A looming trial in Kyrgyzstan could bring a sense of closure to the friends and relatives of those who died in April amid the collapse of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration. But critics contend the process could do more harm than good for the still-fragile Central Asian state.
The interim government has hailed the 86 individuals who died during the street tumult on April 7 in central Bishkek as “heroes.” Nevertheless, opponents contend the trial risks demoralizing security services at a sensitive time, when the country is struggling to establish a parliamentary democracy. The proceedings against 28 defendants are scheduled to begin in the capital’s main sports complex on November 17.
Some of the main defendants in the case -- including former president Bakiyev and his brother, Janysh Bakiyev, the former security services chief – are being tried in absentia. Also in the docket will be eight junior members of the Alfa special forces unit, facing charges of murder and attempted murder.
The case is emotionally charged. Two well-organized groups – Homeland Martyrs and the Ala-Too Movement – both comprising relatives of the dead, maintain that convictions in the case would help assuage their members’ grief. Meanwhile, one local newspaper has already characterized the proceedings as a “show trial” in which guilt is predetermined.
Criticism connected with the case is focusing mainly on the decision to prosecute low-level members of the security forces. The Alfa unit on April 7 reportedly operated under the auspices of the State Security Service (SNB). On that day, with violent protests breaking out in Bishkek, Alfa troops were subject to a chain of command that connected them to the highest echelons of national authority at the time. Critics of the trial note that members of the Alfa unit who disobeyed direct orders would have, under different circumstances, been subject to military justice. Critics also point out that there have been no arrests of protesters who reportedly fired on government structures, including the executive office building, known as the White House.
“This case is already completely politicized,” says Cholpon Jakupova, head of the legal clinic Adilet, a non-governmental organization representing the eight Alfa commandos. No ballistics evidence links a single death with the Alfa soldiers’ weapons, she said. The order to prosecute the eight members of the unit was “political,” she insisted.
Alfa is “a special forces division, the duty of which is to defend the state and objects of national security in cases where a threat to public safety becomes apparent. On the surface, [the events of] April 7 constituted a threat to public safety, because a significant number [of protestors] were armed. The White House is an object of national security. [Commander Almazbek] Zholdoshaliev and the eight Alfa soldiers received an order to protect it,” Jakupova said. She noted that provisional leaders themselves have deployed Alfa troops during civil disturbances in recent months.
In October, about 150 members of the Alfa unit and other state security outfits protested in solidarity with their colleagues who were detained after April 7. In response, the provisional government released the Alfa unit’s commander, Zholdoshaliev, on bail and placed him under house arrest. In a grim commentary on the state of justice in Kyrgyzstan, one protester said, referring to recent cases, that the “leader of a special forces division in Bishkek” had “about the same chance of receiving a fair trial as an Uzbek in Osh.”
Relatives of the dead say they will not rest until those who fired on protesters face justice. Turdurbek Ayilchiev, whose son died on April 7, says that whether the Alfa members are victims of political games “is for the courts to decide. Of course I hold that the government under Kurmanbek Bakiyev is responsible for everything that happened that day. But if soldiers and security forces fired at people who were unarmed, then they are also guilty, and they must be held accountable.”
For many observers, the chief concern is the potentially crippling effect that the proceedings could have on the morale of security services.
SNB General Artur Medetbekov, president of the Civil Organization for Alfa Veterans, a non-governmental organization, says that the April events have already undermined the state’s ability to deal effectively with security. “What we see happening now is something called April 7 Syndrome. Security forces are afraid to act because they fear what might happen to them if they do. We saw this clearly during the pogroms in Maevka
and the tragic June events in Osh Oblast,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The proceedings are creating a culture of hesitation among all members of Kyrgyzstan’s security forces, Medetbekov continued: “If the trial decides that the innocent [Alfa soldiers] are guilty, the result will be the complete demoralization of the armed forces and everyone involved in the security structures. Why should a soldier risk his life to execute an order, if the next day a new government arrives and declares him guilty?”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.