OSH, Kyrgyzstan — A single lightbulb dangles above a dank courtroom scattered with broken furniture.
One by one, defense witnesses are called in through a ramshackle door that swings open on a crooked frame.
Five emaciated defendants watch helplessly from a metal cage as the judge, a stern man with thick knuckles, presses the witnesses about their version of the story behind violent ethnic clashes that tore through this southern region in 2010. Periodically, he pauses to take calls on his cell phone.
This is one of a handful of legal cases still underway more than three years after the conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in southern Kyrgystan left hundreds dead — the vast majority of them Uzbeks.
The outlook for the defendants is grim: the alleged perpetrators, all Uzbeks, face life sentences.
Kyrgyzstan is seen as a bastion of democratization in a region otherwise known for authoritarianism.
But there’s apparently little the Uzbeks accused of rioting and murder in this ancient Silk Road outpost of about 255,000 can do in a legal system that appears turned against them.
“My husband is suffering simply because of his nationality,” says Nigora Khaidarova, whose husband, Dilmurat Khaidarov, is among the five defendants.
One matter is clear: there are vastly conflicting versions of the deadly riots that followed the April 2010 ouster of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the capital Bishkek.
Local Kyrgyz believe Uzbeks — who have long made up a significant minority in this ethnically diverse region near the border with Uzbekistan — exploited the political vacuum to stage a violent push for autonomy.
Uzbeks counter that local Kyrgyz elites stoked nationalist sentiments by spreading misinformation about Uzbeks attacking innocent Kyrgyz in order to take violent revenge against a minority many have traditionally felt was too prosperous and privileged.
Whatever the truth, human rights activists of both ethnicities agree the authorities have disproportionately prosecuted Uzbeks for the riots despite the fact that, by most accounts, Uzbek communities suffered the overwhelming brunt of the violence.
“Kyrgyz politicians were telling us, ‘You’re traitors, because you should be defending your land and people, but you’re defending Uzbeks,’” said Tolekan Ismailova, an ethnic Kyrgyz activist in Bishkek whose organization, Bir Duino, has monitored the prosecutions.
In Khaidarov’s case, prosecutors say he and the other defendants helped block off a road leading from Osh to a nearby village, where they allegedly incited mass unrest and, in the heat of the fighting, killed a tax inspector and two soldiers.
Khaidarov’s supporters say he was organizing a safe exit from the village for women and children as the fighting flared around them.
But experience has shown that it’s not necessarily what’s said in court that matters.
Since the prosecutions began shortly after the clashes, lawyers and rights activists have regularly accused the authorities of employing systemic police abuse, extracting forced confessions and conducting shoddy legal proceedings.
Khusanbai Saliyev, a lawyer for Bir Duino based in Osh, waves a flimsy, two-sided sheet of paper. “Just look at this one court ruling,” he says. For comparison, he points to a recent court decision from Russia that numbers about 100 pages.
He adds that courtroom attacks on defense lawyers — including Khaidarov’s, an ethnic Russian woman — by the victims’ family members is routine.
“How can a lawyer possibly work in such conditions?” he says.
Khaidarov’s case, which has bounced around several courts because of what activists say is a lack of evidence, ranks among the worst of the legal failures.
His supporters say they uncovered clear signs of torture the authorities have ignored.
Meanwhile, Khaidarov has spent more than three years in pre-trial detention, although the maximum amount according to the country’s criminal procedure code is one year. Two of his co-defendants, who have also spent long periods in pre-trial detention, are seriously ill.
“It’s not their fault the authorities can’t give them a fair trial,” Saliyev says.
Critics say the legal onslaught is part of a broader campaign of discrimination against local Uzbeks.
They point to a recent crackdown on Uzbek-language media, as well as pressure to end Uzbek-language instruction in schools. They also accuse ethnic Kyrgyz of raiding and taking over many Uzbek-owned businesses.
Tellingly, the most prominent local monument to the 2010 violence, a “peace bell,” features an inscription in Kyrgyz, Russian and English — but not Uzbek.
One local Uzbek, who asked not to be identified for fear about his safety, acknowledges the environment has grown increasingly worse for Uzbeks since the riots, or “the June events,” as locals call them.
A musician in Osh, he says local cafes have been discouraged from playing Uzbek music, and that many artists have fled to Uzbekistan, Russia and elsewhere.
“This idea of ‘nationalism’ never used to exist,” he says. “But now it’s become normal.”
On Osh’s streets, however, there are few outward signs of ethnic tension. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks still do brisk business side by side at local markets.
Many older residents who remember relatively peaceful cohabitation during the Soviet era say the riots were a violent anomaly in an otherwise quiet history.
“We drank tea together, went to weddings and birthdays together,” says Ravshan Gapirov, a local Uzbek activist and public defender.
But a sense of bitter resentment lingers under the surface, thanks in part to the significant economic influence local Uzbeks have historically wielded here.
Although Uzbeks make up only about 14 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population, the vast majority is concentrated in the south. Like other minorities, Uzbeks are keen on preserving their ethnic identity, living in compact neighborhoods called mahallas and maintaining their cultural traditions.
But some local Kyrgyz have long been suspicious of the tightly knit Uzbek communities.
Before the riots, many feared that Uzbek leaders, including an influential politician and businessman named Kadyrzhan Batyrov, were organizing local Uzbeks into a nationalist movement.
Reports from the time indicate that perception may have been stoked by the new authorities in Bishkek, who relied on Batyrov’s help to organize resistance to ousted President Bakiyev, whose stronghold was here.
Questions sent to the presidential administration’s department of religion, ethnic politics and civil society about the government’s version of the riots, as well as the ongoing prosecutions, went unanswered.
However, the authorities have previously claimed that pro-Bakiyev forces provoked the events to destabilize the transition process.
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Three years on, such points appear academic.
“They’re lucky we’re able to forgive so easily,” says Uran, a young ethnic Kyrgyz shopkeeper, of the local Uzbek community he says he no longer trusts.
Back at the courthouse, Khaidarova mingles with the defense team as she waits for her husband’s proceedings to begin. She seems impossibly serene, her face outlined by a brown and white headscarf.
Asked whether she ever expects to see her husband freed, she smiles gently: “I hope.”