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Kulov Muzzled

Family, colleagues and even neighbours are made to fear association with the imprisoned opposition leader, as the government threatens him with renewed charges.
By Venera Jumataeva

Kyrgyz state security officials have ordered the confiscation of all property belonging

to Felix Kulov, as the imprisoned former vice-president faces renewed charges of embezzlement which could triple the seven year sentence he is currently serving.

The moves are the latest attempt by authorities to discredit the man widely seen as one of President Askar Akaev's main rivals. In recent months, Kulov has been viewed as the only individual with sufficient political stature to threaten Akaev's presidency.

As leader of the main opposition Ar-Namys party, Kulov emerged as the symbol of the country's opposition and earned US support during his term in prison last year. He was jailed following his declaration to run in the 2000 presidential elections.

Then, this January, Kulov was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of power during his term as National Security Minister in 1997-98.

According to his lawyer, Lyubov Ivanova, Kulov is now facing 15 new charges, the most serious of which is large-scale embezzlement while governor of the Chu province in 1993-97, and also while serving as mayor of Bishkek in 1998-99. The authorities have given no information about the timing of any trial on the new charges.

Meantime, since the January verdict was handed down, many of those associated with him say they have faced various forms of harassment, and over 100 people, including members of Kulov's family, friends and political colleagues, have sought political asylum.

Authorities deny allegations by Kulov's family and members of his Ar-Namys party that they are victims of political persecution.

"There is neither criminal, nor any other type of persecution of his family or colleagues," said National Security Service spokesman Nurkul Sulaimanov. "His family simply wants to draw attention to the case."

Members of the Ar-Namys party, however, dispute this. "How can he say that there is no persecution?" said Sapar A., an official at the party headquarters. The indignant Sapar told how party members were fired from their jobs, children's education threatened and members' businesses forced into liquidation.

For these reasons Emil Aliev, another Ar-Namys member, said that many people have sought emigration to the US, both to escape the authorities and raise support for Kulov.

And it seems that coming from the same village as the Kulov is enough to throw suspicion on a person.

Residents of Kulov's home town of Baitek say their lives are blighted by their association with the imprisoned leader. The mere mention of his name was enough for several residents to slam the door when IWPR visited Baitek. Others explained how they were scared of what might happen following his latest arrest.

"They've opened a gymnasium for local gifted children in the neighbouring village of Tash-Dyube," said Emil, an elderly villager. "But, the school's governing body," he says, do not want their students mingling with "neighbours of Felix Kulov".

Emil also said that the village is cordoned off whenever Kulov appears in court. People are checked as a means of preventing supporters from travelling to Bishkek in case they plan to demonstrate on the former vice-president's behalf. "We are fed up with being outcasts and wish this would all finish soon."

Kulov is being held in solitary confinement and, according to his lawyer, his health is suffering. His condition has been aggravated by his family leaving the country, she says, and requests to speak with his family by telephone, and to meet his brothers have all been refused.

Kulov's brother, Dias, a retired National Security Service officer, said that since the family left in March, NSS officials turned down all his requests to meet his older brother. Only very recently, at the end of July, he did manage to obtain a permit to see his sibling.

"My brother is a very strong person," said Dias. He said that his brother had put a brave face on things but seemed rather pale. "And that is quite understandable, as he almost never sees the sun."

But according to Medet Taliev, the security officer currently working on his case, it was Kulov himself who chose solitary confinement. Meetings with relatives had been turned down because they were "not in the interests of the investigation".

Lawyers and supporters say they are pinning their hopes on an open trial where journalists and international community representatives can attend. They say that many ordinary Kyrgyz citizens doubt the motives behind Kulov's prosecution.

Some fear he is being used as a scapegoat by a government which avoids criticism at any cost. "They say there is no smoke without fire," said Zamir, a university student. "Kulov might have done something wrong. But the present government has already proved that it dislikes brave and democratic-minded people. . . . If he is not guilty, then time and history will be his best judges."

Venera Jumataeva is an RFE/RL correspondent in Bishkek

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