March 17, 2002 will be recorded forever in the new history of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan as Bloody Sunday. On that day, as a result of clashes between police officers and demonstrators, fifteen civilians were hospitalized. Five of them later died without regaining consciousness. In addition, according to the republic’s Interior Ministry, forty-seven police officers received wounds of varying severity. What gave rise to this unexpectedly militant behavior of these provincial citizens?
At first sight, the reasons appear to be obvious. Those participating in prolonged mass hunger strikes, meetings and peaceful demonstrations in the Aksy region of Jalal-Abad Oblast had put forward a six-point demand to the authorities. Foremost of these was the release of the chairman of the Committee on Judicial and Legal Affairs of the Legislative Assembly of the republic’s Jogorku Kenesh (parliament), Azimbek Beknazarov.
On January 5, Beknazarov was arrested in Jalal-Abad Oblast by investigators from the local prosecutor’s office and charged with exceeding his official powers seven years ago, while he was an investigator at the Toktogul regional prosecutor’s office. The opposition and the deputy’s supporters believe that Beknazarov is in fact being victimized for his criticism of the republic’s leadership. In 2001, Beknazarov was sharply critical of Akaev and his government for ceding Kyrgyz territories to China, claiming repeatedly that there might be grounds for impeaching the president. He also spoke unfavorably about the latest agreement on the redefinition of the state borders between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which the countries’ two presidents, Akaev and Nazarbaev, signed on December 16 of last year. The agreement was drawn up, he maintained, in haste. Kyrgyzstan would be ceding to Kazakhstan a number of strategically important border territories in exchange for marshlands unfit for cultivation, territories that just might be rich in gold deposits.
From January to March, following his arrest, Beknazarov’s supporters mounted demonstrations and hunger strikes both in Bishkek and in several towns in Jalal-Abad Oblast, the area that had sent Beknazarov as their deputy to the Legislative Assembly in 2000. One of the hunger strikers, Sherali Nazarkulov, died of a brain hemorrhage on February 7.
The conflict between Beknazarov and Akaev, then, lies essentially in their differing attitudes to the important national issue of the country’s territorial integrity. In the eyes of the people, the actions of the Akaev regime look like betrayal. Beknazarov, on the other hand, looks like a patriot. The people’s sympathies fall with Beknazarov, because he has proven to be the sole statesman prepared to stand up to the Akaev regime on the matter of territorial integrity. For the majority of the Kyrgyz people, therefore, the gravity of the judicial error that Beknazarov is said to have committed seven years ago while working as an investigator in a regional prosecutor’s office pales to insignificance compared with his patriotic opposition to the Akaev regime. This is the main reason for the huge popular turnout in his defense.
The situation in the Aksy region of Jalal-Abad Oblast, according to the official version of the situation, began to escalate on March 12, coinciding with the beginning of Beknazarov’s trial in the town of Toktogul. The epicenter of the uprising was the village of Kara-Suu–the deputy’s birthplace. According to reports in the republic’s press, events unfolded as follows.
On March 13, the third day of the trial, the opposing sides held a conference, at which the defense demanded an acquittal and the prosecutor asked for Beknazarov to be sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. The judge announced a deferral until the following Monday, 18 March, when the final verdict would be announced.
On 15 March there was a demonstration of around 800 people in Kara-Suu. Many of the participants went to picket the Toktogul court building and decided to return on the day of the verdict.
The next day, 16 March, in both Kara-Suu and the neighboring village of Kara-Zhigach, over 1000 people gathered together. According to the Interior Ministry’s press service, the villagers assembled because they had heard from Tursunbek Akunov, the chairman of the Human Rights movement of Kyrgyzstan, that a number officials were on their way to meet them, including Sultan Urmanaev, governor of Jalal-Abad Oblast, and Shakarbek Osmonov, head of the regional administration. The ministry account then suggests that disturbances began at the instigation of Akunov, who had organized the unauthorized gathering. But this was not the case. The Interior Ministry spokesman deliberately avoided saying anything about the other side of the problem–the psychological dimension–which is usually ignored by most of the leadership.
When the people learned that the officials were coming, they became hopeful of being able to put their case to them. The meeting would in all probability have allowed several problems to be nipped in the bud. But the officials failed to show up, and their disregard for the people only inflamed the crowd’s feelings. As a result, on March 17, after another large-scale meeting, the people of Kara-Suu, Kara-Zhigach and Bozpiek set off in a column (some on horseback) toward the center of Aksy region, the town of Kerben. There are two versions of what happened next, leading eventually to bloody clashes: one from the government and the law enforcement agencies and the other from the opposition.
