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Zulpukar Sapanov (file photo)

On September 12, Kyrgyz journalist Zulpukar Sapanov was sentenced to four years in prison after being found guilty of inciting hatred between religious groups. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

On September 12, Kyrgyz journalist Zulpukar Sapanov was sentenced to four years in prison after being found guilty of inciting hatred between religious groups.

The basis for the court decision was Sapanov's book Kydyr Sanjyrasy (Genealogy of the Forefather Kydyr), which dealt with the pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions among the Kyrgyz people.

The book proposed that the Kyrgyz people came from a respected (and likely mythical) holy person, Kydyr-Ata, and Sapanov asked if "maybe Kydyr is the true God and Allah is Satan?"

The book was published in August 2016 and several newspapers published excerpts, quickly attracting the attention of religious scholars in Kyrgyzstan.

Some of these religious scholars appealed to the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) to take action against Sapanov.

Prominent among these theologians were Kadyr Malikov -- a vocal opponent of radical Islam who was attacked by alleged extremists in Bishkek on November 26, 2015, and spent time in the hospital with knife wounds to his face and neck -- and Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a member of parliament who once burned an Israeli flag at a press conference.

Tursunbai Bakir uulu (file photo)
Tursunbai Bakir uulu (file photo)



The SCNS summoned Sapanov for questioning in February and his home was later searched.

The SCNS assembled a panel of religious experts, including Malikov and Bakir uulu, to review Sapanov's book and these experts concluded that Sapanov's writing did constitute incitement of religious hatred.

A case was filed with the Prosecutor-General's Office with the prosecution initially demanding Sapanov be imprisoned for six years.

Sapanov says he has read the Koran, the Bible, the Jewish holy book the Torah, and has researched ancient Kyrgyz history. He mentions Tengri, considered by pre-Islamic Turkic cultures of Inner Asia to be a, or the, god, in his book also.

He contends his book was meant to help unite the Kyrgyz people by providing a better understanding of their common past, not to divide religions.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a statement on September 14 criticizing the verdict.

"Although Kyrgyzstan boasts of being an island of free speech in Central Asia, a court in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, passed the sentence on 12 September," RSF said. "The judges said the book 'downplays Islam's role as a religion and fosters a negative attitude towards Muslims.'"

On September 18, Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman, Kubat Otorbaev, called on the court system to "review [Sapanov's] verdict and free him from custody."

Otorbaev said, "One could characterize the court decision on the journalist [Sapanov] as being a return to the inquisition."

Kyrgyz Ombudsman Kubat Otorbaev
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Kubat Otorbaev



At the Qishloq we've been watching the case against Sapanov with great concern.

It does seem similar in some ways to the 1925 case of the state of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, better known in history as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Scopes was a substitute high school teacher in Tennessee who taught Darwin's theory of evolution in defiance of state laws at the time, which specified only the Bible's version of creation could be taught in schools.

The trial quickly evolved into a case of religion versus science; in this instance, science lost, and Scopes was forced to pay a $100 fine, which was a sizeable amount of money in those days.

Sapanov did his research and his book is based on the conclusions he drew; it nearly goes without saying that in a free society one should be free to write books or articles with an opposing point of view, leaving detractors to simply dismiss whatever they don't agree with.

The verdict in the Sapanov case is likely to have a chilling effect on writers, journalists, or intellectuals who plan on publishing historical research.

They now must consider their works could be reviewed by state religious experts and declared heretical, in which case they could face the same fate as Sapanov.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report.

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (left) and Uzbek-born Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov (composite file photo)

When Shavkat Mirziyoev flew to New York to address the UN General Assembly, he didn't take Uzbekistan's official presidential plane. Instead, he flew on the private Airbus A340-313 of Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov.

When Shavkat Mirziyoev flew to New York to address the UN General Assembly, he didn't take Uzbekistan's official presidential plane. Instead, he flew on the private Airbus A340-313 of Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov.

Okay, who wouldn't want to fly on a reportedly $350 million personal plane of a mega tycoon?

But the trip adds to the number of incidents where Mirziyoev has shirked convention when it comes to his presidency.

First, a presidential plane generally has an abundance of specialized systems, among them a secure communications system to keep in contact with key government officials back home.

Presumably the jet airliner of Usmanov does not have a secure line to Tashkent.

I'll admit that I have no way of knowing that for sure and considering Usmanov's greatly increased connections to Uzbekistan in recent months, I'm *really* not sure.

More about that later.

Presidential 'Inheritance'

Mirziyoev's trip to New York aboard Usmanov's plane is also interesting because it's not the first time Mirziyoev has passed on using the presidential "inheritance."

Mirziyoev's decision to turn the presidential palace of his predecessor, Islam Karimov, into a museum for Karimov made some sense, but Mirziyoev's accompanying announcement that he would be living in a new presidential palace, still under construction, made less sense considering he has promised to jump-start Uzbekistan's lethargic economy. Before he can do that, apparently, he needs to spend tens of millions of dollars on a new home.

Far stranger is Mirziyoev's decision to dispense with using the Uzbek presidential security service and apparently put his son-in-law Atabek Shakhanov in charge of presidential security.

Strange, that is, if you don't believe the rumors there is something wrong between Mirziyoev and the head of Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB), Rustam Inoyatov.

This would be a good time to mention that the Uzbek presidential plane is under the control of the SNB.

Back to Usmanov's plane. Usmanov, in an indirect way, is related to Mirziyoev.

Mirziyoev's niece, Diyora, was married to Usmanov's nephew. The nephew, Babur Usmanov, died in a car crash in Tashkent in 2013.

Probably not a close enough familial connection to earn a trip on a $350-million plane normally, but Alisher Usmanov, after many years, is stepping up his presence in his homeland.

Usmanov was born in the town of Chust, in Uzbekistan's eastern Namangan Province in 1953. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, Usmanov chose to live in Russia, where he was amassing a fortune.

After Karimov died and Mirziyoev took power in September 2016, Usmanov took a new interest in Uzbekistan.

Usmanov's plane was seen at Tashkent airport several times in the weeks after Karimov's death.

Russian Influence

There has been speculation that not only Usmanov's interests brought him back to Uzbekistan; perhaps Russia's interests were at work here as well.

Usmanov would be an excellent channel of communications between Moscow and Tashkent.

Karimov was always suspicious of Russia and tried to the best of his ability to limit Russian influence in Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoev (center) meets with Usmanov in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin (right).
Mirziyoev (center) meets with Usmanov in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin (right).

During Karimov's 25 years as Uzbekistan's leader, Usmanov did not exhibit much interest in playing any role there.

So, it is interesting that once Mirziyoev became Uzbekistan's leader, Usmanov reappeared in Uzbekistan.

For example, Usmanov vowed in May to pay for development of the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara to help boost tourism in Uzbekistan, a project that will cost at least tens of millions of dollars.

Why now and not years ago?

Maybe just coincidence.

And maybe there is nothing unusual about a billionaire living in Russia loaning his multimillion-dollar jet plane to his niece-in-law's uncle-by-marriage (Diyora is from Mirziyoev's wife's side of the family) to fly to address the UN.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service Director Alisher Sidikov and Khurmat Babadjanov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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