Police Violence Taints Kyrgyz Image

Government forced to make concessions following outrage over violent police suppression of political protest.

Police Violence Taints Kyrgyz Image

Government forced to make concessions following outrage over violent police suppression of political protest.

A bloody clash last Sunday between police and demonstrators has further undermined Kyrgyzstan's image as an oasis of relatively democratic values in a region better known for authoritarian regimes.

Five people were killed and dozens injured when police in the southern province of Jalal-Abad, in the Aksu region, opened fire on protesters who'd taken to the streets demanding the release of Azimbek Beknazarov, a popular deputy in parliament who had criticised the government.

Beknazarov was arrested in January after demanding the impeachment of President Askar Akaev for surrendering Kyrgyz territory to China as part of a frontier delineation agreement. Early this year, the authorities charged him with abusing his official powers while working as an investigator in the regional prosecutor's office in 1995.

The arrest ignited protests throughout Kyrgyzstan, in the course of which a well-known rights defender, Sheraly Nazarkulov, died on hunger strike.

Interior minister Temirbek Akmataliev said the protesters in Jalal-Abad hurled stones at the police and threatened them with hunting rifles. He said a group of parliamentary deputies and human rights defenders was behind the whole event. In a televised address, President Akaev also blamed the opposition for the disturbances, as part of a bid to "destabilise the situation in the country".

Turdakun Usubaliev, former head of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, took the same line. "Certain citizens and politicians, using the slogans of democracy as cover, are bringing the country close to a state of anarchy," he said.

This official version of events was savaged by local human rights activists from Jalal-Abad who sent the media detailed descriptions of the bloody clash with the police. "By shooting their own people, the authorities have shown they are not worthy of respect," they said.

Parliament's attempts to investigate the event met little success. The head of the security committee, General Ismail Isakov, suggested rubber bullets or tear gas might be used in such events in future, instead of live ammunition. The interior ministry argued rather lamely that they couldn't afford the former.

Opposition deputies Omurbek Tekebaev and Adakhan Madumarov squarely blamed the president for the bloodletting, saying that as he enjoyed virtually unlimited executive powers, he and his team must take responsibility for the deaths in Jalal-Abad.

Madumarov furiously rebutted claims that the opposition had provoked the protest, blaming the violence on the fact that "ordinary people, particularly in the south, have reached the limits of poverty". He said they needed no outside influences to take to the streets, "The authorities must realise they now confront an opposition made up of their own people."

On March 18, the People's Congress of Kyrgyzstan, a grouping four opposition parties, formally accused the leadership of permitting the police to use weapons against its citizens.

The government has clearly been rattled by the storm it has aroused. On March 19, Akmataliev signalled retreat when he announced that the Toktogul regional court had surprisingly decided to commute Beknazarov's punishment.

After two and half months in custody, he said, the deputy would be freed on signing a document promising not to leave the country. The hearing of his case was also postponed.

"Having freed Beknazarov, the presidential team has effectively admitted defeat," the well-known public activist, Tugelbai Kazakov, said.

The government's blatant attempt to buy social peace has brought it few results. The south remains tense, in spite of a trip by the prime minister, Kurmanbek Bakiev, to the area at the heart of the protests; the sacking of the head of the administration of the Aksu region; and the payment of a thousand dollars to relatives of each person killed; and the freeing of Beknazarov.

Instead, the mood in Aksu is sullen, as locals bury those who were killed in the confrontation with the police.

Sultan Jumagulov is an IWPR contributor

China, Kyrgyzstan
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