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Kyrgyzstan: Uproar Over Detained Deputy

Protests are growing in Kyrgyzstan at the arrest of a parliamentarian who criticised the president over territorial concessions to neighboring countries.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

Dozens of supporters of a well-known Kyrgyz parliamentarian, including two deputies, have joined a hunger strike in protest against his arrest, claiming he is being hounded for publicly attacking the president's foreign policy.


Azimbek Beknazarov, chair of the parliament's judicial reform committee, was detained at dawn on January 5 in his constituency in the Jalal-Abad region, where he was meeting voters.


Jyrgalbek Jailobaev, his driver, said police turned up at 5 am and took him to the regional prosecutor's office where he was held for six and a half hours. A local supporter claimed he was treated like "a dangerous criminal" and not allowed to see his close relatives.


Charges brought on January 8 by the Jalal-Abad regional prosecutor accused him of abusing his power in 1995, when he was an investigator for the Toktogul area prosecutor's office in Jalal-Abad region.


The allegation concerns the case of a student, Japaraly Kamchybekov, who killed Jolchu Bukeev, a local resident, in a fight.


Beknazarov investigated this case but decided against criminal proceedings, saying the student acted in self-defense.


Last November, however, the case was reopened and the Jalal-Abad city court sentenced Kamchybekov to eight years in jail.


The prosecutor said proceedings were now being brought against the deputy after they had received a report from the deceased man's relatives on January 2, requesting charges against Beknazarov for concealing a crime.


"The relatives of the deceased had submitted complaints earlier but nobody considered them during all these years," he said.


Beknazarov denies covering up a crime and in a letter sent to his assembly colleagues said his political beliefs were the sole reason for his arrest.


Beknazarov was one of a handful of deputies who condemned President Askar Akaev's government for concluding what they saw as an unfavourable border settlement with China.


In 1996 and 1999, Akaev and China's leader Jiang Zemin signed two agreements, ceding some disputed land to Beijing.


The deal followed years of uncertainty over the line of the frontier, which had altered many times between the Chinese and Russian empires. The dispute gained new prominence after Kyrgyzstan's independence from the Soviet Union, concluding in the surrender of 125 hectares to China.


Relations between parliament and the government plummeted over the deal and Beknazarov launched an unprecedented impeachment of the president, accusing him of failing to defend the national interest.


Beknazarov often repeated his criticism of the president over another border deal with Kazakstan, which was signed on December 16 last year in Astana. He claimed the document was hastily prepared and involved the loss of strategically important land.


Opposition deputies and NGOs say Beknazarov is paying the price for his outspoken criticism. "The arrest of Beknazarov is connected with his political activity," said Omurbek Tekebaev, a deputy. "The fact that when Beknazarov started criticising the president, and that events which happened seven years ago were suddenly recalled, suggests the prosecutor complied with high-level officials' instructions."


The head of the Institute of Freedoms and Human Rights, Topchubek Turgunaliev, reached the same conclusion. "It just shows the authorities are continuing to take repressive measures against anyone acting openly against the president's policy."


Human rights activists announced a hunger strike in protest at Beknazarov's detention on January 10, led by Turgunaliev as well as Tolekan Ismailova, head of the For Democracy and Civil Society coalition, Turgunaliev and Aziza Adbrasulova, of the Guild of Prisoners of Conscience.


Deputies held an extraordinary session that day to urge the president to release Beknazarov.


Meanwhile, protests have gathered momentum outside parliament. About 50 supporters of the arrested deputy organised a picket in front of the general prosecutor-general's office in Bishkek, shouting, "Freedom to Beknazarov!", "Beknazarov, the People Are with You!", "Hands off the Deputy".


Ergeshbek Itibaev, who came all the way from the remote Aksyi area for the demonstration, said, "Voters are outraged with the arrest. If they do not overturn the decision the people will fight back."


The deputy's supporters say they will block the main north-south Bishkek - Osh highway. His home village of Kara-Suu, meanwhile, is in uproar, and a platoon of special policemen has been dispatched there to keep order.


The deputy's supporters in the village say they have been cut off. The phone lines are down and TV and radio broadcasts have been stopped.


A human rights activist, Svetlana Varavina, said the local prosecutor and head of local administration had visited the village but "the situation remains tense".


While the deputy is seen - understandably - as a hero in his home village, some observers predict the case may spark much wider protests.


According to Yrysbek Omurzakov, a journalist, the arrest is a warning, aimed at forestalling future protests in the event of possible territorial concessions to Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Tajikistan.


If that is correct, the warning seems to have failed. Public protests have continued, in spite of the arrest and trial of 20 demonstrators on January 15.


Parliament has also continued to voice concern, holding a fresh debate on January 14 where two deputies, Bektur Asanov and Duishen Chotonov, announced they were joining the hunger strike.


Deputies were to stall on ratification of a military agreement with France over the use of Kyrgyzstan's international airport until the Beknazarov case was solved. "Bezknazarov is more important than France," said one deputy.


Legally, the president has few problems authorising such arrests. After a referendum in 1998, he deprived parliamentarians of their right to immunity. But unless the wave of present protests dies down, he may come to regret his action over Beknazarov.


In the latest development, supporters of the arrested deputy collected more than 5000 signatures calling for his release and appealed to OSCE and US Congress to stop human rights violations in Kyrgyzstan.


Ulugbek Babakulov and Kubat Otorbaev are IWPR contributors


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