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Kyrgyzstan: Anti-government Protests Mount

The Kyrgyz government is facing escalating unrest sparked by the arrest of two prominent politicians.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Police this week launched a fresh crackdown on a nationwide protests demanding the resignation of Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev.


Officers arrested up to a hundred people who'd been protesting in Bishkek on May 16 following the sentencing last week of Felix Kulov, former vice president of Kyrgyzstan and leader of the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, to ten years imprisonment.


The demonstrations broke out on May 10 around the parliament building and in Baitik, a birthplace of Kulov, and have continued for much of the last week. The demonstrators blocked one of the capital's major thoroughfares for several hours.


The south of the country, meanwhile, has seen a series of almost daily protests since the beginning of the year over the arrest of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, an outspoken opponent of a controversial treaty with China, which cedes some border territories Beijing. In March, six people died during clashes with the police in the southern town of Aksy.


The latest demonstration in the south, in which several thousand people blocked the country's main internal artery, the Osh-Bishkek highway, escalated following news that the treaty may be close to ratification.


Human rights activist Tursunbek Akunov believes the Kulov verdict will fuel nation-wide unrest. "In sentencing Kulov to ten years, the authorities have added fuel to the fire. Now there is dissatisfaction in the north as well," Akunov said.


"Public resentment has built up over the years and the people's patience has finally cracked," said parliamentary deputy Bektur Asanov.


Ramazan Dyryldaev, chairman of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, said the Kulov case provided clear evidence of the president's influence over the country's legal system. "The ruling on Kulov wasn't given by the court, but by Akaev's team," said Dyryldaev, who has only recently returned from exile.


"The guilty verdict was prepared in advance by government lawyers, and the judge was merely given the job of reading it out. It is a physical impossibility to have prepared such an enormous text in the three hours between the verdict being given and the passing of sentence."


In addition his ten-year prison sentence, Kulov is banned from public office for a further three years and his property has been confiscated. His family and supporters ransacked the courtroom when the sentence was read out.


Emil Aliev, a senior representative of the Ar-Namys party, said people ignored Kulov's loud calls for no demonstrations. He said numerous opposition supporters planned to launch major protests throughout the country in the coming days.


Supporters of Beknazarov claim 10,000 people plan to march on the capital to demand the deputy's release, the annulment of the land deal with China and Akaev's resignation. Demonstrations in support of Kulov are also likely to continue.


The former vice-president was already serving a seven-year sentence when the May 8 verdict was announced. In 2001 a closed military court found him guilty of abuse of power while serving as national security minister.


Kulov's latest conviction was on similar charges, relating to his tenure as governor of the Chui region and mayor of Bishkek. The prosecution claimed he had formed a criminal alliance with a construction company owner and had embezzled large sums of public money.


His supporters and human rights activists claim both cases were fabricated and politically motivated - an attempt by the government to intimidate would-be opponents.


Kulov had played an important role in Akaev's presidential victory in 1991. But prior to the 2000 elections, the one-time vice president distanced himself from the president, founded the Ar-Namys party and prepared to run against his old ally for the presidency. Kulov's legal problems began soon after.


Asanov warned the authorities that they risk civil strife if public discontent is ignored.


"It's unlikely that President Akaev will willingly leave his post. And if that's the case, then the disturbances will increase in strength," he said.


Fellow deputy Omurbek Tekebaev believes time is running out. "A compromise can only be reached if the president immediately hands over parts of his mandate to other branches of power and introduces rapid legal reform," Tekebaev warned.


Whether the government will respond positively to the mounting protests remains to be seen. So far the signs are not good. With Kulov behind bars, those opposed to the authorities for whatever reason, now have a martyr to rally around. Further arrests or more casualties, like those in Aksy, could lead to an escalation of the unrest.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek, Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist in Jalal-Abad


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