STATE TERROR SPAWNS EXTREMISM
At a press conference held on the morning of March 19 at Government House, Interior Minister Temirbek Akmataliev told journalists that the crowd was met on the approaches to the regional center by police and representatives of the regional state administration, who tried to enter a dialog with the protestors. But stones were thrown at the police from within the crowd, and bullets followed. When a police officer was wounded in the thigh, the police responded with warning shots, fired overhead. Under pressure from the crowd, the police retreated. Taking advantage of this, a large number of people broke through into Kerben. First they attacked the Akimiat (the regional state administration) building. Then the enraged crowd reached the ROVD building (the regional internal affairs department), where, in the words of the minister, 139 police officers were under siege until morning. “The crowd showered the building with Molotov cocktails, for which they were getting supplies of flammable liquids through the night,” said the minister. “We ordered the police not to use their weapons, but also not to abandon the ROVD buildings because weapons are kept inside.”
In the course of the night-long riots, the building used by the Aksy ROVD’s juvenile offenders inspectorate was burnt down, there was partial damage to the passport office and the state automobile inspectorate, and the windows of the Akimiat building were broken. According to Akmataliev, the disturbances “showed signs of careful planning.” Part of the crowd–some 500 people and seventy horsemen–headed off in an organized manner in another direction, towards Tash-Kumyr, blocking the Bishkek-Osh highway. Those participating in the disturbances demanded the release of Beknazarov and, according to Akmataliev, “additional land allocations.” They presented a number of other economic demands as well. Speaking to the press, the minister appealed for calm. He said repeatedly that only the court could decide Beknazarov’s fate, which was independent in Kyrgyzstan. From the minister’s account it followed that the police had not fired on the crowd, which leaves the question: Whose were the bullets that killed some members of the crowd and left others with wounds of varying severity?
To answer this question, it is essential to be aware of the information provided by the human rights activist, Tursunbek Akunov, who was an eyewitness to the tragic events, especially since, after the bloody clashes, the authorities (in the person of Interior Minister Akmataliev) made a serious charge against him, accusing him of organizing the disturbances.
On March 25, Akunov gave a press conference in the office of the Republican Party. He said that by the time he got there [on March 16], the situation in Aksy region had reached boiling point. In view of the explosive nature of the situation, Akunov had invited Shakarbek Osmonov, the region’s Akim (head of the regional administration), and Jalal-Abad Oblast Governor Sultan Urmanaev to meet with the people. They had promised to come to Aksy at 10 am on March 17. People from several villages had gathered outside the Kara-Suu agricultural directorate building, but the officials didn’t appear; they cancelled the meeting because they were awaiting the arrival of a government delegation from Bishkek. Angered by this, the people had left Kara-Suu and headed for Kerben, the center of Aksy region. Along the way, more and more people had joined them. When they reached Bozpiek, the Akim, the regional prosecutor and the ROVD chief had come out to meet them. The police were carrying machineguns. The regional prosecutor had refused even to listen to the crowd. He had accused Akunov of organizing the disturbances and ordered his men to arrest him. When the people had tried to set him free, the police had opened fire.
“I found out later that four people died in the clashes with the police. I wasn’t present at that point because I was in a cell at the Aksy ROVD building. From there I could hear the people’s outrage. Police officers, afraid of pressure from the crowd, allowed me to call the Deputy Interior Minister, Sadyrbek Dubanaev. He told me that I was the only one capable of stopping the people. When I went outside, I saw some 10,000 Aksy people throwing stones at the ROVD building. It was only with difficulty that I managed to stop them. They wouldn’t even listen to Kubanichbek Zhumaliev, the transport and communications minister, who is a local man. The authorities are wrong to accuse me of breaking the law. On the contrary, I did all I could to calm the crowd,” said Akunov. He condemned the statement made by Minister Akmataliev, who had accused him of political extremism and incitement to overthrow the authorities. Akunov also announced that he would sue the minister for insulting his honor, dignity and professional reputation.
“Even as I was pacifying the crowd, the Interior Ministry was framing charges against me under Article 94 of the Criminal Code of Kyrgyzstan. I hereby declare that I did not incite the people to overthrow the authorities. On the contrary, it was the authorities that took the anticonstitutional decision to use weapons against their own people. That we have no independent judiciary, and that the ‘White House’ has a monopoly on power, was clearly demonstrated by the group of officials headed by Minister Zhumaliev. He spent an hour on the telephone to the ‘White House’ persuading them that 99 percent of the problems in Aksy could be solved by the release of Beknazarov. And in the morning the deputy was duly released,” Akunov said at the end of his press conference.
