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Kyrgyzstan Releases Jailed Opposition Leader - 2002-03-19

The United States has welcomed the release by authorities in Kyrgyzstan of an opposition member of parliament whose arrest had touched off street violence. At least five people have been killed in clashes between police and demonstrators since Sunday.

The violence is said to be the most serious in Kyrgyzstan since the country's independence a decade ago. Officials here have been monitoring it with concern because of, among other things, the U.S. military presence in the Central Asian state supporting the anti-terrorism campaign in nearby Afghanistan.

At a briefing for reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed Tuesday's release by authorities of opposition legislator Azimbek Beknazarov, whose arrest in January and trial for alleged abuse of power sparked the unrest.

He said the United States has expressed concern to senior Kyrgyz officials about the conduct of the Beknazarov trial. Mr. Boucher said, "We hope that the decision of the court will take into account the significant irregularities that occurred during the trial. We have also expressed to senior levels of Kyrgyzstan's government our concerns that Mr. Beknazarov's arrest appears to have been politically-motivated."

Mr. Beknazarov was accused of misconduct while serving as a district prosecutor, though his supporters say he was put on trial because of his criticism of the government of President Askar Akayev.

In the wake of the clashes, Mr. Beknazarov was released and his trial suspended, though he is barred from leaving the country. The government has also dismissed a regional administrator in the southern part of the country where the violence occurred and offered compensation to the families of those killed.

In its global human rights report issued earlier this month, the State Department said President Akayev and his executive branch dominate the country's judiciary and have in "numerous instances" used judicial proceedings against prominent political opponents and independent media figures.

Kyrgyzstan is one of several countries in the region that have given U-S forces access to military facilities to support operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan is centered at the Manas airbase near the capital, Bishkek.