It was an exciting moment last month for those wishing to put southern Kyrgyzstan’s poisonous ethnic tensions behind them.
For the first time since the mass interethnic violence that fanned out across the region in June 2010, a judge had acquitted and released an ethnic Uzbek man who had previously been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment for murder during the riots, the Vechernii Bishkek newspaper reported. But the decision has not sat well with some locals.
At his trial last October, Shamshidin Niyazaliev’s lawyers argued he was not even in Kyrgyzstan at the time and 15 witnesses testified they had seen him in neighboring Uzbekistan on the day he is alleged to have committed the murders. Human Rights Watch called his trial unfair.
Niyazaliev was the 20th defendant in the murders of 16 people near the Sanpa cotton factory in the Suzak District of Jalal-Abad Province. Of the original 19, all had been found guilty; 18 received life sentences, one more got 25 years, according to Vechernii Bishkek.
These trials were among dozens that rights activists say were marred by blatant irregularities. Since the ethnic violence, justice in southern Kyrgyzstan has often looked more like bowing to mob rule than an attempt to find truth and punish the guilty.
In May 2011, an independent international inquiry found that Uzbeks had suffered disproportionately during the June violence and its aftermath. Of 470 people killed, 74 percent were ethnic Uzbek and 24 percent Kyrgyz, yet “Uzbeks are more than 30 times more often accused of murder than the Kyrgyz,” said the report, spearheaded by Finnish politician Kimmo Kiljunen (who was later banned from Kyrgyzstan by legislators unable to stomach his findings).
According to Human Rights Watch, within a year of the June violence, of 124 people detained on murder charges, 115 were ethnic Uzbeks. Scant evidence, dubious witness statements, widespread reports of confessions being extracted under torture, and coercion marred their subsequent trials.
“While most victims of the June violence were ethnic Uzbek, most detainees – almost 85 percent – were also ethnic Uzbek,” the group said in a June 2011 report, “Distorted Justice.” “[T]hese statistics raise serious questions about ethnic bias in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators. It is difficult to avoid the impression that throughout the investigations, prosecutions and trials, appeasing the ethnic Kyrgyz majority eclipsed the need for justice and accountability.”
For some ethnic Kyrgyz, pained to be painted as the aggressors (especially if they themselves had lost loved ones in the fighting), the court proceedings – rarely trustworthy in the country in general – became more of an affront than an attempt at truth or justice.
Meanwhile, local power brokers in the south exploited the tensions, fueling Kyrgyz nationalism.
Violently inclined groups of ethnic Kyrgyz stalked courtrooms attacking defendants, their relatives and defense lawyers, and intimidating judges.
So it was unusual when, on January 21, Jalal-Abad’s regional court overturned Niyazaliev’s murder conviction by a lower court. The judge reduced his sentence to a fine of 150,000 soms (about $3,100) for participating in the riots and set him free.
What followed has fit more neatly into the old pattern: To an angry crowd, the acquittal amounted to treason.
A group of protestors, identified by the AKIpress news agency as people who had suffered from the violence of June 2010, attempted to take hostage the chairman of the regional court, according to human rights activist Chyngyz Abdymomunov. They accused the chairman and the court’s other judges of taking bribes (presumably from Niyazaliev and/or his supporters), which, sadly, is a completely understandable gripe in Kyrgyzstan. They also demanded the junior judges be arrested until Niyazaliev – who reportedly holds a Russian passport and whose whereabouts are unknown – is found.
The court chairman, Rysbek Shukuraliev, said he, too, was unhappy with the work of the judges who released Niyazaliev, AKIpress reported, and would accompany the protestors to Bishkek to clear things up at the Supreme Court.
Hopes for justice – for anyone involved – are paper-thin. And where this will lead is anybody’s guess.