Killing Sparks Unrest in Kyrgyz South

Police regain control after protest gets out of hand, but incident highlights simmering ethnic tensions.

Killing Sparks Unrest in Kyrgyz South

Police regain control after protest gets out of hand, but incident highlights simmering ethnic tensions.

Extra police were bussed in to maintain order in Nookat after the crowd of demonstrators dispersed. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov/Radio Azattyk)
Extra police were bussed in to maintain order in Nookat after the crowd of demonstrators dispersed. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov/Radio Azattyk)
Security units were out in force following disturbances in Nookat, southern Kyrgyzstan. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
Security units were out in force following disturbances in Nookat, southern Kyrgyzstan. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
Protesters set fire to a house belonging to a local resident who they believe ordered the killing of a local tax official. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
Protesters set fire to a house belonging to a local resident who they believe ordered the killing of a local tax official. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
Interior of the house after it was gutted in an arson attack. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
Interior of the house after it was gutted in an arson attack. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
A nearby café was also burned down, though it is unclear whether this was deliberate. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
A nearby café was also burned down, though it is unclear whether this was deliberate. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
A traffic policeman on Nookat’s main street as a semblance of normality returns. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
A traffic policeman on Nookat’s main street as a semblance of normality returns. (Photo: Ernist Nourmatov)
Wednesday, 2 March, 2011

The atmosphere remained tense in Nookat, a town in southern Kyrgyzstan, on March 2, a day after crowds set fire to the home of a man they believe ordered the killing of a local tax official.

The incident was a reminder just how precarious stability is in southern Kyrgyzstan in the wake of massive violence that scarred the region last June, and left over 400 people dead and homes and businesses looted and burned.

On March 1, between 400 and 700 demonstrators gathered in Nookat, a small town some 30 kilometres from Osh, to demand action on the murder of Sagynbek Alimbaev, the deputy head of the district tax service who was found dead with gunshot wounds on February 23.

Police made two arrests on February 25, and information then leaked out that the detained suspects had named a man who they said had ordered them to carry out the murder.

It was this leaked account that prompted the protest in Nookat.

Initially, the crowd, believed to include relatives of the late Alimbaev, called on the authorities to extradite and try the alleged mastermind, who was said to be across the border in Uzbekistan. But some in the crowd then attacked and torched the man’s home. Several nearby shops were also damaged, though it is unclear whether this was by design or accident.

Police then stepped in, dispersed the crowd, and detained 20 people, who were subsequently released. Additional security forces were sent in to maintain order.

Asked how sensitive information relating to Alimbaev’s murder could have been allowed to get out, Kyrgyzstan’s interior minister Zarylbek Rysaliev said, “Nookat is a small town. Everyone knows each other. Whether we like it or not, information is going to leak out.”

At one level, the incident can be seen as local anger over a murder getting out of hand. However, it needs to be seen in the context of the fraught and uneasy environment that has prevailed since last year’s violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

Alimbaev was Kyrgyz and the man allegedly behind his killing was Uzbek, as are most people in Nookat.

Many Uzbek residents of the town are reluctant to speak, but those who are prepared to do so say they fear a repeat of last year’s bloodshed.

One man, who asked not to be named, said he had been planning to leave anyway – probably to Russia – but this incident had made him want to go as soon as possible.

“Since last summer, we’ve been living in fear of something happening,” he said. “If we can, we’ll be leaving in the next few days.”

Another man from the town, who witnessed the protest, said some participants were calling for Uzbeks to be expelled from Nookat and the surrounding district.

Experts interviewed by IWPR said the outbreak of trouble in tensions in Nookat showed how rapidly things could get out of hand in an atmosphere of continuing mistrust. This was compounded, they said, by the fact that the country had not really come to terms with last year’s violence, and that many of those behind it – regional and criminal groupings – were still at large

“There’s been no final resolution of that [2010] situation, and those responsible have not been held to account,” Pavel Dyatlenko, an expert at the Polis Asia Centre, a think-tank in Bishkek, said. “The conflict is now latent, manifested in the form of animosities and tensions. It will re-emerge at the first possible pretext.”

Dyatlenko pointed out that the Kyrgyz political scene remained fluid, with a presidential election just over six months away, and a real risk posed by what he called “political forces that either want to derail [the political process] or to exploit the situation and score points – using false patriotism to win votes.”

Other commentators like political analyst Asel Myrzakulova argue that events in Nookat show that the Kyrgyzstan authorities’ level of control is weak.

“It’s an indicator not of ethnic confrontation but of ineffective work by the authorities,” she said. “Carefully-calibrated measures need to be chosen that won’t lead to any ethnic group living in this country having its rights abused.”

Human rights activist Tursunay Kadyrova was present at the protest in Nookat, and told IWPR there were too few police there at the start.

“If the protesters had taken them on, the police wouldn’t have been able to contain them,” she said.

Another analyst, Marat Kazakpaev, said that while there was an ethnic angle to the trouble, the main thing was to remove any cause for further escalation. Ensuring that the investigation into Alimbaev’s death was conducted speedily, as the protesters were demanding, would remove the potential for exploiting the case to incite more trouble, he said.

Yevgenia Kim and Isomidin Ahmedjanov are IWPR trained journalists in Kyrgyzstan.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.


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