The prosecution of officials over a March protest that left five dead is exacerbating the confrontational mood in Kyrgyzstan. President Askar Akayev's administration says local authorities are responsible for the tragedy, while presidential critics believe top officials in Bishkek gave the order to shoot. The trial has not only fueled outrage among long-time government opponents, but it also seems to be antagonizing a significant number of law-enforcement officials a constituency that Akayev has relied on in the past to shore-up his authority.
In early October, hundreds of supporters of the accused, including police officers, participated in protests during the trial's initial stage. Demonstrators say the charges against the defendants should be dropped because they were merely following orders from Bishkek authorities. Six local officials are standing trial in connection with the Ak-Sui shootings. [For background see the EurasiaNet Culture archive]. They include: Shermamat Osmonov, former head of the Ak-Sui district administration; Abdykalyk Kaldarov, Ak-Sui's former prosecutor; and Kubanychbek Tokobaev, the former Jalalabad Province police chief.
Anti-government protesters claim the order to shoot came directly from high-ranking officials in Bishkek, including former presidential aide Amanbek Karypkulov and former Interior Minister Temirbek Akmataliev, according to an October 10 report in the opposition weekly Respublica. Although public pressure caused the Kyrgyz government to fall in May, Karypkulov was subsequently appointed Kyrgyz ambassador to Turkey, while Akmataliev became the president's deputy chief of staff.
Ermek Nuranov, a representative of the protesters, told Osh-based journalists: "Our demand is to see in court [as defendants] not only law enforcement officials, but those who gave order to shoot at people. Neither Temirbek Akmataliev, nor Amanbek Karypkulov... have received summons to appear before court."
Underlying the trial controversy is lingering north-south tension. Many residents of southern Kyrgyzstan feel that Akayev's government favors the northern political clans. Many in the Osh and Jalalabad regions view the government's perceived desire to protect government officials in Bishkek, while prosecuting local authorities in southern districts, as an extension of this alleged bias.
In a nationwide address October 17, Akayev provided no indication that any current or former central government official will stand trial in connection with the shooting. Instead, Akayev put the blame for the incident mainly on the shortcomings of local law enforcement officials, while trying to cast his administration as a champion of reforms.
"We still have not seen expected changes," Akayev said, referring to law-enforcement agency reforms. "This must force the heads of law-enforcement agencies to think deeply: If they are incapable of changing the situation on their own, this matter will require the president's intervention to implement the people's will."
Despite his reluctance to address the protesters' demand directly, Akayev is clearly concerned about festering discontent. A day before the trial formally opened October 17 in the Osh Military Court, Akayev fired Chubak Abyshkaev as the country's prosecutor general, saying the procurator had bungled the Ak-Sui case. The president appointed Myktybek Abdyldaev on October 18 as the new chief prosecutor.
The shake-up is unlikely to ease the pressure on Akayev's administration, political observers say. Instead, Akayev's intransigence on the Ak-Sui issue is provoking fresh personal attacks against the president. For instance, in an October 15 commentary published by Respublica, Topchubek Turgunaliev, a prominent opposition leader, said: "Ak-Sui officials do not want to play the role of "scapegoats. ... However, the defendants failed to name the main perpetrator of Ak-Sui tragedy the president."
Some observers warn that the trial could produce a new, serious confrontation between the government and its growing number of critics. In particular, they question Akayev's choice to blame law-enforcement authorities. "We have already seen Jalalabad police staging a rally [last June] protesting low wages and demanding amnesty for officials," said a political analyst in Jalalabad, who requested anonymity. "The administration ignored these demands. If the officials in Bishkek continue to ignore the needs of police, they may end up in big trouble."
As opposition to Akayev mounts, the president appears to be working on a strategy that would allow him to leave office without fear of retribution. Among the many proposed constitutional amendments published October 18 is a change that would grant former presidents immunity from prosecution for actions carried out in connection with their executive functions. In his speech, Akayev said public discussion of the amendments would last until November 18, and then they would face a popular referendum. Among the more significant amendments is a proposal to replace the country's current bicameral legislature with a unicameral parliament starting in 2005.
Alisher Khamidov is currently a Muskie Fellow graduate student at the Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace Studies at Notre Dame University.