It is fitting that a statue of Lenin, which the Kyrgyz parliament recently saved from removal, stands today to preside over the capital. On June 27, opposition leader Felix Kulov went on trial in a closed military courtroom for simply being Kyrgyzstan's most viable alternative to President Askar Akayev. [For background see Eurasia Insight]
But the most striking parallel with Soviet times may be the state's elaborate attempt to shroud in secrecy what the public and the international community already knows about the government's human rights practices.
Of the three charges against Kulov -- former vice president of Kyrgyzstan, former mayor of Bishkek, chairman of the opposition Ar-Namys Party, and declared presidential contender the most serious appears to be neglecting to obtain ministerial approval for wiretapping while he was head of the National Security Ministry in 1997. In a June 16 interview with the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostei, Yuri Schmidt, a leading Russian attorney who is familiar with the case, stated that these misdeeds, if punished according to the law, would carry at best administrative penalties.
But administrative penalties would not be enough to serve the government's apparent purpose: to eliminate Kulov from being a candidate in the October 27 presidential election.
Since the case against Kulov seems weak, the state has resorted to another Soviet-era tactic: insisting that the trial be closed so as not to disclose "state secrets." However, according to Scott Horton, a leading US attorney who has been monitoring the case, the "state secrets" stopped being secrets the moment that investigators and prosecutors began sharing them with journalists and others.
Several Kyrgyz media, including the newspapers Vechernii Bishkek and Slovo Kyrgyzstana and the television show "Korruptsiia," have broadcast interviews on the case with the same officials entrusted with punishing their disclosure. Horton alleges that the Kyrgyz authorities paid for a correspondent from a daily Moscow newspaper to travel to Bishkek to cover the story on condition that the correspondent portray Kulov unfavorably.
In fact, the only individuals who seem to have had any difficulty obtaining full information about the case are the defendants' own attorneys. Liubov' Ivanova, one of Kulov's attorneys, told Horton that prosecutors denied her the opportunity to copy documents relevant to the case. Ivanova also asserted that prosecutors confiscated her personal notes. Another defense attorney, Nina Zotova, reported to the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights that the state-run Federation of Kyrgyz Trade Unions, where she leases her office space, has attempted to evict her.
In addition, prosecutors have prevented case materials from reaching Yuri Schmidt, chairman of the Russian Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights Defense. Authorities also banned Schmidt from representing Kulov, in violation of the international right to choice of legal counsel. Schmidt says that the Kyrgyz Criminal Procedural Code places no restrictions on non-citizens providing legal services in criminal cases.
The only plausible reason to prosecute in secret seems to be to allow the government to minimize knowledge of the illegal prosecution of the case. Horton told the Central Eurasia Project that the goal of the state secrecy strategy is to "shield the whole affair from public scrutiny and deny defense attorneys the ability to properly prepare their case."
Prosecutors would like to imbue the proceedings with credibility. The Kyrgyz news service Kabar reported that, according to law-enforcement officials, the trial would take "no less than ten days," although, according to one defense lawyer, the guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion.
The West's lack of significant business interest in Kyrgyzstan may be a blow to Kyrgyzstan's economy, but could be a boon to its human rights protection. US and European governments and organizations have criticized Kulov's arrest and other components of the anti-opposition crackdown in Kyrgyzstan this year. In April, OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Benita Ferrero-Waldner declared herself "seriously concerned about reports on (sic) the harassment of human rights activists and leaders of the political opposition in Kyrgyzstan." She warned "these trends could have a negative impact on the democratic development of the country."
The recent heavy-handed actions of the Kyrgyz government, including Kulov's show trial, have not yet had a detectable negative impact on the OSCE's own policies toward Kyrgyzstan. A representative of the US Congress' Helsinki Commission told the CEP that the Commission will oppose the deployment of a full OSCE election observer mission, but a final decision by the OSCE is pending.
Indeed, Kyrgyzstan continues to be largely immune from OSCE censure at the highest level. Kyrgyzstan figured in discussions by OSCE Troika's Foreign Ministers on 31 March only because the OSCE heads were concerned that Kyrgyzstan needed OSCE protection against "extremist forces" in the region not because it had amply earned its opprobrium. Once again, security concerns seem to have trumped human rights on the OSCE agenda.
It is common for governments to try to hide human rights violations for example, prosecuting political opponents in closed courts. It should not be common for them to be allowed to do so.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow, covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly since 1987.
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