Up to 400 people in Kyrgyzstan are continuing a hunger strike to protest the detention of a member of parliament who has been an outspoken critic of President Askar Akayev's policies. Officials have charged the MP, Azimbek Beknazarov, with abuse of power. His defenders, however, insist the charges are politically motivated. The case has emerged as an important civil society test for Kyrgyzstan.
Beknazarov's trial is scheduled to begin February 12 in southern Kyrgyzstan's Jalal-Abad region, the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) reported. The rights group added on February 5 that 420 people were carrying out a hunger strike in Jalal-Abad to exert pressure on the government to release Beknazarov. Another 32 protesters were on a hunger strike in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, on Beknazarov's behalf. However, other media reports on February 6 said the number of hunger strikers was declining.
KCHR issued a bulletin February 6 announcing that one hunger striker - Sherali Nazarkulov, an economist and human rights activist - had fallen into a coma and had been hospitalized. Nazarkulov, who had gone 21 days without food, reportedly suffered a heart attack and his chances of recovery were low, KCHR said.
Beknazarov was taken into custody on January 5. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. He had been a leading critic of the Akayev administration's decision to cede Kyrgyz territory to China in order to resolve a lingering border dispute. The arrest sparked widespread protests, including the hunger strike initiative on January 10. Akayev has refrained from offering detailed comments on the protests. On January 25 the president disappeared from public view with an announcement that he had gone on vacation.
The Beknazarov case has attracted international attention. A statement issued January 30 by Ambassador Gerard Stoudmann, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), expressed concern about Bishkek's commitment to civil society development. "There is an imminent risk of further deterioration of the internal situation in case the authorities should not take all necessary measures to quickly resolve this case in line with Kyrgyzstan's commitments as an OSCE participating state," Stoudmann's statement said.
Kyrgyz officials have insisted that Beknazarov's arrest is not a case of retribution for his political opposition to the China border agreement. Authorities also characterized the pro-Beknazarov protests, including the hunger strikers, as unwarranted. On January 31, presidential spokesman Ilyas Bekbolotov insisted that Beknazarov would receive a fair trial.
In recent months, Akayev has moved to solidify ties with the United States, granting the US military a one-year, renewable lease to the country's international airport. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. At the same time, he has moved to silence domestic political opponents, including Beknazarov and former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov. The administration has also exerted considerable pressure on independent-minded media outlets.
On February 6, a trial involving the independent newspaper Moya Stolitsa-Novosti opened. The newspaper is involved in a tangle of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits with the Uchkun state printing house. Uchkun officials have refused to print the newspaper since January 19, citing the lack of a contract for 2002. Newspaper officials counter that Uchkun has already received payment to continue printing, and say the printing house is acting to muzzle criticism of government policies.
In late January, Moya Stolitsa attempted to circumvent the effective printing ban by publishing articles in another independent paper, Res Publica. However, Uchkun declined to print Res Publica on January 29.
Chris Schuepp is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian political developments.