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Kyrgyz National Hero Comes Back From The Dead

Protesters carry a victim of the security forces' crackdown on the crowd outside the main government building in Bishkek on April 7, 2010, when officials say 87 people died.
Protesters carry a victim of the security forces' crackdown on the crowd outside the main government building in Bishkek on April 7, 2010, when officials say 87 people died.
Just days before his family was to receive the keys to a new Bishkek apartment as compensation for the death of protester Maralbek Maksymbekov, a funny thing happened.

The country learned that the "dead hero" -- listed among the 87 official victims of the April 7, 2010, crackdown on Bishkek's Ala-Too Square that sparked a popular revolt -- is alive and well. In fact, he's driving a minibus in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg and giving video testimony to prove that reports of his death are, as they say, greatly exaggerated.

So are suggestions that Maksymbekov ever set foot in Ala-Too Square on that fateful day, he says, when then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev appeared to seal his own fate by ordering security forces to fire on demonstrators.

Maksymbekov has already been named a national hero, and his family has collected one million soms ($21,200) in compensation for their loss.

All of which has prompted authorities to launch an investigation into how and why such a seemingly embarrassing mixup happened.

String Of Mistakes

In the videotape shown to Kyrgyz lawmakers this week, Maksymbekov confirms that he is in Yekaterinburg and says he has no idea how his name got on the list of those killed in the square.

The video was presented to parliament by Altynbek Sulaimanov, a deputy from the Respublika party, who says he tipped off journalists in hopes of finding and questioning Maksymbekov.

Maksymbekov tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that he first heard about his status as a national hero just a few weeks ago, when a fellow Kyrgyz migrant working in Russia told him.

Maksymbekov says he can't explain how two of his sons, Erlan and Mirlan, might have identified the body of a dead protester as his.

"I don't know how it happened," says Maksymbekov, a 48-year-old father of four and native of the southern Jalal-Abat province, adding that he hadn't contacted his family for about six months. "Perhaps that was the reason, because they couldn't find me."

No one seems to have a clear idea of how the mixup began.

The speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, Akmatbek Keldibekov, says it appears that a passport that Maksymbekov claims to have lost led to hasty conclusions.

"According to the information I got, Maksymbekov's passport was lost and the passport was found in the dead protester's pocket," Keldibekov says. "That's how that body was identified as Maksymbekov. Now we have to find out whose body that was."

Compounding A Tragedy

Maksymbekov's oldest son, 26-year-old Erlan, collected the 1 million-som death benefit from the authorities.

Now they say Erlan has to repay the money.

In testimony in the Prosecutor-General's Office obtained by RFE/RL, Erlan said he thought his father was in Bishkek last spring "doing various jobs." Erlan also said he had been looking for his father and finally identified his body in a Bishkek morgue on April 19.

Once that identification was complete, authorities included Maralbek Maksymbekov's name on the list of dead protesters. The body, which authorities say had gunshot wounds to the chest, was buried at the Ata-Beyit memorial site along with other victims. Apparently without Maksymbekov's knowledge, he and the others were honored as national heroes by the interim government that took over after Bakiev fled into exile.

Officials at the Ministry of Social Welfare who deal with compensation issues insist they have done nothing wrong.

Deputy Minister Kyialbek Mukashev says compensation was paid to Maksimbekov's oldest son, who was the next of kin, since Maksymbekov was a widower.

He says another son, Erlan, provided all the necessary documents, including the death certificates of his parents.

The Real Victim

Talking to local media, Erlan said the "entire family was in shock" earlier this month when they learned that their father was alive in Russia. After initially dismissing the news as a misunderstanding, Erlan reportedly traveled to Russia and met with his father.

Erlan had been set to receive an apartment in the capital, Bishkek, in a new block built specially for families of the victims who lost their lives in the April 7 clashes between protesters and government forces.

That handover has been frozen pending the results of the investigation, which is bound to conclude that Maksymbekov is neither dead nor a national hero.

Meanwhile, the other question facing investigators is: If those are not Maralbek Maksymbekov's remains buried at the Bishkek memorial to the victims of a seminal Kyrgyz tragedy, whose are they?

written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
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