Kyrgyzstan's Elite Police Unit: Both Defenders And Defendants
By Bruce Pannier
Being a law-enforcement officer is never an easy job. Being a member of an elite unit tasked with maintaining order during unrest or combating terrorists is even more difficult. Besides the personal risk, there is the possibility that carrying out orders can lead to severe consequences if events turn out unexpectedly. We look at one such serviceman in Kyrgyzstan who gave his life for a state that was prepared to put him in jail.
Zhenishbek Babaraymov was held up as a hero after he was killed while participating in an antiterrorism operation in a village outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek early this month.
Lawmakers praised the officer of the state security service's elite Alfa group for defending the people and the state against "terrorists" who had killed three policemen before Babaraymov's unit got the call.
But even as Alfa group was moving in for what would prove to be Babaraymov's last fight, he and his unit were defending themselves in Bishkek against charges that they killed civilians during the April unrest that led to the ouster of Kurmanbek Bakiev, the then-president of the state they were sworn to protect.
Walking A Tightrope
As the trial continues, it highlights the tightrope the fledgling Kyrgyz government must walk as it tries to mete out justice for the crimes of its predecessors, while acknowledging that it still depends on bodies established under the old guard for protection.
Some 80 civilians were killed on April 7 last year amid clashes between government forces and protesters. Babaraymov and seven other junior Alfa officers were reportedly called in to defend the presidential office building, whose gates had been breeched and which was at the center of the violence.
Babaraymov and the other Alfas were charged with murder, attempted murder, and excessive use of force for opening fire on the crowd. But critics say the protesters who fired on the presidential building were never arrested. They say that with Bakiev and his government safely outside the country, Alfa and its members have been left to play the villain.
Part Of A Broader Process
The emotionally charged case -- which began in November as part of a broader process in which Bakiev and his family members are being tried in absentia -- has been viewed as an opportunity for victims of Kyrgyzstan's unrest to find closure.
Babaraymov's brother, Adyl, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that Zhenishbek was confident he would be found innocent.
"My brother told me that expertise in the case proved he was innocent,” he said. “We have very many questions for the authorities. Why was there a court case against him? Time will show he was innocent."
Members of the Alfa unit demonstrated against the trial of their commander, Almaz Joldoshaliev. Relatives of the Alfa troops staged similar protests on behalf of their kin. Even some Kyrgyz human rights activists voiced support for the Alfa members on trial.
‘Cynicism Of The Authorities’
Cholpon Jakypova, who heads the legal team defending Alfa members, has called for the trial to be stopped in the wake of Babaraymov's death. She described the trial, concerning alleged crimes committed while serving his country, as an "indicator of the cynicism of the authorities." Jakypova said Babaraymov "was in the defendant's seat only because he had carried out his duties."
Kyrgyz General Artur Medetbekov, who heads the State Security Service's counterterrorism operations, explains the laws that guide the activities of Alfa and other elite forces.
"In Kyrgyzstan, there is a separate law on the fight against terrorism, There is a law on the activities of the state committee for national security. Besides that, they adopted a law on the ‘status of service personnel,’” he said. “The Alfa group functions within the framework of these laws. The main task is the fight against terrorism and religious extremism. Additionally they can be brought in to preserve the statehood, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Kyrgyzstan in times of mass disorder."
More than 500 people were killed in the April overthrow and interethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in June where tensions remain high. Additionally, officials in southern Kyrgyzstan have been warning of a growing terrorist threat for months now. Weapons confiscations in the south have risen dramatically there in recent weeks.
There was an attack on a synagogue in Bishkek in September; a bombing outside the Bishkek sports complex in late November -- when Babaraymov and his Alfa co-defendants were inside on trial; and an attempted bombing outside the Bishkek police headquarters at the end of December. The government says the terrorist group responsible in January for killing the three policemen and Babaraymov -- a previously unknown group called the "Society of Kyrgyzstan Army of the Righteous Ruler” -- were also to blame for the other attacks in Bishkek.
The government has been restructuring its law-enforcement and security services since the start of this year, seemingly recognizing the fact the situation could become worse when the weather warms up. If the situation does get worse, Kyrgyzstan will again be depending on units like Alfa, and officers like Babaraymov, to carry out orders and hunt down and eliminate threats.
Former speaker of parliament Mukar Cholponbaev warned that prosecuting Alfa members for their role in the April events carries risks for the future.
"A country that puts people on trial for carrying out their duties has no future. Tomorrow no one will go out to defend the people," he said.
Torokul Doorov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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