Last week several groups of Kyrgyz protesters attacked organizers of an international film festival featuring a documentary about a famous ethnic Uzbek human rights advocate who was convicted of murder during the country's ethnic violence in June 2010. The attacks highlight the continuing struggle over the narrative of a conflict which killed hundreds and which over three years on is full of unresolved issues.
The annual “Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan” (One World – Kyrgyzstan) international human rights film festival is well-known for its brave documentaries and bold initiatives to unite people and foster tolerance and pluralism in Kyrgyz society. The festival's principal organizer, Tolekan Ismailova of the NGO Citizens Against Corruption, has persistently lobbied for the release of Azimzhan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek artist and campaigner against torture and police corruption, who was accused [ru] of murdering Myktybek Sulaimanov, a Kyrgyz police officer, during fighting in his home town of Bazar-Korgon, Jalalabad province.
The attacks appear to have been pre-meditated. On September 19 a loudspeaker-wielding woman and her comrades-in-arms caused a ruckus [ru] near the Manas cinema where the festival was due to be held from September 19-23. The women began to break into the hall, demanding that the film about Azimzhan Askarov be removed from the festival program and insisting on talking to the festival's director. Two days later, on September 21 when the documentary about Askarov was scheduled to screen, another group of people pelted eggs against the cinema facade. While the film was showing another ten men issued aggressive demands to turn it off. With the help of the police the protestors were evicted from the cinema. Askarov, sentenced to life imprisonment by the Kyrgyz supreme court following appeals at district and city level, flatly denies involvement in the murder and attributes his conviction to his prior investigations into police brutality police in his home region. Bazar-Korgon has a mixed Kyrgyz and Uzbek population and now hosts [ru] a bust of Sulaimanov, the policeman Askarov was accused of murdering.
Writing in an online discussion of the first attack that took place before the film festival began, Kloop.kg news editor Eldiyar Arkybaev echoed [ru] suspicions that nationalist political elements may have been behind the female protesters:
И кто стоит за этим ОБОН?
And who is behind this OBON [attack]?
OBON play as special role in Kyrgyz politics. The acronym stands for “Отряд баб особого назначения” - ”Special-Assignment-Female-Units” - coined by way of a humorous analogy with Russia's infamous OMON riot police. These loud, provocative women began to appear in the build up to Kyrgyzstan's first revolution in 2005, and are often paid as frontline protesters capable of creating a scene and flustering police. In a press conference on September 23, Ismailova, organizer of Bir-Duino-Kyrgyzstan, accused [ru] police of fearing and even colluding with the female attack units.
In a Kloop news blog discussion of the September 19 attack, Nurlan Azimbaev also criticized [ru] the police's failure to deal with the original protesters:
милиция в качестве наблюдателей? или у этих женщин какой то особый статус неприкосновенности?
Were policemen acting as observers? Or do these women have some kind of special immunity status?
But Nuriet Mamasaliyev, who claims to have been in the south at the time of the ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, disliked [ru] Arkybayev's characterization of the protesters and blamed prominent Uzbeks such as Askarov and another Uzbek human rights activist, Ravshan Gapirov, for the ethnic conflict:
Эти ОБОНовки как выражаетесь,потеряли своих сыновей.которые умерли за единство нашей страны во время июньских событий. Вам легко их обзывать с стучать по клавам,а у меня перед глазами стоят силуэты погибающих во время этих событий.Виной этих событий были такие подлые собаки,как Аскаров,Гапиров и подобные “писцы” хреновы.Извините,но у меня сердце разрывается когда мутил выставляют как Робин Гудов.А почему не снимают фильм как живется вдове и сиротам Сулайманова???А почему не снимают про тысячи наших парней,которые гниют на нарах????Двойной стандарт Запада,навязанный нашим “умникам” доведет до катастрофы и возобновлению новых стычек между этносами. Одумайтесь,организаторы,пока не поздно!!!
These OBON women, as you call them, lost their sons, who died for the unity of our country during the June events. It is easy for you to curse at them using your keyboards but the silhouettes of dying people during these events appear in front of my eyes. Vile dogs such as Askarov and Gapirov as well as idiot “reporters” bear the guilt of these events. Sorry, but my heart breaks when the culprits are portrayed as Robin Hoods. And why doesn't anybody film a documentary about the wife and children of Sulaimanov?? And why doesn't anybody film anything about the thousands of our guys who are rotting in jail?? The double standards of the West imposed by our own “wise ones” will result in disaster and further clashes between ethnicities. Come to your mind, organizers [of Bir-Duino film festival] before it's too late!
Below is footage of the chaos in the cinema during the screening of the Askarov film, captured [ru] by Kloop.kg correspondents:
When interviewed [ru] by a Kloop.kg journalist, the protesters admitted that they had not watched the documentary they were protesting against.
Akhmatbek Zhumabayev, another Kloop reader, offered up a pernicious conspiracy theory [ru]:
Время маргиналов,думаю что МВД само организатор этого кипиша.Где СНБ почему не выяснят кто организатор всего этого.Не хочу оправдывать Аскарова, но такой имидж нашей стране не нужен.
The era of animals. I think that the Ministry of Internal Affairs itself is the organizer of this unrest. Where is the National Security Service and why don't they find the organizers of all this? I do not want to defend Askarov, but our country does not need this kind of image.
Kyrgyzstan's June 2010 ethnic violence remains highly contested. No single interpretation of the events has won popular support in the multi-ethnic country. The author of the most significant international report on the tragedy was declared persona non grata in Kyrgyzstan by the parliament in May 2011 and was threatened with libel by senior politicians the report accused of negligence during the crisis. Many Kyrgyz viewed the report as relying too much on the first hand testimonies of Uzbeks, who most people agree suffered disproportionately during the conflict. In the months following the events, ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek notables released pop songs and poems [GV] offering provocative interpretations of ethnic relations in the republic. Last summer residents of the conflict's epicentre, the southern city of Osh, were fearful that a rap released by an Uzbek MC could reignite hostility [GV].
In the meantime, any objective discussion of the causes and chronology of the events is circumvented for fear of destabilizing the situation in the region again. That rule is especially applicable to the high profile case of the Uzbek human rights activist Azimzhan Askarov.
A Eurasianet interview with Askarov can be found here.