Dramatic Protest in Kyrgyzstan

Dissatisfaction at government handling of a political murder case prompts victim's brother to set himself alight.

Dramatic Protest in Kyrgyzstan

Dissatisfaction at government handling of a political murder case prompts victim's brother to set himself alight.

Barely a week seems to go by without some act of politically-linked violence in Kyrgyzstan, but one incident at the end of last week was shocking even by current standards.

In scenes unprecedented for Kyrgyzstan, Asan Erkinbaev set himself on fire in protest at the authorities’ failure to arrest the killers of his politician brother, the late Bayaman Erkinbaev. The impact of his action was multiplied when it was broadcast on television all over the country.

Demonstrations are quite common in Kyrgyzstan’s atmosphere of continuing political turbulence, and the one taking place in the southern city of Jalalabad stood out only because participants said they would set themselves on fire and had gathered petrol canisters to back up their threat.

The protest, which began outside Jalalabad’s regional administration building on November 8, involved about 20 relatives of Bayaman Erkinbaev, a member of parliament who was shot dead in the capital Bishkek on September 21 this year. They were demanding the capture of his killers within three days, a meeting with President Kurmanbek Bakiev, the release of certain associates of the late politician and the dismissal of the judges who jailed them.

It was perhaps to be expected that the authorities would not bend to any of these demands, despite the threats of suicide. Jalalabad governor Jusupbek Jeenbekov and elders from the Erkinbaev family’s native village of Karadarya spent two days trying to talk the protesters out of this course of action.

But at midday on November 11, Erkinbaev’s elder brother Asan, 50, calmly said a Muslim prayer and walked out to the middle of the city’s main square, where he poured petrol over himself and lit a match. He was immediately engulfed in leaping flames.

Asan Erkinbaev had said his goodbyes to those relatives, who did not see him setting himself on fire as they remained inside a traditional yurt erected for the protest.

Journalists and local officials present at the time witnessed the full horror, and were left traumatised.

Panic broke out as people began screaming. Three or four young men nearest to Erkinbaev used pieces of matting and blankets in an attempt to extinguish the fire, and two firefighters who were waiting nearby then put it out using fire extinguishers and sand.

As there was no ambulance in the vicinity, Erkinbaev was taken to hospital by car. With serious burns to his face, neck and hands, he was placed in the resuscitation unit. The doctor dealing with his case, Pazyljan Koiliev, said the patient had second- and third-degree burns.

Zulfia Erkinbaeva, a sister of Asan and Bayaman, insisted that the protesters would not let up, “We demand that the president finds not the people who fired the shots, but those who ordered the killing.”

One of the other main demands made by demonstrators is that the authorities should release 11 associates of the murdered politician who were arrested during an investigation into a serious of violent incidents in southern Kyrgyzstan.

“Free the men today and bring them here. We demand that all the arrested men be released by tomorrow. If you can’t do this, we will set fire to ourselves one by one,” said Murat Jusupov, a nephew of the Erkinbaev brothers.

On November 13, with Asan Erkinbaev still critically ill, other relatives wrote to President Bakiev and the United Nations warning that if the authorities did not make at least some concessions, more people would set themselves on fire.

Jarkyn Erkinbaeva, another sister, said, “We have already said goodbye to our families, and prepared our shrouds - we are ready for death.”

The circumstances that led up to Bayaman Erkinbaev's death reflect the sheer complexity – and numerous unknowns - of the shifting and uncertain political environment that emerged in the wake of the March revolution.

The dead politician was a controversial figure who owned Central Asia's largest wholesale market, located at Karasuu on the border with Uzbekistan. When businessman Abdalim Junusov led a movement by traders to wrest control of the market from Erkinbaev in June, months of localised unrest ensued in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The simmering dispute also contributed to the removal of Kyrgyzstan's crusading chief prosecutor Azimbek Beknazorov, accused of failing to hold two Erkinbaev associates in custody for a prior offence. This lapse, it was alleged, contributed indirectly to Junusov's murder on September 5.

It is an accusation Beknazarov strongly denies; instead, he says he was removed because his investigations into corrupt officials were too successful.

Erkinbaev was only one of three members of parliament who have died violent deaths in the last six months.

Jyrgalbek Surabaldiev was gunned down in central Bishkek in a similarly professional-looking attack in June, while Tynychbek Akmatbaev was killed with three other officials in a fight while visiting a prison in October. The murder of the two politicians, and the public protest that followed Akmatbaev's death, left the same kind of complex questions about the relationship between politics, business and crime hanging in the air.

Although no clear reason for Erkinbaev's murder has yet emerged, it seems certain it was a professional hit, a fact that leaves many of his fellow members of parliament understandably concerned about personal security.

Member of parliament Temir Sariev warns that “if the investigations into the murders of parliamentary deputies prove ineffective, then these events may be repeated”.

Sariev's colleague Iskhak Masaliev believes the failure to provide relatives with information on the progress of the investigation goes some way to explaining why Erkinbaev's brother Asan acted as he did.

“The relatives of the murdered man have the right to know who has been brought into the investigation, and who is to be charged,” said Masaliev.

However, Marat Imankulov, head of investigations at the National Security Service, told IWPR that a joint team working on the case had in fact made five arrests of murder suspects, and had charged two of them.

“We know the individual who actually carried out the murder - he went abroad immediately after the crime,” said Imankulov. “We also know where he went, and have passed this information to Interpol. The investigation is already concluding and we'll soon be sending the case to court."

According to Imankulov, the murder case is a lot simpler than some conspiracy theorists would have it, "There are no hidden political motives here. According to the information we currently have, it looks to be a settling of scores among criminals, because the men who've been arrested are directly linked into the underworld.”

For many people in Kyrgyzstan, the reaction to Asan Erkinbaev's self-immolation is pure shock that anyone could take such a dramatic course of action, whatever the motive.

"This is no way to defend one’s rights,” said Baktykan Japarova, a representative of the Jalalabad-based human rights group Spravedlivost. “Self-immolation is one of the worst ways of presenting political demands – one must defend one's rights in other ways."

The spectacle of an attempted suicide as media event was distressing for many people. Three hours after it happened, the footage was being shown at length and in close-up by the NTS television channel all over the country.

This led Bishkek's chief psychiatrist, Kenesh Usenov, to appeal to journalists to behave more responsibly when covering cases where people threaten to set themselves on fire.

“The media which show shocking reports and descriptions of self-immolation over and over again bear moral responsibility if these acts are then copied or imitated," said Usenov in a public statement. “Such images do psychological harm to viewers, especially children and adolescents.”

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. Jalil Saparov is an IWPR contributor in Jalalabad.

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