Human Rights Developments
In 1997, the Kyrgyz government put unrelenting pressure on the independent or critical media and on opposition figures. This stood in stark contrast to President Askar Akaev's remarks in July to the U.S. government proclaiming respect for democracy and freedom of speech. In a disturbing trend, the government increasingly leveled criminal charges against opposition figures, newspapers, journalists, interest groups, and demonstrators for what should be civil offenses, on grounds of questionable validity under both domestic and international law. Kyrgyzstan continued to apply the death penalty, widening its application to include drug offenders.
On January 8, Topchubek Turgunaliev, a leader of the opposition Erkin Kyrgyzstan Party, was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment for the alleged embezzlement of $10,000 in 1994 from a Bishkek university. Turgunaliev's former colleague at the university, Timur Stamkulov, was sentenced to six years in a prison colony. Turgunaliev was sentenced despite overwhelming evidence that he had borrowed the money by agreement, and after investigators had, on six occasions, argued that it be adjudicated in a civil court. That the Procuracy succeeded in holding a criminal trial can be explained only by the government's desire to silence Mr. Turgunaliev's reinvigorated political dissent at the time of his arrest. Turgunaliev's arrest, on December 17, 1996, followed his participation in a peaceful public protest that sought to highlight the plight of pensioners and his founding of "For Deliverance from Poverty," a new political movement that publicly challenged government economic policies. Turgunaliev and Stamkulov's sentences were reduced on appeal on February 18 to four and three years respectively, which they were permitted to serve at home. However, in March, following participation in political rallies, Turgunaliev was taken to a remote settlement colony in Leylek in southern Kyrgyzstan, a center with appalling conditions, no medical facilities, and poor nutrition for the convicts, where he fell extremely ill and was hospitalized.
On May 23, Zamira Sydykova, editor of the influential weekly Res Publica, and Aleksandr Alyanchikov, a journalist on the same newspaper, were convicted of libel under Article 128 (2) of the criminal code and sentenced to eighteen months of imprisonment. Their conviction on criminal charges related to articles published in Res Publica said to have contained defamatory remarks about the wealthy and influential chair of Kyrgyzstan's state-owned gold company. Together with twoother Res Publica journalists, Marina Sivasheva and Bektash Shamshiev, they were fined $120 each and banned from doing journalistic work for an eighteen-month period. On June 10, Sydykova's sentence was reduced to eighteen months in a lower security prison, where conditions were appalling; Alyanchikov's sentence was suspended and later reduced. The Supreme Court released Sydykova on August 6, ostensibly due to time already served, but likely in response to international attention to her case. The charges against Sivasheva and Shamshiev were dropped.
An amnesty, announced by Akaev on August 11 for sick or disabled prisoners and those prosecuted for libel under the criminal code, failed to address the most egregious cases of prosecution for criminal libel. The amnesty did not reinstate those independent newspapers forcibly closed, such as Kriminal, shut down in February, and others in 1995 and 1996 for allegedly breaching the libel law.
On March 24, another Res Publica journalist, Yrysbek Omurzakov, was arrested on charges that stemmed from his January article criticizing government privatization policy and detailing state-owned factory workers' complaints about the proposed privatization of factory-owned housing. Charged with criminal libel, Omurzakov spent seventy-four days in pre-trial detention before being released by the Municipal Court on August 12. The trial resumed on September 18, with disturbing reports that the court claimed to have lost witness testimony essential to the defense, and that factory workers had been threatened with the loss of their factory-owned housing if they testified on Omurzakov's behalf. The court sentenced Omurzakov to six months in a prison colony on September 29. The ruling was upheld, but Mr. Omurzakov was released on November 4 under the law on amnesty, which went into force in July 1997 and, in part, covers individuals charged with violating Articles 128 and 129 of the Kygyzstan Criminal Code. Two co-defendants Dzhybek Akmatova and Gulina Ibraimova, also received six-month sentences, but were pardoned as "first-time offenders" under an August 11 amnesty.
Key opposition figure Kubanichbek Apas, who resides now in Moscow due to government harassment, returned to Bishkek in August to visit his wife and two young children. During Apas' stay, an interview with him was published in the weekly youth newspaper Asaba, in which he implicated the president in impropriety and corruption concerning gold-mining operations and condemned government treatment of journalists and excessive state control over the media. On September 12, the night after Apas returned to Moscow, KGB officers ransacked his wife's apartment, severely frightening his family. Apas believes the officers were looking for his opposition articles and publications and sought to curtail his political activities through the intimidation of his family.
Freedom to receive and impart information was dealt a serious blow when the government issued Resolution 320 of September 2, limiting the import of all forms of information that ". . . may damage the political [or] economic interests of the Republic, its national security, public order, health protection and public morals." The list of goods that may be prohibited include books, printed materials, films, film negatives, audio-and video materials, records, tapes, discs, and hand-written materials.
In 1997 the Uighur organization, Ittipak, which advocates establishing an independent Uighur homeland in the neighboring western Chinese province of Xinjiang, was allowed to function unhindered. This was a marked improvement over 1996.
The Yntymak Society, an organization that advances the housing concerns of migrant workers in Bishkek, came under attack by the government following peaceful demonstrations outside the government building in Bishkek. On July 7, twelve demonstrators, including human rights activistTursunbek Akhunov, were arrested by police while picketing the building. Credible reports cite excessive police violence against the demonstrators, causing at least one woman to be hospitalized. All twelve were barred from future demonstrations, and the Bishkek police public order department warned the society that they would arrest all participants of any further rallies.
Thirteen members of Yntymak, including the group's leader, Nurlan Alymkulov, currently face criminal charges for "unsanctioned occupation" of land in Bishkek where they built their homes. The use of criminal law to prosecute an essentially civil matter appears unduly punitive and linked to the group's political activities.
The Right to Monitor
There were no reported violations of the right to monitor.
The Role of the
The E.U. made no known interventions on human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan in 1997. It continued to channel to Kyrgyzstan substantial amounts of aid in the form of its TACIS and ECHO programs. In anticipation of the ratification of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), initialed in November 1995, the European Parliament gave its assent to an Interim Agreement that brought into effect the trade provisions of the PCA, despite the fact that the PCA hinges on respect for human rights and democratic principles.
The United States Embassy in Bishkek closely monitored the cases of journalists facing libel charges, and, along with the case of Turgunaliev, sent observers to their trials. The State Department made public and private demarches, in particular during President Akaev's July visit to the U.S., criticizing the Kyrgyz government for treating libel cases against journalists and opposition figures as criminal rather than civil matters. The U.S. distributed economic and humanitarian aid, including substantial amounts under the Freedom Support Act Funding program and funds for democratic reform. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996 provided a comprehensive analysis of the human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan.
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