With shops, schools and even nightclubs in southern Kyrgyzstan re-opening, daily life in the strife-torn region is slowly assuming a veneer of normalcy. But a recent melee, which erupted at the trial of ethnic Uzbeks accused in connection with the death of a Kyrgyz police officer during last June's violent clashes, offers a reminder that social conditions in southern Kyrgyzstan remain combustible.
The trouble occurred during a September 2 hearing in the Jalal-abad Region for the eight Uzbek defendants, including Azimjon Askarov, a prominent local journalist and human rights advocate. According to eyewitness accounts, angry spectators insulted, threatened and physically attacked the defendants, their lawyers and their family members while police and court officials stood by. The confrontation was split along ethnic lines. Most of the attackers were believed to be Kyrgyz relatives of the dead police officer.
"A great deal of tension and mistrust" continue to divide the two communities, said Nazira Satyvaldyeva, who heads a conflict-resolution program in Osh, the city hardest hit by the killing, arson and looting that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive]
"One of the relatives threw a glass at the cage which ... held the defendants. The glass shattered in front of one of the defense lawyers," Human Rights Watch reported, citing observers present at the trial. "During a recess [in the proceedings], on the street outside of the courtroom, the victims' relatives also threw stones at the defendants' relatives and physically assaulted them. Many police were present, but they took no action."
In part, the aggressive behavior at the trial reflects what may now be irreconcilable differences between the two ethnic communities, differences relating to perceptions of what happened in June, and who is to blame. Western researchers have documented disproportionately more fatalities and property loss among Uzbeks. But ethnic Kyrgyz, who also suffered from violence and displacement, have shown growing defensiveness at being labeled the villains. [For additional information see EurasiaNet's archive].
"Everyone has a sense of victimhood," said Satyvaldyeva. "In speaking with one community, it is very difficult to mention the viewpoint of the other."
"Relations between communities remain tense," said Ishfaq Khan, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Osh, in comments posted on the ICRC website. "The psychological wounds of the violence are still very fresh."
Some observers have noted that ethnic Kyrgyz in Jalal-abad feel particularly beleaguered, as the Uzbek community there is more politicized and well-coordinated than in Osh. A second high-profile trial of Uzbek defendants is slated to begin soon in Jalal-abad. Like the trial involving Askarov, this second case has been decried by rights advocates as politically motivated.
Human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan and abroad -- including Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch --have demanded that Askarov and his co-defendants receive a fair trial. Already, rights advocates have cited multiple violations in the case. Some have also said the charges could be retribution for Askarov's attempts to document official abuses.
"For many years, he exposed crimes by law-enforcement officials and it's perfectly possible that they have now found an excuse to get back at him," Vitaly Ponomaryov, director of the Central Asia program of the respected Russian rights group Memorial, told the Noviye Izvestia newspaper.
Following the September 2 confrontation, the trial of Askarov and his co-defendants was moved to another court about 10 kilometers from the original venue in the Bazar-Korgon District. The switch did nothing to promote a fair hearing, Askarov's lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, told EurasiaNet. "Any judge in the Bazar-Korgon District will fear the population."
Less than a week before the start of the trial, President Roza Otunbayeva publicly acknowledged the difficulty of ensuring due process in southern Kyrgyzstan, and proposed that cases relating to June's violence be handled in Bishkek or elsewhere in the North. Her comments followed a complaint by Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court that a number of judges in the South had been attacked and their cars set on fire.
The trial in Bazar-Korgon is expected to wrap up in mid-September. Askarov and several others have pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have called for a life sentence for Askarov. "You don't have to be Nostradamus to guess that the sentence handed down by the court will be a long one," said Toktakunov, the defense attorney.
In other recent signs of interethnic tension in the region, a huge brawl reportedly broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek high school students in Osh on September 3. Separately, that evening, some 200 ethnic Uzbek women set up their own checkpoint on the road into their village in Osh Province's Kara-Suu District, saying they feared arbitrary arrests and other abuses against their male relatives by local law-enforcement officials, the majority of whom are ethnic Kyrgyz.
Reconciliation efforts have been piecemeal, while a tireless rumor mill churns out unverifiable bits of information -- particularly, that fresh violence will break out after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on September 10.