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Kyrgyzstan: 'Debt Hostages' Scandal

Poor businessmen offer Chinese goods sellers and money lenders members of their family as financial guarantees.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Cash-strapped Kyrgyz businessmen are leaving brothers and even children in China as security for goods and financial loans, human rights activists claim.


As many are unable to repay the money they owe, the relatives left as collateral effectively become hostages.


Sveta Sayakbaeva, the leader of the non-governmental organisation Tendesh, in the Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan, told IWPR that several hundred Kyrgyz citizens are being illegally held in China, after being left as guarantees by businessmen on a losing streak.


A five-month campaign to raise awareness of the plight of those left behind was launched late last month because Kyrgyz caught out by the racket are reluctant to draw attention to themselves.


“Almost all those who made complaints did not want their names made public,” Sayakbaeva told IWPR.


Unofficial information suggests that there could be several hundred Kyrgyz citizens being held as “debt hostages” in the Xinjang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, which borders Kyrgyzstan.


Ambitious Kyrgyz, fed up with the poverty and lack of opportunity in the former Soviet republic, often go to China to buy cheap products and will approach money lenders if they don’t have enough cash.


The goods sellers and creditors will accept security in the form of close relatives of the buyers. But, in many cases, the latter’s plans to sell the Chinese merchandise at profit back home come to naught, which means their relatives are left in China in lieu of repayment.


Anarkul Okosheva, the head of the NGO Tynchtyk (Peace) in the Naryn region, told IWPR of a woman who left a child as a financial guarantee in China, only for her business to collapse. Facing financial ruin, she took out another loan and left her second child as security, but lost even more money.


“Now nobody knows when - or if - she will get her children back,” Okosheva said.


According to Okosheva, at least 50 people from the Naryn region alone are being held as debt hostages. “Some Kyrgyz citizens have been there for as long as a decade,” she claimed.


One Kyrgyz businessman, who gave his name as Murat, regularly travels to Xinjiang to buy goods and told IWPR that the travel documents and identity papers of debt hostages are confiscated to prevent them escaping back across the border.


However, there have been some reports of Kyrgyz managing to retrieve their relatives, on one occasion a mother brought back her child, hiding it in a dinner service box.


Others are less fortunate. Debt hostage Yntymak Moldobaev, 25, and four others were arrested by border guards in July as the truck in which they were travelling crossed into Kyrgyzstan. Moldobaev had been hiding in the vehicle’s spare parts box.


This incident brought the plight of Kyrgyz used as security to official attention, but the authorities have sought to play down rumours that there are thousands of them and insisted that there was little they could do anyway.


“According to our information, there are only around 15 or 20 citizens, and the state does not have the right to interfere,” said interior ministry official Ruslan Kazakbaev.


For their part, the Beijing authorities say they have no evidence of such hostage taking.


“Our ambassador last visited the Naryn region at the beginning of October 2003, but the local leaders did not make any complaints about this issue,” said Sun Dapeng, the press attache at the Chinese embassy in Bishkek.


The Kyrgyz-China border was closed during the days of the Soviet Union, but when Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, close economic ties were established between them.


A visa regime now exists between the neighbours, and Kyrgyzstan remains a major transit route for Chinese traders destined for markets across Central Asia and Russia.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek.


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