Kyrgyz opposition protests rising utility tariffs

Kyrgyz opposition protests rising utility tariffs

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in Kyrgyzstan's capital Wednesday to protest recent sharp increase in heating and electricity tariffs and alleged oppression of government opponents, The Washington Post reported.

Addressing a crowd of around 3,000 people, Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev said the opposition "should take power into its own hands" if the government does not heed its demands.

Public dissatisfaction with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's government is running high in this impoverished former Soviet Central Asian country. Since coming to power on a wave of street protests in 2005, Bakiyev has ensured a measure of stability, but many observers say he has done so at the expense of democratic standards.

The rally in Bishkek was held outside the headquarters of the opposition Social Democratic party after city authorities denied permission to gather in a square near the presidential administration. That spot was the site of the 2005 demonstrations that culminated when protesters stormed the building and forced President Askar Akayev tio flee.

Aida Abdykadyrova, 17, said she traveled to Wednesday's demonstration with her family from their village to protest a fourfold increase in their electricity bills.

"After paying the bills, we had to go hungry and we cannot afford to buy anything for the children," Abdykadyrova said.

Anara Dzhamgirchiyeva, an activist with the For Democracy and Civil Society coalition, said around 5,000 protesters also assembled in Naryn, a town of 50,000 people in Kyrgyzstan's rugged eastern highlands. That rally went ahead despite a ban on the meeting approved Monday by the municipal court.

The fractious opposition has struggled to seize the political initiative in recent years and their fortunes have suffered as numerous prominent politicians have faced a raft of criminal prosecutions or fled abroad, claiming intimidation at the hands of the authorities.

Ata-Meken leader Tekebayev exhorted supporters to continue fighting for their rights.

"The Kyrgyz people should not be afraid of the government, it is they that should be afraid of us," he said.

Volunteers for another opposition party handed out leaflets at Wednesday meeting for another rally to be held at a location close to the presidential administration on March 23.

The protests are taking place against a backdrop of worsening conditions for the independent media.

In a statement Tuesday, U.S watchdog group Freedom House expressed concern over a spate of recent government moves that have limited freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan.

Over the past week, U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kyrgyz service has been unavailable across most of the country. The outlet's local television affiliate has also pulled RFE/RL programs amid government threats of having its broadcasting license revoked.

The BBC's Kyrgyz-language news programs have also only aired sporadically, while several popular Central Asia news sites have been inaccessible to local Internet users.

The government denies that it has been involved in hindering the work of media organizations.

Most Kyrgyz people rely on state-controlled broadcasters as their main source of news, but those stations have failed to cover a series of protests against the utility price increases.

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