Kyrgyzstan: Prosecutions Thin Ranks of Presidential Contenders

Two major names in Kyrgyzstani politics have been sentenced to long terms in jail so far in August. Local analysts contend the cases are politically motivated.

With presidential election coming up in mid-October, analysts argue the timing of the convictions is not coincidental. They suggest that the cases likely were intended to help members of the ruling elite retain their grip on power.

The most recent case involved the leader of the Ata-Meken party, Omurbek Tekebayev. On August 16, he was sentenced to eight years in jail — but is being ordered to serve only four-and-a-half years as a result of an amnesty — at the end of a corruption trial involving a Russian businessman and a mobile telecommunications company.

And at the start of August, a court in Bishkek sentenced former MP Sadyr Japarov to 11-and-a-half years in a high-security prison for purportedly kidnapping a governor during unrest in the Issyk-Kul region in 2013. Japarov boasts notable support in some areas of the country, mainly the south.

Both politicians were jailed on the basis of alleged wrongdoings committed many years earlier.

Seven years ago, in Tekebayev’s case.

That this investigation was initiated so recently has prompted Tekebayev’s allies, as well as rights activists, to argue that the case was part of a plan to cull the field of contenders before the presidential vote is held on October 15.

The trial was, by any reckoning, rushed, despite the complicated and convoluted nature of the accusations at the center of it all. Weekly hearings lasted from 9 am to 6 am — an unusually long window in Kyrgyz terms. All the defense team’s procedural motions were rejected out of hand. And the prosecution’s main witness, a Russian investor from whom Tekebayev was said to have extorted a $1 million bribe while he was a minister in the post-2010 revolution government, declined to travel to Kyrgyzstan to give testimony.

Politically charged trials are frequently accompanied by scuffles among supporters of the defendant and police outside the courthouse, but on this occasion, Tekebayev’s crowd quietly dispersed after the verdict was announced, and made no trouble for the heavy contingent of police officers on guard.

Political commentators believe that by weeding out potential rivals, the electoral hopes could improve for Soronbai Jeenbekov, the governing Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan’s pick to replace incumbent Almazbek Atambayev, who is constitutionally limited to just one term. Jeenbekov is currently serving as prime minister.

Although Tekebayev would seem to be unable to run in the upcoming election, Elmira Nogoibayeva, the head of Bishkek-based Polis Asia think-thank, believes the Ata-Meken leader’s favorability ratings have actually improved as a result of what she described as a trumped-up case.

“This whole case crumbled before our eyes. It was not a legal trial but a political one; it was intended to sideline an opponent. But this sentence will only be in Tekebayev’s interest. His numbers will improve because Atambayev has handed him a martyr’s halo,” Nogoibayeva said.

In a country that has seen not one but two revolutions in the past 12 years, wielding informal people power is widely perceived to be just as important as holding office.

Nogoibayeva said there is a good chance Tekebayev will only be kept in jail for the duration of the election cycle, which could extend into a run-off vote if no single candidate wins 50 percent of the ballot outright on October 15.

“The ruling party is afraid and is insuring itself before the election. They are trying to cram in this workaday, staid candidate who looks so bland compared to the rest,” she said, referring to Jeenbekov.

Tekebayev’s lawyer, Chinara Dzhakupbekova, remains convinced that her client can still be eligible to run in the presidential election. Dzhakupbekova said she drew up appeal papers on the morning after the August 16 verdict, and hopes to get through the legal process quickly.

If the treatment of Tekebayev seemed particularly harsh and summary, it stems in part from his vocal opposition to President Atambayev’s ultimately only half-successful attempts late last year to amend the constitution in such a way that would ensure his entourage retained power.

This week, there has been mounting speculation that Jeenbekov will quit his prime ministerial post while campaigning, and hand the job to the youthful head of the presidential administration, Sapar Isakov. One scenario envisioned by analysts is that Jeenbekov would effectively share executive power with the prime minister’s office. Traditionally, the prime minister’s office in Kyrgyz politics plays a subordinate role to the president in executive branch affairs.

This outcome, however, is far from a sure thing. For one, a rival candidate, wealthy businessman Omurbek Babanov, is viewed as standing a very real chance of winning the election too.

It is not just Tekebayev’s supporters who are dismayed by his prosecution. Another notable critic is Roza Otunbayeva, who served as interim president in 2010 following the April revolt that year. At one hearing, she cried out in the courtroom that the trial was reminiscent of 1937 — the year that marked the peak of Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s political repressions.

Igor Shestakov, a political analyst with pronounced pro-government leanings, said that Atambayev was using his last few months in office to sweep the political scene clean of an old guard of political actors. Shestakov said he has little sympathy for Tekebayev, since he has fallen victim to a system he helped create when he took a leading role in drafting the revised 2010 constitution.

“He is trying to cast himself in the role of the radical opponent to the regime, but he himself was part of this regime. Until they arrested him, that is,” he said.

Lots of local rights activists openly acknowledge they have no particular enthusiasm for Tekebayev as a politician. Yet they express concern over the rising tide of repression against administration critics, and the lack of independence among the judiciary.

“As we have seen over the past 20 years, the people in charge keep on changing. Those who were in the saddle fall into the mud. Those who were in the mud, climb to the peak, and then it changes all over again. And those who are responsible for [upholding justice] continue to loyally serve the people who are in power at any given time,” lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov wrote on his Facebook account.

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