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Kulov Conviction Appeal
Opposition leader Felix Kulov has been jailed for seven years after a military tribunal found him guilty of abusing his powers during his spell as Kyrgyz security minister.
The unusually harsh sentence sent shockwaves through Kyrgyz society last week with one politician warning that the verdict could "trigger a social explosion".
And Western observers have been quick to criticise the court's decision which they described as "politically motivated".
Braving sub-zero temperatures, a crowd of Kulov supporters waited for several hours outside the Bishkek Military Tribunal on January 22 to hear the verdict.
Rumours had circulated before the hearing that the defendant would be cleared of all charges - and the supporters were expecting to toast his release with a glass of champagne.
But instead came the crushing news that General Kulov had been sentenced to seven years in a maximum security prison and stripped of his military rank.
Many supporters broke down sobbing as the defendant was led from the courtroom by a squad of armed guards and driven away in an armoured van.
On the following day, Bayas Djakypov, representative of the Kaara-Buura region, pledged to take 1,000 protestors to Bishkek to stage a demonstration outside Government House.
Meanwhile, lawyers representing Kulov pledged that they would appeal to the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan, claiming that the charges had been fabricated by the government in a bid to discredit the opposition leader.
And Kulov's defence attorney, Lyubov Ivanova, said that, despite ill-health brought on by his long confinement in freezing investigation cells, her client was ready to go on hunger strike to stand up for his legal rights.
At the same press conference, Kulov's brother, Marsel, told journalists, "If there is any threat to my brother's life then President Askar Akaev will answer for it!"
Ironically, 10 years ago Felix Kulov played a decisive role in securing Akaev's victory in Kyrgyzstan's first presidential elections. He was subsequently appointed vice-president, then held a series of top government posts including governor of the Chuiskaya oblast, security minister and mayor of Bishkek.
However, by the late 1990s, it became clear that Kulov disagreed with the president on a number of key policy issues and, in the spring of 1999, he resigned as mayor of the Kyrgyz capital.
Kulov went on to found the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party and opened plush offices in central Bishkek. In last year's parliamentary elections, he stood as a candidate for the far-flung Talasskaya oblast - rather than his native Chuiskaya - and, in the first round of voting, scooped a 44 per cent majority.
However, Kulov mysteriously failed to secure a parliamentary seat in the second round, prompting widespread accusations that the government had deliberately fixed the election results.
Thousands of supporters from the Kaara-Buura voting district of the Talasskaya oblast promptly staged a series of protest meetings which were broken up by local police. Special forces troops were called in from neighbouring Kazakstan to help deal with the emergency.
In the aftermath, the chairman of an electoral commission from one of the voting districts committed suicide.
Kulov was arrested by Kyrgyz security ministry officials on March 22 last year, shortly after announcing his intention to run for president in the November elections.
Kulov was accused of abusing his powers during his term as Kyrgyzstan's security minister. Individual charges included illegally promoting a subordinate to the rank of captain; using illegal channels to buy special equipment for the ministry and tapping a parliamentary deputy's phone.
On August 7, however, Kulov's case was dismissed by the deputy chairman of the Bishkek Military Tribunal, Major Ashymbek uulu Nurlan, on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges. The defendant was promptly released from custody.
But, less than a month later, Nurlan was accused by a government newspaper, Slovo Kyrgyzstana (Word of Kyrgyzstan), of accepting a $1 million bribe and the High Court sent the case back for further investigation.
Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz media launched a vicious smear campaign against Kulov, claiming that he had been involved in shady business dealings, illegal arms sales and even in the murder of a well-known businessman.
Kulov's case has inspired mixed emotions amongst the Bishkek political elite. Some say that the charges were trumped up by Akaev's government in a bid to remove a serious contender from the presidential race.
Others claim Kulov was never the national martyr that people believed him to be.
Tursunbek Akunov, a human rights campaigner and a presidential candidate in the November elections, said, "Kulov was never an opposition figure. For eight years, he held some of the highest posts in Kyrgyzstan and helped make critical decisions on the future of the country. Kulov has always served the authorities."
However, supporters and critics alike were stunned by the severity of the court's sentence. Absamat Masaliev, leader of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, said, "The Kulov affair has really shown the existing regime in its true colours.
"Social unrest is building up amongst the population at large and Kulov's case could trigger a social explosion."
Tolekan Ismailova, head of an NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, warns, "Under the current regime, anyone who sets themselves up in opposition could suffer the same fate as Kulov.
"Kyrgyzstan is rolling backwards - towards dictatorship. The fragmentation of political forces, political apathy and the people's lack of legal know-how have all played into the hands of the existing leadership."
Nevertheless, the Kyrgyz opposition forces are no longer unanimous in their support of Kulov. Only the most dedicated Ar-Namys party supporters and members of Kulov's own family are still trying to keep the case in the public eye.
They are supported by Omurbek Tekebaev, parliamentary vice-speaker and leader of the Ata-Meken (Homeland) Socialist Party, who forged a political alliance with Kulov on the eve of the presidential election.
Tekebaev has publicly announced that he will continue to use every political and legal means at his disposal to secure Kulov's release.
The opposition's change of heart is widely ascribed to a statement made by Kulov in the wake of President Akaev's election victory in November. From his detention cell, the former vice-president reportedly assured the regime of his loyalty and his readiness to cooperate.
The authorities, on the other hand, are showing little sign of relenting. Kulov's supporters have complained that they are being prevented from staging protest meetings while Lyubov Ivanova said she was forced to communicate with her client by telephone, through a glass screen. "Who can guarantee that the phone is not being tapped?" she asked.
Both the European Union and the US State Department have already made it clear that they do not accept the court's decision. The EU statement read, "The handling of the case by the Kyrgyz authorities nourished the suspicion that the case may be politically motivated."
A State Department communique urged the Kyrgyz authorities to ensure that
"correct and open procedures" were observed during the appeal case.
Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor
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