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Surprise Acquittals: Is Kyrgyzstan's Hard-Line Leader Going Soft?

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov in March
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov in March

Of all the joyous scenes that followed the surprise acquittals of 22 defendants accused in one of Kyrgyzstan’s highest profile political trials to date, one stood out.

It was the sight of Azimbek Beknazarov, a former prosecutor-general known as “the bulldozer,” being hoisted into the air and carried away from the courtroom by his supporters like a victorious football star.

Beknazarov is a man who symbolizes political life in Central Asia’s most unrest-prone country: in and out of government, constantly maneuvering, jailed more than once.

The regime of President Sadyr Japarov -- another former inmate -- was supposed to be the one that threw away the key.

After all, Beknazarov is now 67 and prosecutors had demanded 20-year sentences for the defendants for allegedly using their opposition to a Kyrgyz-Uzbek border deal to plan an overthrow of the government.

Instead, nearly two years since their arrests, they were all let off the hook.

Opposition politician and former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov is held aloft by supporters after being acquitted in the so-called Kempir-Abad trial on June 14.
Opposition politician and former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov is held aloft by supporters after being acquitted in the so-called Kempir-Abad trial on June 14.

“If I had been the judge, I would have imposed some kind of punishment on the organizers. At least a fine or probation,” Japarov grumbled in an interview with state media on June 15, the day after the court’s decision.

“At least a fine,” for allegedly trying to overthrow the government?

Has Kyrgyzstan’s hard-line president gone soft or is something else happening here?

Japarov has insisted he had no bearing on the closed court’s decision.

But judicial independence in Kyrgyzstan is a rare thing, especially in cases as important as this one.

Might Japarov and his allies have instead decided that they have too many political prisoners?

The Kempir-Abad activists in a celebratory photo after the court decision that freed them.
The Kempir-Abad activists in a celebratory photo after the court decision that freed them.

Breaking Precedents, Making Concessions

The words Kempir-Abad are now synonymous with the trial that concluded last week and an intensifying crackdown on dissent under Japarov.

But it is also the name of a reservoir that figured prominently in negotiations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for a historic border deal.

Uzbekistan had long drawn water from Kempir-Abad anyway, but under the terms of the deal, the larger Central Asian country secured greater rights over the body of water, which is entirely located inside Kyrgyz territory.

This move caused dissatisfaction in southern Kyrgyzstan, something that a number of Bishkek-based politicians and activists later seized on, forming an ad hoc group known as the Kempir-Abad Defense Committee.

The arrests began to fly almost immediately after the group was formed in October 2022, and the pretrial investigation dragged on and on.

Beknazarov and seven others were kept in jail right up until the verdict.

Five of the six women activists in the group were held for months on end in conditions that appeared to take a heavy toll on their health.

The other woman, Rita Karasartova, was only released in June of last year.

For Kyrgyz regimes, politicians like Beknazarov have long been fair game.

An online meme by foreign journalists demanding the release of the 11 Kyrgyz journalists still being charged.
An online meme by foreign journalists demanding the release of the 11 Kyrgyz journalists still being charged.

A prominent figure in the revolutions of 2005 and 2010, the trial would likely not have garnered the attention it did had it just been him and other perceived dilettantes in the dock.

But the long-term detentions for female civil society leaders set a new precedent and showed that the government would take extreme measures to suppress dissent whenever it wanted to.

Speaking immediately after the verdict, another of those women, former Constitutional Court judge turned NGO founder Klara Sooronkulova, was more sober than many of her co- defendants.

“A case was illegally brought against us and we suffered as a result. In this regard, we have the right to sue the state and receive compensation,” she said.

“But the court decision has not yet entered into force. The Prosecutor-General's Office asked to sentence us to 20 years and it can still appeal the verdict.”

If Japarov’s comments on the trial’s outcome are anything to go by, it seems unlikely that investigators will be held to account for what lawyers of the defendants called fabricated charges and what the judge reportedly termed a lack of evidence in the case.

On the other hand, the president knows only too well that an abundance of jailed critics can be risky, and that past Kyrgyz leaders have suffered for failing to keep the doors of political repression revolving.

Charge, Jail, Acquit?

One of those was Sooronbai Jeenbekov, Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president, who inherited political prisoners from his predecessor, Almazbek Atambaev, before adding a few of his own, including Atambaev.

But when protests erupted over disputed parliamentary elections in 2020 Jeenbekov was weakened, while demand for the release of prominent politicians on the part of jostling factions and protesters on the street saw his position become untenable.

In the tussle that followed, Atambaev-era political prisoner Sadyr Japarov made a bid for power, shrugging off a hostage-taking conviction to complete a remarkable “prison to the presidency” rise.

And he has seemingly fine-tuned the state’s strategies for dealing with dissenters.

Under president number six, the charge, jail, acquit sequence was seen even before this trial.

The arrest of blogger Yryskeldi Jekshenaliev in August 2022 on charges of making public calls for mass disorder and violence shocked the public, mostly because he was only 19 years old at the time of his arrest.

Yryskeldi Jekshenaliev (file photo)
Yryskeldi Jekshenaliev (file photo)

But on the heels of the arrests of the Kempir-Abad group, he was released into house arrest and eventually cleared of wrongdoing in December 2023 -- having spent more than a year sweating a potential seven-year jail sentence.

Investigative journalist Bolot Temirov was acquitted from charges of drug possession and illegal border crossing in September 2022.

In that trial, the presiding judge saw fit to admonish security services for their handling of his case.

But there have been no reports of the relevant officers being punished for their shortcomings, and a subsequent charge of “document fraud” stuck, seeing Temirov convicted and bizarrely deported from the country of his birth, to Russia, where he held citizenship.

Now it is 11 of Temirov’s current and former colleagues from the Temirov Live media outlet who are in the dock, after the journalists from Temirov Live and its affiliate, Ait Ait Dese, were arrested in January raids and accused of calling for mass riots.

Of the defendants whose trial began on June 6, four remain in pretrial detention, with the remainder under house arrest.

In April, the Kyrgyz Ombudsman's Institute said that prison guards had physically attacked one of the defendants, Bolot Temirov’s wife and colleague Makhabat Tajibek-kyzy, in the Bishkek facility where she is being held.

In May, prosecutors said that they had decided not to open a case into the alleged attack on her, despite pictures of her with bruises. Officials claim she got those from a fall.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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