A Kyrgyz university professor could face up to seven years in prison over comments he made on social media criticizing Soviet-era architecture in his hometown, Bishkek.
Thirty-nine-year-old Temir Bolotbek stands accused of inciting ethnic animosity, charges that stem from at least two Facebook comments he posted on a photo depicting a Bishkek street in the 1980s.
"A stinking, backward, and dull [Soviet-era building]," Bolotbek, who works at the Kyrgyz University of Construction, Technology, and Architecture, wrote under an image posted on January 9. "Architecture? Anyone who calls this...dull building 'architecture' has no idea about architecture."
In another comment, apparently directed at the social-media users who praised the construction, Bolotbek used more colorful language, along with a dismissive term for Russia, "Rushka."
He wrote that those who admired Soviet constructions should go to "Rushka, somewhere in Siberia," which has "plenty of such sad s**t, poor and slavish."
Bolotbek was summoned in January to the Kyrgyz Committee for State Security for questioning. He was subsequently charged under an article of the Criminal Code that sets a maximum penalty of seven years for "inciting national, ethnic, religious, or regional hatred through media or the Internet."
Bolotbek denies the charges, and his lawyer argues that the accusation violates his right to free speech.
"This accusation is absurd," Bolotbek told Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "My comments don’t mention any race, nation, or religion. There are no calls [to action]."
Bolotbek’s trial began last month in Bishkek.
There is a Kyrgyz precedent for imprisoning people over comments on social media, according to lawyer Akmat Alagushev, who cited the case of a farmer from Issyk-Kul who was sentenced to four years in prison over a Facebook post last year.
He said the farmer "is serving his sentence now."
Alagushev said a 2016 amendment to Article 299 of the Criminal Code introduced harsher punishments of up to seven years in prison for spreading banned hate speech via media.
While Bolotbek has insisted his Facebook comments were not intended to offend, a Kyrgyz news website criticized him for what it described as frequently posting anti-Russian comments on social media.
The website claimed that Bolotbek in the past has called on Russia to "go home and take its rusty planes with it from Kant [a Russian military air base in Bishkek]. We are better off without you."
Bolotbek said that while he believes in his right to free speech, he has been more careful since the charges arose about voicing his opinions.
"I do exercise some degree of self-censorship," he told RFE/RL. "I would allow myself to make more emotional statements before, but now I have to censor myself."