition Republican People's Party, told journalists that Duvanov's supporters intended "to carry out a number of political actions both inside the country and abroad." He declined to offer further details.

PROTESTS SPREAD IN KYRGYZSTAN AFTER ELECTION RESULTS ANNULLED. The Kyrgyz authorities sparked another crisis in the south of the country, which has been a political tinderbox since the clashes between police and antigovernment demonstrators in Aksy Raion in March, when on 27 October the Osh City Court annulled the results of a parliamentary by-election won by opposition candidate Usen Sydykov.

Four seats in parliament fell vacant in May after their incumbents were promoted to government posts. Former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev was the only candidate to win a first-round victory on 20 October, when he was elected to represent the southern district of Ala-Buka with 67.3 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2002).

Sydykov, a former deputy prime minister and chairman of the Agrarian-Labor Party, emerged victorious after he garnered 46 percent of the vote in the first round of voting for Kara-Kulja Raion on 20 October. He was scheduled to face Zamirbek Parmankulov, who came second with 19 percent of the vote, in a runoff on 3 November. But the Osh City Court ruled that there had been irregularities in the voting, while Sydykov had violated electoral procedures by not resigning as Kyrgyz representative to a CIS body in Minsk prior to the ballot. Consequently, it barred him from participating in the runoff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October and 4 November 2002). This left Djolbors Osmonov, who came in third place with 12 percent of the vote, to contend the seat with Parmankulov in Round 2.

To protest what they regarded as blatant meddling by the government to distort the democratic process, some 2,000-4,000 people gathered in Kara-Kulja and Uzgen raions on 29 October, calling for the court's ruling to be overturned, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Approximately half that number demonstrated again the following day. Meanwhile, the protests spread to Kara-Suu in Aksy Raion, where about 1,200 people rallied and threatened to march on the capital Bishkek if Sydykov was not put back on the ballot, RFE/RL said on 30 October. On the following day, a large crowd picketed the government building in the regional center of Djalalabad, where it was addressed by Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov and Djalalabad Governor Djusupbek Sharipov, who appealed to protesters to disperse, AKIpress reported. Their appeal was ignored. In response, opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov called the court's decision to disqualify Sydykov "an illegal, deliberately organized act by the country's supreme political authorities," the news agency said. As the crowd began to chant for President Askar Akaev to resign, about 350 of Sydykov's supporters decided to march to Bishkek, some 500 kilometers away, to prevent the second round of elections from being held unless their candidate was reinstated, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

But Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission was already maneuvering to forestall them. On 31 October, the commission met for an extraordinary session and recommended postponing the runoff elections in the south of the country scheduled for 3 November. Commission Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev blandly explained there were concerns about continuing protests in Kara-Kulja and Uzgen raions, RFE/RL reported.

In the meantime, Sydykov had filed an appeal with Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court soon after the Osh City Court disqualified him from the election race. But on 1 November, the Supreme Court upheld the lower-court ruling. Soon afterward, Central Election Commission spokeswoman Dinara Beknazarov announced that the commission had postponed the runoff in Kara-Kulja indefinitely due to unrest in the region, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service said.

In the south of the country, the 350 supporters of Sydykov who had set off on their protest march to Bishkek were still marching. By 1 November, they had reached the town of Bazar-Kurgan, 450 kilometers from the capital. By 2 November, they had reached the town of Kochkor-Ata near the border with Uzbekistan. Three days later, they came to the town of Tash-Komur, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. There, 1,000 residents came onto the streets to join the marchers for a protest. By this time, Sydykov himself had joined the marchers. On 6 November, Kyrgyz TV reported that they had taken over the empty building of a kindergarten in Tash-Komur and refused to be dislodged.

Meanwhile, the government, perhaps having learned from past mistakes not to overreact, maintained a calm front. At least there were no reports of police harassment or physical violence. On 4 November, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev did a live phone-in interview on Kyrgyz TV and said that "the social and political situation has basically stabilized." He admitted that "some people are going around with placards and advancing various demands...[but] the situation is normal and peaceful in the country as a whole." Also on 4 November, the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of the Kyrgyz parliament) decided to establish a special commission to monitor rising tensions in the south of the country. Deputies warned, that "if the authorities do not consider the situation in the south and take measures, there is no guarantee that the Aksy events will not happen again," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

Nevertheless, slowly but surely, tempers seemed to be fraying within the government. There was more belligerent language from Deputy Prime Minister Osmonov, who on 6 November accused opposition groups of using "dirty tricks" to win electoral support. He said that the electoral debacle in Kara-Kulja "provided a good example of the manipulation of public opinion by the opposition," RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. An official statement circulated on the same day in Bishkek, as quoted by Interfax, warned that the government "will not allow the law to be broken, arbitrary rule to be applied, or terms to be dictated by anyone. Illegal actions will be immediately subdued by law enforcement agencies." It went on to say, "In a bid to secure administrative and judicial decisions in their favor, the organizers of such actions, using ties of blood, provoke people to seize state buildings, seal off roads, lodge tough demands with the authorities, and pressure law-enforcement agencies and courts." The reference to the seizure of state buildings presumably referred to the takeover of the empty kindergarten building.