Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kyrgyzstan: Protestors March on Regional Capital
A protest rally last week over the death of six peaceful protestors and the detention of a leading Kyrgyz deputy has escalated into a full-scale march on the southern city of Jalal-Abad.
More than 1,000 people blocked Kyrgyzstan's main highway near Tash-Kumyr and are now heading towards the regional capital after police allegedly broke up a June 8 gathering with rocks and batons, arresting 48 demonstrators.
The protestors were demanding justice after the deaths of six people at the hands of the police in the Aksy region in March. They were also seeking the acquittal of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, who had been detained by the authorities for criticising Kyrgyzstan's president.
The demonstrators planned to arrive in the regional capital on June 18, the date Beknazarov was expected to appear in court. However, since the protestors began the long walk to Jalal-Abad, news has broken that the trial venue has been switched to another town.
Some of those arrested at the June 8 protest were taken to Jalal-Abad's police headquarters and released the following morning. Seven remain in custody in the regional capital.
Beknazarov believes the authorities planned the latest crackdown, claiming that the police provoked clashes with protestors. He said he has proof of this, which he will "make public when the time is right".
"Some people in the government want the Aksy bloodshed to be repeated in Tash-Kumyr," claimed Beknazarov. "Kyrgyzstan's image has suffered in western eyes in the wake of the tragedy in March, and they will seek to improve it by laying the blame at the opposition's door."
Human rights activist Galina Vasilianova told IWPR that, at the start of the rally, the protestors had expected to meet Tash-Kumyr's mayor Mamatnazar Jakypbaev and hoped he would convey their demands to the regional governor and President Askar Akaev.
However, Jakypbaev and his officials only met the demonstrators three days into the rally - and the talks only added to their feelings of injustice and anger.
"The mayor told us we should not have disturbed him," recalled protester Ainagul Junusalieva. "He said since we weren't from Tash-Kumyr, we should all go back to where we came from."
However, many local residents took an active part in the rally. Mombek Joroev told how two policemen had approached him in his workplace on the morning of June 6 and urged him not to attend the protest. "Otherwise, they told me they would see to it that I lose my job," he said.
Joroev did not bow to the threat and the following day his meat shop was visited by a veterinary inspector. "He told me I was officially forbidden to trade. I reckoned I had nothing left to lose and went back to the rally," he said.
Jakypbaev told IWPR that the majority of demonstrators were from the Aksy district and claimed they had targeted Kyrgyzstan's main north-south artery to "help them make themselves heard and get their demands heeded".
When asked whether police interference was necessary and if all opportunities for amicable settlement had been exhausted, the mayor said, "I will not answer this question". Jakypbaev later admitted that a peaceful settlement could have been negotiated, but then refused to elaborate.
The protesters stayed on the Osh-Bishkek highway on the left bank of the Naryn, near Tash-Kumyr, from June 9 to 12. "None of the government officials deigned to listen to what we had to say," said Junusalieva. "Eventually we were raided and beaten by police."
A bus full of Osh rapid response police officers had stood guard across the river throughout the entire rally.
For their part, the officers deny using heavy-handed tactics and complained that many women walk past their bus to insult them and accuse them of beating innocent people. Rumours were also being spread that protestors were being paid 50 US dollars a day to take part in the march.
On the afternoon of June 11, the demonstrators decided to take their protest to Tash-Kumyr's city hall, and the police were immediately placed on high alert.
Two buses filled with some 70 rapid response police pulled up on Lenin Street and the militia began a crowd-control drill. The commanders attempted to drive the onlookers away but stopped short of using force, eventually withdrawing into the courtyard of the nearby security service building.
It is unclear how - and if - the police will react as the protestors bear down on Jalal-Abad. The country's deputy interior minister General Kalmurad Sadiev is watching the situation as it develops.
The marchers were expecting to cover the 150 km to Jalal-Abad in three days. "Another 100 or so protesters on horseback will be joining us at Shamaldy-Sai, and we expect many more to join us along the way," said Junusalieva.
Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist
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