Kyrgyz Opposition Leader Speaks from Jail
In one of only two publicized interviews since being imprisoned on March 22, Felix Kulov, head of the Ar-Namys Party and Kyrgyzstan's most prominent opposition leader, denied any illegal activity. His denial, made during an interview with the president of the International League for Human Rights (ILHR), and then related to the Central Eurasia Project, will likely fuel criticism of the government's mishandling of the case that has become a bellwether of Kyrgyzstan's commitment to democratic freedoms.
In his interview with Scott Horton, a prominent American attorney, Kulov claimed that one of the three charges -- arranging for the transfer of military and security materiel to Tajikistan in 1994-95 without government authorization -- is false. He insisted that the necessary government authorization for the transaction was obtained. He acknowledged some factual basis for the other two charges: purchasing surveillance equipment with outside funds for use by the Ministry of State Security when he was Minister, and promoting a subordinate who lacked higher education, or extensive experience. However, he reiterated that his actions were not illegal, and did not justify five weeks of imprisonment.
Scott Horton agrees. After questioning Kulov, as well as the investigator assigned to the case and other relevant officials, Horton told the CEP that he found the charges "bizarre and ridiculous." He also decried the criminalization of misdeeds that under domestic and international law would be considered at worst to be administrative infractions.
The interview brought to light numerous due process violations. For example, Kulov was unjustly denied the opportunity to post bail, or to sign a binding statement that he would not flee pending the arraignment. Kulov's lawyer, Liubov Ivanova, has been threatened, and told the newspaper Delo No. that she has proof that her telephone has been tapped since she took on the case. And, although Kulov has had almost daily access to his defense counsel, authorities reportedly have prohibited meetings when the one consultation room that presumably is bugged has been occupied. The latter two violations are particularly ironic since the principal charge against Kulov involves illegal wiretapping.
The International League for Human Rights, among other independent groups, has asserted that elements of political motivation are present in this case. In a clear effort to intimidate and possibly incapacitate Kulov, agents arrested him at the hospital where he was undergoing outpatient treatment for high blood pressure. The arrest came after parliamentary elections which were criticized as unfair by international organizations, including the OSCE. In those allegedly rigged elections, Kulov's reportedly captured of a seat in parliament, only to have the vote totals altered so as to deny him electoral victory.
Kulov was taken into custody immediately following the announcement of his intention to challenge President Askar Akayev for the presidency in a vote scheduled for later this year. Removing him from public view made it less likely that Kulov could benefit politically from anti-government protests against election irregularities. The mere fact of facing criminal charges casts doubt on his reputation at a crucial juncture in his political career, regardless of whether they are ever proved.
Horton noted with alarm suggestions advanced by Kyrgyz officials that Kulov's trial may be conducted in secret. "The charges reveal no conceivable basis for conducting a secret trial. Indeed, were it to occur, the state would be in clear violation of article 14 [of the International Covenant] on Civil and Political Rights," Horton said.
The Kyrgyz government so far has paid a significant price for Kulov's arrest. The capacity of thousands of citizens to take to the street in sustained protest underscores the depth of public concern over election fraud. The arrest has also cost Kyrgyzstan support from its staunchest ally, the United States. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was outspoken in her criticism during her meeting with President Akayev, and during public appearances in Kyrgyzstan last week.
It has been suggested that the recent, marked deterioration of civil and political rights protections in Kyrgyzstan is evidence, at least in part, that that country is succumbing to geographic realpolitik. Kyrgyzstan is surround by bullying, authoritarian neighbors [For background see the Eurasia Insight Archive]. Kyrgyzstan seems to be marching down the same road as Kazakhstan, another country that had enjoyed a promising post-independence record. As Horton noted sardonically, "[Kyrgyzstan's human rights record] is still the best in Central Asia, but that no longer means an awful lot."
It is likely that a trial conducted in conformity with due process standards would result in Kulov's acquittal on all charges an embarrassment to the government. Given the scope of protest, Horton believes that President Akayev may seek a face-saving compromise by releasing Kulov without actually clearing him of the charges. The May 5 celebration of Independence Day would be one occasion to include Kulov in a broader prisoner amnesty. But President Akayev would do better to simply insure that the criminal proceedings be open and credible. Any trial of Felix Kulov before a judge would also serve as a trial of the government's respect for judicial rights in the court of public opinion.