After his release, Beknazarov confirmed that the courts of the Kyrgyz Republic are completely under the control of the president and his government. In a press conference in the Jogorku Kenesh on March 22 he said: “I was a judge myself and never encountered such a practice. This shows once again how both our deputies and our courts bow only to orders from above”.
There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this: The case against deputy Beknazarov was brought by the political order of President Akaev.
PROSPECTS FOR FURTHER POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS
At this press conference, Beknazarov made another observation: “Throughout the whole affair, the president, the head of the Law Enforcement Coordination Council and Interior Minister Akmataliev have blamed the tragedy on the opposition, deputies and human rights activists. This has gone down very badly with the people of Aksy and intensified their grievances.” Also at the press conference was parliamentary deputy Adahan Madumarov, who backed him up and reported a statement made by Karybek Biibosunov, one of the president’s strategists, and deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Research, which answers to the president of the Kyrgyz Republic. Biibosunov’s view was that the situation could be stabilized by putting all the deputies from the south of the country behind bars. Hearing this, Beknazarov joked: “As I said at one of my hearings, it’s as if I’m bin Laden and my supporters are al-Qaida terrorists. It’s a good thing that no one called for air and ground support from the Americans based at Manas Airport. But seriously, this was a defeat for President Akaev at the hands of his people. After these events, he should ask the people’s forgiveness and just leave quietly,” said Beknazarov.
However ironic the tone of Madumarov’s account of Biibosunov’s statement, it should be understood that herein lies another major reason for the tragedy that unfolded. The fact is that, while there are over thirty political parties registered in Kyrgyzstan, there are in fact two more unregistered ones–the northerners and the southerners. At present the North holds power. As soon as Akaev announced that he would not be standing in the forthcoming presidential elections, the struggle for power in the republic began. In Beknazarov, the southerners have an unexpectedly strong political card to play: patriotism. In light of this, the Akaev regime is making yet another foolish mistake in claiming that the bloody disturbances were organized by a “gang of demagogs and intriguers.” Blinkered political thinking of this kind is evidence of just how isolated the republic’s leadership is from present day reality. Even the weakest of oppositions could now effortlessly turn the republic’s population–90 percent of which is impoverished–against the regime.
For over ten years, the Akaev regime has represented the northerners. But a schism has now developed in their ranks, and former Vice President Feliks Kulov has formed a breakaway grouping even though, unlike Beknazarov, he has neither a strong political hand to play nor any ideas with popular appeal. On the contrary, Kulov has always said that he supports president Akaev’s policies. All he has done is to propose that they be modernized. Yet, for this modest criticism of Akaev’s reforms, Kulov has been sent to prison for seven years. This has earned him the people’s sympathy, rather than any solid political backing. It is for this reason that the people have not come out so militantly in Kulov’s defense.
The obvious question is: How are political events likely to unfold? Kyrgyzstan’s Bloody Sunday has shown that the Akaev regime can only be effectively opposed by a united force. Therefore, in recent days, action has been taken by supporters of Jalgap Kazakbaev, a deputy of the Assembly of People’s Representatives, and his brother, who have been unjustly imprisoned for fourteen years. On March 26, the village of Tel’man in Panfilov region and in the town of Kara-Balta in Zhaiyl region saw demonstrations by some 700 of Kazakbaev’s supporters. Speakers at the meeting told how, on February 26, parliament had sent a letter to President Akaev asking why so long had passed without the amnesty law being used in the case of the Kazakbaev brothers. Only when the head of the presidential administration, Amanbek Karypkulov, reported that he would give his answer to parliament within two days did the demonstrators disperse and go home. Kulov’s supporters recently held another meeting to demand his release from detention. If the supporters of other persecuted political figures also take action to oppose the Akaev regime, then the republic’s presidential elections may be brought forward. But whether the elections take place at term or prematurely, the power struggle between Akaev’s intended successor and the opposition candidate is likely to be uncompromising and may well see further bloodshed. In view of this, the presence in Kyrgyzstan of the antiterrorist contingent of U.S. and Western armed forces may prove to be just the stabilizing factor needed to prevent more bloody clashes at the forthcoming elections.
Sadji is an independent journalist from Bishkek.