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Fugitive Uzbek Community Leader Tells His Story Of The Unrest

Ethnic Uzbek community leader in Kyrgyzstan, Kadyrjon Batyrov, in an April photograph from Jalal-Abad
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have sent a request to Ukraine for the extradition of Kadyrjon Batyrov, who is accused by Bishkek of fomenting interethnic hatred. They attribute statements to Batyrov on greater rights for Kyrgyzstan's ethnic Uzbeks that they say were one of the main sparks that ignited clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June in the Osh and Jalal-Abad provinces that left hundreds dead and briefly displaced hundreds of thousands of people, mainly Uzbeks.

Batyrov was a leader of the Uzbek community in southern Kyrgyzstan and the owner of the private People's Friendship University in Jalal-Abad, which was damaged in May and torched during the June unrest. He helped mobilize the Uzbek community against supporters of former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev after the latter was forced from power by angry crowds in early April. Bakiev, who was unpopular among ethnic Uzbeks, attempted unsuccessfully to rally support in the country's south but eventually was forced to flee to Belarus. At the time, Batyrov says he was instrumental in keeping ethnic Uzbeks out of a conflict he described as "purely a Kyrgyz affair." But after Bakiev fled, some ethnic Uzbeks burned down the home of Bakiev's father and increasingly came into conflict with the local ethnic Kyrgyz population.

Despite the fact that a disproportionate amount of June's violence in southern Kyrgyzstan was inflicted on ethnic Uzbeks, many Kyrgyz blame Uzbeks for having started the violence.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Oktambek Karimov spoke by telephone with Batyrov, who was at an undisclosed location in Ukraine, about events in Kyrgyzstan this year and his role in them.

Batyrov insisted that Kyrgyz authorities were wasting their time seeking to bring him back instead of looking for the "real culprits." Batyrov objected to what he said were government attempts to "demonize" Uzbek community leaders in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Batyrov offered his view of why the Uzbeks of southern Kyrgyzstan were targeted in the June violence and continue to be targeted for prosecution. So far, more than two dozen people have been put on trial in Kyrgyzstan in connections with the June violence -- all of them ethnic Uzbeks. At least eight have been convicted.

Batyrov said that after the April ouster of then-President Bakiev, "the constitutional reform debate started in Kyrgyzstan [and] Uzbeks took an active part in it."

"And the size of the [ethnic] Uzbek population, their political power, the potential of their leaders, frightened many Kyrgyz politicians," Batyrov said. "I believe that what happened and what's happening today in southern Kyrgyzstan is the result of this fear."

But Batyrov said he thinks the roots of that "fear" can be traced back even further.

"In 2009, during Bakiev's time, there was a population census. After this census, public opinion toward Uzbeks changed drastically," Batyrov said. "The census showed that the Uzbek population in Osh, Jalal-Abad, and surrounding areas had grown noticeably. At the same time, people became more and more aware of the nationwide actions of the Bakiev government, how they were stealing foreign financial aid and so on. In this situation, Bakiev took the role of nationalist upon himself and brought nationalist cadres into the republican and local administration. These nationalists launched anti-Uzbek policies."

By mid-May of this year, Bakiev had left for Belarus but the nationalist sentiment Batyrov claims the former president nurtured remained. The interim government in Bishkek, led by Roza Otunbaeva, called on Batyrov to rally the Uzbek community in the south when the Jalal-Abad administration was seized by Bakiev loyalists. The Uzbek community responded by helping pro-interim government forces reclaim the building. That was when some Uzbeks marched on the home of former President Bakiev's father and set it on fire. Local ethnic Kyrgyz who Batyrov claims were Bakiev supporters objected strongly to the act. The next building to be attacked was Batyrov's People's Friendship University.

When fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks started in June, many in Kyrgyzstan claimed Batyrov went into hiding then fled the country. But Batyrov told RFE/RL that he departed Kyrgyzstan much earlier: immediately after the attack on his university in Jalal-Abad.

"On May 19, a number of Bakiev supporters, supporters of [Bakiev adviser] Usen Sydykov, a number of street criminals, and also their supporters inside the police gathered in our hippodrome (horse-racing track) of Jalal-Abad and around 2,000-3,000 of them attacked our university," Batyrov said. "At the same time around 30,000 Uzbeks gathered to support us. Our young people were killed, the university was looted and attacked; but I asked my supporters not to lift a hand against the attackers."

He said that then-interim Defense Minister Ismail Isakov and First Deputy Interior Minister Bakyt Alimbekov "knew about it" and appeared at the university at 6:00 the next morning to talk with university officials, who showed them video recordings of the attack.

"They expressed regret and admitted that the interim government did not have enough power and resources, and that Bakiev and Sydykov were trying to incite nationalist feelings among the Kyrgyz and that the interim government was in danger," Batyrov said. "At that meeting, on behalf of the interim government, they asked that I give them some time to calm the Kyrgyz and [urged me to] leave Kyrgyzstan for several days to calm the situation."

Batyrov said it was Isakov who requested that he leave Kyrgyzstan "in order to reduce ethnic tensions in the south."

But Batyrov, by his account, was already outside the country. Still, he told RFE/RL, despite that situation, some Kyrgyz officials -- particularly in the south -- blamed him for inciting the violence by demanding greater rights for Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks.

Many Kyrgyz in the south claim Batyrov was calling for an autonomous Uzbek region inside Kyrgyzstan. Batyrov admits making public statements about greater rights for Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks, but he denies any calls for separatism.

"I have been one of the leaders of Uzbek community in Kyrgyzstan for more than 20 years, and neither I nor any other leaders of the Uzbek community have ever demanded autonomy for Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan," Batyrov said. "When journalists asked me a number of times the same question, my answer to them was clear: 'For us, it is better to have a constitution which meets international standards on human rights and gives an opportunity to everyone for a better life than it would be to have autonomy.'"

Batyrov told RFE/RL he knows the identities of the "main culprits" behind the June violence, and he named several high-profile figures who are in the current government or seeking seats in the October 10 parliamentary elections. He claimed to have proof of their guilt, but he did not provide any of that proof in his telephone interview.

written by Bruce Pannier based on contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
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