Kyrgyzstan is protesting the arrest of artist over deadly riots in neighboring country

Crowds gathered outside Kazakhstan’s embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, on Sunday, demanding that Kazakh authorities release well-known jazz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov, after he appeared in a “confession” video.

A man with bruised face shown by Kazakhstani media, identified as the touring performer, was shown admitting to having been paid to participate in a protest that led to riots. Concerns were expressed that the clip was recorded under duress. 

“He’s not a terrorist. He’s an ordinary citizen, a musician, a decent man,” Kamchybek Tashiyev, head of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, told reporters at the protest. “We checked through all of our channels this morning: Vikram Ruzakhunov didn’t participate in riots and street marches.”

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov shared a photo of Ruzakhunov on social media, vowing to “firmly defend and protect” Kyrgyz nationals who were “unfairly” held responsible for the unrest in the neighboring Central Asian country. At the same time, Japarov admitted that some Kyrgyz migrant workers living in Kazakhstan may have participated in protests there.

Kazakh officials arrested over 5,000 people following a wave of riots and street fighting that has gripped the nation this week. The disturbances, which started shortly after New Year with protests against fuel price hikes, led to casualties among rioters and law enforcement. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed that the country was attacked by foreign “criminals and terrorists.” The Russian-led regional security bloc CSTO deployed a multinational force to help Nur-Sultan quell the unrest.

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On Sunday, Kazakh TV showed what appeared to be an interrogation video of a detainee with a heavily bruised face who said that he had been recruited by “strangers” to “participate in a protest rally.” The man introduced himself as an unemployed resident of Kyrgyzstan, saying that recruiters bought him a plane ticket to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and largest city, and promised 90,000 Kazakhstani tenge ($205). He added that he arrived in Almaty on January 2, but “got scared” when the protests began, and was arrested while trying to return home.

Relatives, and later Kyrgyz officials, identified the man in the video as Ruzakhunov, who was described as a local pianist, as well as a director of a jazz band and a jazz festival in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry quoted Ruzakhunov’s relatives as saying that he often toured Almaty in the past and was invited to the country for a concert. The musician bought a plane ticket in mid-December and took off for Almaty on the evening of January 2, the ministry said in a statement, adding that it was working to determine the events surrounding Ruzakhunov’s arrest. His relatives suggest that he may have been tortured.

Kazakh officials have so far not commented on the matter.

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