BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyzstan put its deposed president on trial in his absence Wednesday, with prosecutors seeking a long prison term for Kurmanbek Bakiyev on charges that he ordered troops to fire on demonstrators, killing 78 people.
As the court hearing began in this Central Asian nation, family members of the victims held angry demonstrations nearby, vowing to seek revenge.
Bakiyev, who is in self-imposed exile in Belarus, is being tried along with 27 other former officials for their alleged involvement in the deaths during April street protests that led to the fall of his government.
Almost 90 people were thought to have been killed in that particular shooting, although the trial only relates to 78 deaths.
The trial marks a decisive repudiation of the five-year rule of Bakiyev, which was marked by widespread discontent over stagnant living standards and rampant corruption. The defendants — of whom 22 are present — also include several close members of Bakiyev's family, some of whom have still eluded capture.
In a sign of the huge resonance of the trial, officials are holding it in a converted sports hall in the capital, Bishkek, to accommodate a 2,000-person gallery. Crowds massed outside the building Wednesday, venting anger at Bakiyev.
Chants of "Blood for blood, death for death!" rang out, frequently drowning out proceedings inside the hall, where defense lawyers requested a postponement to better prepare for the trial.
"When they were killing, they didn't think about the law. We demand that the court not suspend the trial," said Kubanych Shakirov, a relative of one of the victims, outside the makeshift court.
The U.S. and Russia are monitoring developments closely, mindful of the fate of their military bases in the strategically located nation. The U.S. Manas air transit center is used as stop-off point for coalition forces in nearby Afghanistan.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan issued a statement to criticize how the opening hearing was held.
"The venue being used for this trial does not suggest the solemnity and seriousness with which such matters should be conducted," the statement said.
The statement also called for a fair and transparent trial and to ensure the safety of the defendants.