On May 30 the Kyrgyz police arrested a 25-year-old U.S. citizen, Max Chounlamany, a civilian employee at the Gansi U.S. Air Force base at the Manas airport in Bishkek. Chounlamany was accused of accidentally setting fire to an apartment he rented in Bishkek.
The investigation by the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergencies concluded that the fire was set by a lit cigarette left by Chounlamany and estimated the material damage at 1.8 million soms ($50,000). Chounlamany argued, however, that the real reason for the fire was a defective electrical wire. According the Kyrgyz criminal code, maximum punishment for material damage caused by recklessness is a two-year prison term.
Chounlamany was put into a pre-trial detention center in Bishkek for 10 days, a measure seemingly too harsh for the incident, given that the official investigation is yet to be conducted. Furthermore, as Chounlamany’s lawyer Nina Zotova reports, her client is ready to pay the compensation should the court prove his guilt.
The compensation estimated by the Ministry of Emergencies is reasonable by local prices. Chances of receiving full compensation would be much lower, however, if the tenant were a local. The landlord claims that before reporting the incident to the police, he contacted the U.S. Embassy and military base but did not receive any response. The landlord also argues that his tenant refused to pay the compensation and he was bound to report the incident to the police. Situations such as this rarely reach the courts in Kyrgyzstan and are usually settled informally between the conflicting parties. In cases when it is reported to the police, it sometimes implies that one party is able to influence the course of the investigation.
Representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek are closely monitoring the situation. Zotova says that she is worried about the safety of her client at the detention center, which is known to have poor conditions that are potentially harmful to the detainees’ health. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies are avoiding comments on the incident.
As one Kyrgyz NGO activist said, at this stage Kyrgyz law-enforcement should act professionally, not to attract wider criticism. Given that the Kyrgyz judicial system is deeply corrupt, there is a possibility that they will try to benefit from the case, pressing the U.S. citizen for full compensation through indirect intimidation.
Kyrgyz public condemnation of cases of misconduct by U.S. citizens often uses anti-U.S. rhetoric and calls to reduce the U.S. presence in the country. In contrast, most criticism of the aggressive nationalist movement in Russian cities, which has killed over a dozen Kyrgyz citizens already this year, is voiced together with high appreciation for the Russian influence in Kyrgyzstan.
Chounlamany’s case raised little attention among the local public compared with the incident in December 2006, when a U.S. airman shot and killed a Kyrgyz citizen, Alexander Ivanov. Ivanov’s case was actively discussed by the local mass media and protests were staged against the U.S. military presence in the country. Such public reaction could reoccur should a similar incident surrounding Gansi workers take place. The Chounlamany investigation, however, has been overshadowed by other political developments in the country and the Kyrgyz mass are media reporting only general information about the case.
Since the Ivanov incident, a number of leading Kyrgyz experts in national security have become distinctly anti-U.S. One former analyst from the National Security Service told Jamestown that after working with intelligence data for some years, she is more and more convinced that the “U.S. might be sponsoring terrorism.” Another Kyrgyz military expert commented to Jamestown that the U.S. was seeking to establish political control over Central Asia. Although such radical views are rarely expressed publicly, they still circulate among local experts. Poor intelligence service and limited exposure to international information sources, in combination with the strong influence of the Russian media, are the primary reasons for such points of view.
On an official level, however, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabayev recently noted that the U.S. base was compatible with Kyrgyzstan’s security and political interests. The minister also denied rumors that the U.S. base at Manas might be used for attacking Iran, a theory often discussed in the Russian media (www.akipress.kg, www.msn.kg, www.mfa.kg, May 30-June 4).