BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AP) — Crowds of supporters of a firebrand nationalist leader rallied Thursday outside a courthouse in Kyrgyzstan where he is on trial accused of leading an attempted coup.
Kamchibek Tashiyev heads the Ata-Zhurt movement, which has a substantial following in southern regions of the politically and ethnically divided ex-Soviet Central Asian nation. Observers fear mass protests could strain the country's fragile stability.
Tashiyev faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. His backers and rights activists say the trial may be politically motivated, insisting what he did should at most be viewed as a public order violation.
He was arrested in October after leading a charge of dozens of people on a building housing parliament and government offices in the capital, Bishkek.
Tashiyev and several supporters managed to scale the gates of a central government building known as the White House, but were apprehended before they could gain entrance into the building itself. The disturbances arose from a rally to demand nationalization of an economically vital gold mine.
Cholpon Dzhakupova, head of legal rights group Adilet, said people engaged in similar actions in the 2010 popular revolt that toppled the previous president were not prosecuted and are now in power.
Kyrgyzstan has seen the overthrow of two governments in its short history since gaining independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
President Askar Akayev was cast out of power in May 2005 after a weeks-long sit-in protest against corruption and misrule in the center of the capital.
Five years later, several dozen were shot dead by government troops when angry mobs attacked the presidential administration building in unrest that led to President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's ouster.
Tashiyev's overt nationalism is viewed by some as a destabilizing factor for a country that has been riven by ethnic discord. Hundreds of people died in clashes in 2010 between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in southern areas where Tashiyev draws much of his support.
Kyrgyzstan is also bedeviled by rivalry between groups from the conservative and largely rural south against the more urban and industrial north.
The country of 5 million people on China's mountainous western border hosts a Russian air base as well as a U.S. air base used to support military operations in Afghanistan.
At the opening hearing, lawyers for Tashiyev successfully petitioned the judge to recuse himself for lack of impartiality as he had been involved in sanctioning the politician's detention.
Two Tashiyev allies, Sadyr Zhaparov and Talant Mamytov, are also on trial facing related charges.