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

Kyrgyzstan: An Audience with Beknazarov

Kyrgyz deputy, released from prison following fierce protests, speaks to IWPR about the lessons the country must learn from the unrest.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Azimbek Beknazarov, a popular deputy in the Kyrgyz parliament, was arrested and detained in January after daring to call for the impeachment of President Askar Akaev. His imprisonment triggered the most serious protests Kyrgyzstan has witnessed in years, evidently touching a raw nerve in a country where living standards have plummeted. In one particularly ferocious clash with police just over a week ago, five demonstrators were killed.


Beknazarov was subsequently released, in an obvious climbdown by the authorities. He spoke to IWPR of the bloodshed in the Aksy region, the attempts of the government to blame the carnage on the demonstrators and the broader lessons that Kyrgyzstan must learn from the political turbulence.


Q: You were imprisoned for over two months. How do you feel now you are free?


A: I'm a strong man. I grew up in a village and from a young age was used to hard work. But I feel distraught over the tragedy in the Aksy region [in the southern Jalal-Abad province], and the deaths of five young people. As soon as I was freed I immediately went to my constituency and only heard of their deaths on the way.


Q: Do you still claim investigators subjected you to physical and psychological pressure and forced you to make a false statement on television that law and order should be upheld in the Aksy region?


A: Yes. But I was right to tell the public I was fine and that no one was pressurising me. Just before, I was told that 12 people, including the regional leadership, were being held hostage in Kara-Suu [in the Aksy region]. I knew what the consequences for them would be if the truth got out about the pressure applied to me. They might have taken it out on the hostages, resulting in a tragedy.


They gave me no peace in the remand prison. The light was always going off in my cell, and I sat in darkness for almost a month. Over two and a half months some very suspicious individuals who hid their faces visited me and in the name of the authorities presented various conditions and ultimatums. I would not negotiate if they would not show me their papers and reveal their faces.


Q: Forced isolation can change a person, altering his view of the world. What did two months in Jalal-Abad remand prison do to you?


B: Before, I was a lawyer and only looked at issues in a legal context. When the illegal surrender of a considerable part of Kyrgyz territory to China surfaced [an agreement between Kyrgyzstan and China in 1996 ended a territorial dispute on China's terms], I debated as a deputy and lawyer. But since my arrest I have set myself the goal of being a standard bearer for genuine democracy, whatever the cost.


Q: There is confusion over the fatal clashes between police and protesters in the Aksy region. At first, the official line was that one died from a knife wound and another from a blunt instrument. Then they admitted all five died from gunshot wounds. Have you seen the bodies?


A: I not only attended the examinations of the bodies but their funerals. I also made the governor of the Jalal-Abad province, Sultan Urmanaev, and the First Deputy Minister for Internal Affairs, Sadyrbek Dubanaev, attend the examination. In the presence of village elders and journalists, they saw that they died of gunshot wounds. One had been shot in the eye. The bullet came out of the other side of his head.


The authorities only admitted the truth publicly after that examination. We also witnessed the horribly cynical treatment of the bodies. With the help of surgeons they tried to cover up the evidence of how they died.


Q: Who will pay for what has been done?


A: The authorities will try to pin the guilt on the demonstrators. President Akaev's speech mentioned provocateurs. It seems he meant Tursunbek Akunov [a human rights campaigner] or Topchubek Turgunaliev [former prisoner of conscience and an opposition leader].


They have ignored the demands of the population. Long before the confrontation, the demonstrators were promised a meeting with the regional and provincial governors. They didn't arrive and when their patience ran out people went to the regional capital themselves.


Q: The mass media reported that the demonstrators weren't sober.


A: In fact, the village activists passed a resolution forbidding anyone to protest in public when drunk.


Q: Official sources said they used firearms against the militia.


A: Reports that 47 militiamen were wounded have not been borne out. Maybe four or seven were injured. The people say the police were under orders to open fire on the demonstrators. They are prepared to say this publicly and prove who did the shooting.


I was shown the windows of government buildings that the demonstrators broke. "Who will pay for the damages?" the local leaders asked. But who will compensate for the lives of those killed? I'm shocked that our leaders say they have kept the peace. It's not true. It was only my appearance on the scene that eased tension. And it's not true only 5,000 gathered in Kerben [the centre of the Aksy region]. There were at least 20,000.


Q: Do you think they will be looking for the perpetrators for a long time? Have people calmed down, now their deputy is free?


A: The blame for this confrontation that caused a loss of lives lies with the authorities, not with Akunov, as senior bureaucrats keep insisting. The people are so angry that summoning any protesters for questioning could trigger mass protests. I don't want to say too much, as I don't want to make it look like Beknazarov is trying to scare the authorities. But if I am put behind bars, the revolt will spread.


I'm not scared of anything or anyone now. In court, in the presence of representatives of international bodies, human rights activists, the mass media and my voters, I have proved my innocence and shown how our authorities can falsify any case. Everyone has seen for themselves the crude methods that the law enforcement agencies use against their own people.


Q: Who specifically should be punished for the events in Aksy? Will this case set a precedent, demonstrating what can be achieved from pressure put on the legal, state and political bodies?


A: The political leadership should answer for the events in Aksy. I think the whole power structure should resign, showing they admit responsibility for the victims. Trying to pin the blame on rights activists incurs the risk of serious consequences. You can't kid the people anymore.


No one planned any action against the state. Everything was the result of Bishkek's clumsy policies towards the people. The Aksy events have again proved our leaders are not in dialogue with the people. Their scornful attitude forced people to resort to extreme measures.


Q: There is talk of "the Aksy phenomenon". But other well-known politicians and businessmen, now in prison, were once the object of noisy protests. They died out. Why are the inhabitants of the provinces being so stubborn now?


A: People realised the accusations thrown at their deputy had been invented. A sense justice stirred them into action. The people of Aksy are also a proud and steadfast lot. It's no accident that during the burials of one of those killed, the head of the family refused government compensation, saying he didn't want a pathetic handout from leaders who allowed such bloodletting. Giving in to those at the top, when they don't have justice on their side, is not in our character.


My voters won't put up with obvious falsehoods. I'm warning the authorities: if they keep blaming the population, they will set the people against them. I can't get rid of a feeling that some forces are trying to destabilise our country. We're talking about a third force here. You don't have to start looking for it in the White House.


Sultan Jumagulov is an IWPR contributor