Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Opposition Figure Freed

Vowing to return to active politics, jailed dissident Topchubek Turgunaliev is released following strong international pressure.
By Sultan Jumagulov
Kyrgyzstan's most outspoken dissident and critic of President Askar Akaev was granted an unconditional release August 20, following a concerted local and international campaign to secure his freedom.

Topchubek Turgunaliev was sentenced to 16 years jail in 1999 for masterminding a plot to assassinate the president, a conviction widely regarded as an attempt to silence his outspoken criticisms of Akaev.

Speaking at a hastily arranged press conference at the Bishkek office of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Turgunaliev, 60, thanked human rights activists, journalists and others who campaigned on his behalf, and hailed his release as a "victory for democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

The country's image as an island of democracy amid authoritarian Central Asian neighbours has been shattered over the past four years as Akaev has steadily rolled back democratic advances and tightened his personal grip on power. Political opposition figures have been jailed, media have been closed and a new law has recently been proposed that would radically increase the power of the state to clamp down on religious parties, international NGOs and critical media.

Acknowledging this trend, Turgunaliev welcomed a recent announcement by Akaev confirming that he would step down in four years at the end of his current term, his second, as limited by the constitution. The president denied concerns raised by opposition figures and international observers about a potential referendum to extend his term in office. The parliament has also recently slowed down the passage of the controversial law on religious political parties.

Nevertheless, the release of Turgunaliev may be more of a propaganda stunt pitched at Western donors than a sign of a renaissance of a more liberal political environment.

The authorities cited Turgunaliev's "advanced age" and deteriorating health as reasons for his release.

Local observers are convinced that, besides vigorous domestic lobbying, western pressure played a key role in securing Turgunaliev's freedom. The government has run up huge debts and, with few natural resources to draw on, relies on continuing international aid and loans to prop up the country's feeble economy.

Expectations vary about what Turgunaliev might do next. The authorities undoubtedly hope he will retire from active politics, while many Kyrgyz believe he deserves a quiet retirement. But he himself is eager to work closely with the human rights community, opposition supporters and the independent media, as they have expected from him.

"Now that I am free, I will continue to do what I did before," he said at the press conference. "Together with my friends from NGOs and political parties I am ready to discuss new plans aimed at strengthening democracy in my country."

Turgunaliev's record as a dissident stretches back to Soviet-era perestroika, when he was amongst those calling for democracy and Kyrgyzstan's independence. He subsequently served as co-chairman of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan, which in 1990-92 united most of the democratic forces in the country and played a key role in toppling its communist leadership. He was later appointed to the working group responsible for drafting the new constitution. Though an obvious candidate for a senior post in the new government, Akaev refused to appoint him, sowing the seeds of an animosity between the two men which, within three years, turned Turgunaliev into a staunch opponent of the Akaev's regime.

"He was so jubilant when Akaev was elected president," his wife, Sabyrkul, recalls. "He was as happy as a little boy. 'At long last, we have an educated, cultured, intelligent and democratically-minded person in power,' he told me. Who could have thought this is how it would end."

In the run-up to the 1996 presidential elections, Turgunaliev was jailed for four years allegedly distributing anti-Akaev leaflets. Declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, he was released once Akaev was securely back in office.

But he soon found himself behind bars again, this time sentenced to four years for allegedly embezzling $10,000 while Rector of Bishkek University. In 1997, he was acquitted of this charge and released. Returning directly to opposition politics, he founded a political party named Erkindik ("Freedom") and was poised to run for president in the elections in 2000. Few were surprised when, as the ballot drew closer, the authorities unleashed a new campaign against him.

He was arrested and found guilty of being the "ideological inspiration" behind a group which had allegedly plotted to assassinate the president in 1999. No evidence of a plot or of Turgunaliev's involvement in it has ever been made public, and the case had all the hallmarks of a show trial rigged by the security services. While his alleged co-conspirators accepted a presidential pardon late in 2000, Turgunaliev refused, saying he had done nothing he needed a pardon for.

Natalia Ablova, director of the Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, is convinced Turgunaliev has been a victim of political persecution. "All the charges against him were rigged when he stepped up his criticism of the government," she said. "His criticism did not kill, injure or hurt anyone, yet the government handed him a sentence unprecedented in its cruelty. That's how you know the whole thing is purely political."

Turgunaliev, was born in a backwater of Jalal-Abad province in 1941. After graduating from the Institute of Culture in Moscow, he occupied a senior post on the Central Committee of the Kyrgyz Communist Party. Becoming disillusioned with active politics during the period of glasnost in the mid-1980, he retreated to academics, teaching philosophy and aesthetics.

His honesty and intransigence have earned him a litany of praise.

Human rights advocate Tursunbek Akunov describes him as "an honest, outspoken man on an uncompromising quest for truth and justice... He is still a person to reckon with, especially when crucial national issues are at stake."

On August 6, after months of lobbying, IWPR Kyrgyzstan was granted permission to speak to Turgunaliev in the secure ward of a hospital where he was recovering from a heart attack. After much pressure from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, IWPR, and the Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, as well as coverage of the case by the BBC and Radio Liberty, it seemed that the government was seeking some mechanism through which to enable his release.

The following day, at the suggestion of government officials, a dozen NGOs and journalists submitted a petition to President Akaev urging him to release Turgunaliev because of his deteriorating health. No demand was made, however, for his latest rigged conviction to be quashed, though Turgunaliev seems to doubt whether that will be necessary.

"Under the Constitution, I have the right to say what I think. But there is a big difference between urging the president to resign and plotting to kill him" he said.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek.