As Kyrgyzstan's presidential campaign enters its final two weeks, a high-profile murder case is proving a conspicuous distraction.
The case is hardly new. Medet Sadyrkulov, the former chief of staff for then-President Kurmanbek Bakiev, died in grisly circumstances along with a colleague and a driver in March 2009.
But it has taken more than two years -- and a pendular shift in Bishkek's political landscape -- for the case to get its first big break, as investigators have named more than 30 Bakiev-era officials for their alleged involvement in the murder. Several have already been detained, and others are gradually being brought in for questioning.
Authorities have argued the lapse was needed to muster the will to reopen a politically explosive case, and that any confluence with the October 30 election is purely coincidental. But coincidence or not, the Sadyrkulov murder is casting an inevitable shadow over the race.
One popular candidate, former Security Council secretary Adakhan Madumarov, is among those who has been asked to submit to interrogation
as a high-placed official at the time of the murder, although he denies any role in the crime.
And many in Bishkek, including Elmira Ibraimova, a close associate of Sadyrkulov, say they are looking to the case to remind voters of the brutality that characterized the Bakiev regime -- and to use their ballots to keep Kyrgyzstan on a more progressive course.
"Anything can happen in our country. And unfortunately, we see that history can turn in a different direction at any moment," says Ibraimova. "I'm putting my hopes on the wisdom of the people, that they won't give the Bakievs an opportunity to return, even in another form."
'I Asked Him To Be Careful'
Before his death, Sadyrkulov was the quintessential political insider with a talent for survival. He served as chief of staff not only for Bakiev but for his predecessor, Askar Akaev, who was dramatically ousted in the 2005 Tulip Revolution. People remember him as determined, clever, and glowing with the confidence of a gray cardinal who knew himself to be indispensable.
"He had a colossal energy," said Syrgak Abdyldaev, a journalist. "Strength just emanated from him."
But slowly, Sadyrkulov's energy had been fueling a growing disenchantment with Bakiev, whose clan of powerful family members was seen as amassing enormous wealth as it corrupted every layer of government. Sadyrkulov began to mull a break with Bakiev, and quietly reached out to members of Bishkek's political opposition.
But his actions did not go unnoticed.
Melis Turganbaev, who was then serving as the No. 2 official in the Interior Ministry, says Sadyrkulov approached him for help after receiving a package at home containing a severed finger and ear. The package, Sadyrkulov believed, was from Bakiev's brother Janysh, who was the head of the presidential guard and seen as Kurmanbek's uncompromising enforcer.
"I told Medet Sadyrkulov quite openly that that was a warning sign, and that if they were sending such a 'gift,' it meant they were letting him know in no uncertain terms that he was out of control and that the conversation would be different the next time around," says Sadyrkulov. "I asked him to be careful. We wanted to carry out an investigation, but he refused."
Diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks indicate that Sadyrkulov made multiple attempts to pull Kurmanbek Bakiev free from the influence of his corrupt brothers and sons. One cable
, written by then-U.S. Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller, made note of a "last effort" on December 30, 2008. The cable observed, "During a long night of vodka drinking and man-tears, Sadyrkulov tried to convince Bakiev that his family's racketeering -- the bribes, the threats, the taking over of profitable businesses -- created an untenable situation and would turn the country against him."
Plotting Bakiev's Ouster
But Sadyrkulov's attempt was unpersuasive, and on January 8 he stepped down. Other resignations soon followed, including Ibraimova, then deputy prime minister, and Bakiev's economic adviser Azamat Dikambaev. The WikiLeaks cable cited Sadyrkulov as unconcerned, saying, "As Bakiev has been accumulating money, I have been accumulating people." He also informed the ambassador that his contacts within the opposition were developing a plan to oust Bakiev through a mix of civil disobedience and by driving a wedge through the presidential Ak-Jol party.
It was at this time that Sadyrkulov approached Abdyldaev, a journalist and parliament secretary for the opposition Social Democrats. Sadyrkulov and an associate, Sergei Slepchenko, who headed an influential think tank, were looking to create a website, based in Kazakhstan, to publish what they said was damning evidence of corruption and criminality by the Bakiev clan. Bakiev, they promised, would be out by May.
Abdyldaev, who had already seen a close friend, parliament deputy Ruslan Shabotoev, kidnapped and killed in 2008
, said he was ready to help, despite the obvious risks.
"The materials were already prepared. There were enough materials to last at least half a year," says Abdyldaev. "It would have been like a bomb. There were such explosive moments in there that I understood that I had gotten myself into a deadly game. Then on March 3, I was attacked. And then on the 13th, as you know, he was killed."
Crime And Cover-Up
The details of Sadyrkulov's death remain imprecise. But one thing was immediately certain, even to casual observers who read about the former aide's remains being found in a burned-out car on a road outside Bishkek: He was not the victim of a simple traffic accident, as officials alleged.
Turganbaev, who as first deputy interior minister now serves as a spokesman for the current murder investigation, says Sadyrkulov and Slepchenko were apprehended with their driver, Kubat Sulaimanov, as they were traveling into Kyrgyzstan following a trip to Kazakhstan. The men were separated and murdered. Interior Ministry officials say Sadyrkulov was likely tortured and then strangled.
The bodies of the men were then returned to their car, driven to a spot outside Bishkek, and incinerated as the car was set alight. All three bodies were found in the passenger's seats, fueling speculation they had already been dead at the time of the blaze. Another driver was arrested and convicted of causing the fatal crash, but critics found the claim far from credible. The man, Omurbek Osmonov, was jailed, released, and later found dead
of multiple stab wounds.
The Interior Ministry now alleges that Janysh Bakiev organized and personally presided over the murders. Turganbaev says the ministry does not rule out the possibility that Kurmanbek Bakiev himself was involved.
"Janysh Bakiev appears in the case as the main organizer. He organized this murder. He put together a criminal group," Turganbaev says. "We're still clarifying the information we have on Kurmanbek Bakiev and preparing the necessary papers to have him submit to questioning. I can't say with certainty that he gave the order. But it should be noted that such crimes wouldn't take place in this country without his approval."
Beyond Reach Of The Law
The chances of interrogating either Janysh or Kurmanbek Bakiev appear slim. Nearly every member of the powerful Bakiev clan has fled the country since the violent protests of April 2010 that ultimately forced the president's ouster a year after Sadyrkulov's death.
Kurmanbek Bakiev himself has found haven in Belarus. Janysh is believed to travel regularly between Belarus and Tajikistan, where he allegedly remains involved in the region's lucrative crossborder drug trade.
WATCH: In March 2009, correspondents for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service visited the site of the car wreck that allegedly killed Medet Sadyrkulov. (Narration in Kyrgyz)
Kurmanbek, Janysh, and other members of the family are already being tried in absentia for corruption and their roles in the April clashes. Any formal charges in the Sadyrkulov case will only compound the conviction that the Bakievs are not coming back to Kyrgyzstan anytime soon.
Keneshbek Dushebaev, the head of the State National Security Committee, on October 17 expressed doubt
that any members of the Bakiev clan -- including another brother, Marat, and Kurmanbek's son, Maksim -- could be successfully extradited.
Emil Kaptagaev, the administration chief for outgoing President Roza Otunbaeva and the author of a work of fiction, "The Bloody Way," whose plot strongly resembles the Sadyrkulov case, says the Bakiev clan was so united in its determination to dominate Kyrgyzstan, both financially and politically, that the murder is something they all should answer for.
"The Bakiev clan was growing and growing, and each time its appetite grew bigger," says Kaptagaev. "They were worried about losing all the wealth and they together organized this murder. This is a joint family affair."
Journalist Abdyldaev, who was ultimately forced to flee the country and now lives in Sweden, declines to give details about the materials Sadyrkulov collected to implicate the Bakiev family.
"The investigators don't need me to figure out who killed Medet and how," he says. "But he knew about all of the Bakievs' illegal and secret dealings. He knew how to break their system. He could have achieved a lot."
Another North-South Standoff?
For now, the Bakiev family's influence remains intact and is focused on retaining a foothold as elections approach. Parliament deputies have accused candidate Madumarov and a former prosecutor-general, Elmurza Satybaldiev, of secretly meeting
with Janysh Bakiev in the country's southern Osh Province as recently as August.
Many see the Sadyrkulov case as exacerbating tensions ahead of the vote at a time when the country remains dangerously divided between north and south. Nearly all of the officials targeted in the investigation are from the south -- the Bakievs' former stronghold -- and there are real concerns that an inconclusive first round on October 30 may lead to a standoff between the country's prime minister, Almazbek Atambaev, a northerner, and Kamchybek Tashiev, the leader of the southern-based Ata-Jurt party.
Atambaev, who counts Interior Minister Zarylbek Rysaliev among his closest allies, has been criticized as using the case to boost his own popularity and to weaken candidates like Madumarov. Atambaev and Otunbaeva were among the first people to call for a proper investigation after Sadyrkulov's death in 2009, but even supporters now say the case has taken on the unappealing look of a "political show."
Nor is it clear that the recent activity is working to the government's advantage in the south. Melis Myrzakmatov, the controversial mayor of Osh, the epicenter of last year's deadly ethnic clashes, openly backed a former deputy interior minister, Rasul Raimberdiev, who was arrested in connection with the Sadyrkulov murder and later released on bail after his supporters surrounded the jail
demanding he be freed.
All in all, there is a sensation that while the primary suspects live comfortably beyond the reach of Kyrgyz investigators, second-tier officials with more tangential ties to the crime are being targeted for the purpose of heating up a high-stakes campaign season. Some observers have expressed discomfort with the timing of the murder investigation. But Kaptagaev says they were right to move while the relatively progressive Otunbaeva is still in power.
"The time is now," he says. "If we're quiet about it now, then after the elections it will be too late. After the elections, it could turn out to be the security structures themselves who are blamed for concealing information."
'Their Goal Was To Frighten Everyone'
The Sadyrkulov case has dominated Kyrgyz headlines in recent weeks, but it is only one of dozens of politically motivated murders committed during the Bakiev regime. A state commission reported in the spring that 30 high-profile contract killings
were committed during Bakiev's five-year rule.
The murder victims include ethnic Uzbek journalist Alisher Saipov; parliament deputies Shabotoev, Jyrgalbek Surabaldiev, Bayaman Erkinbaev, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, and Sanjarbek Kadyraliev; and independent journalist Gennady Pavlyuk, who had written critically about Bakiev and died after he was thrown from a high-rise building
with his arms and legs bound in the Kazakh city of Almaty in December 2009.
Most of the cases have never been solved. A court in Kazakhstan recently jailed three men in connection with Pavlyuk's murder, but labeled the killing as an ordinary crime with no political motivation.
Ibraimova, who suffered her own acrimonious break with Bakiev after accompanying Sadyrkulov into the opposition in 2009, said the Bakievs made no secret of their willingness to exact revenge on Sadyrkulov or anyone they perceived as a threat.
"There was this sense that the Bakievs didn't especially try to hide that it was they who killed Medet Chokanovich," she says. "Because their goal was to frighten absolutely everyone. To the contrary, it worked to their advantage that everyone knew that anyone who tried to break ties with them could expect a similar fate."
written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar with reporting by Ainura Asankojoeva and Venera Djumataeva in Prague and Eleonora Beishenbek and Burulkan Sarygulova in Bishkek