BISHKEK (Reuters) - A court in Kyrgyzstan on Friday charged three opposition nationalist members of parliament with attempting to stage a coup after they led a crowd which tried to storm government headquarters in a protest over a Canadian-owned gold mine.
The charges followed a protest on Wednesday during which demonstrators demanded that the state should nationalise the Kumtor gold mine, Kyrgyzstan’s flagship venture with Canada’s Centerra Gold Inc. The mine accounted for 12 percent of Kyrgyz GDP and over a half of all its exports in 2011.
Calls to nationalise Kumtor, the largest gold mine operated in Central Asia by a Western-based concern, risk scaring off potential investors needed to revive a shrinking economy.
The clashes between police and supporters of the opposition Ata Zhurt party in the former Soviet republic were the most violent in Bishkek, the capital, since the April 2010 revolt that ousted then-president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
The three parliamentarians held responsible - Kamchibek Tashiyev, Sadyr Zhaparov and Talant Mamytov - were detained by security police on Thursday. If found guilty, their lawyers said they could face between 12 and 20 years in jail.
“The court ordered that all three be put into custody for two months,” Ikramidin Aitkulov, Tashiyev’s lawyer, told Reuters outside the district court in the centre of the Kyrgyz capital. “Then a trial will be held.”
He said he believed the charges against his client were politically motivated. “Everything is being done to eliminate a political rival,” he said. “Tashiyev’s only task at that rally was to draw public attention to the problem of Kumtor.”
Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev, who was appointed last month, visited the Kumtor gold mine on Monday and promised the venture would not be nationalised.
The assault on Kyrgyzstan’s “White House”, which houses the government and the parliament, rekindled north-south tension in the mainly Muslim Central Asian nation of 5.5 million, which borders China and hosts Russian and U.S. military air bases.
Ata Zhurt and its allies enjoy strong support in the poorer, ethnically mixed south where the grip of the central government remains tenuous.
On Friday, about 1,000 Ata Zhurt supporters protested for a second day in the main square of the southern city of Jalalabad, demanding the release of the three parliamentarians.
Dozens of protesters later set up traditional Kyrgyz “yurt” felt tents near the adjacent regional administration building to hold a round-the-clock protest.
In the evening, a group of women and male youths blocked the main motorway linking the country’s north and south.
There were no reports of violence.
Since 2005, two presidents of Kyrgyzstan have been toppled after attacks on the same government building in Bishkek. The city of about one million residents was quiet on Friday evening.
Only about 50 Ata Zhurt supporters chanted “Freedom!” near the court. The small group was dwarfed by hundreds of policemen who cordoned off approaches to the building. More policemen with shields and truncheons took up positions in nearby side streets.
Tashiyev’s lawyer Aitkulov called on Ata Zhurt supporters to abstain from violent actions.
Wednesday’s rally began as a peaceful protest in favour of nationalising Kumtor. Under a Bakiyev-era contract drawn up in 2009 the Kyrgyz state is a 33 percent shareholder in Centerra.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Andrew Osborn