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Kyrgyz investigative journalist Ulanbek Egizbaev (1990-2018)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyzstan's interior minister has taken over from local officials an investigation into the apparent drowning of an award-winning investigative journalist from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service who died on July 22 on holiday with his family at Lake Issyk-Kul.

The regional Internal Affairs Department had ruled out foul play during the initial phase of its investigation and said Ulanbek Egizbaev's death at the Akun resort beach near the town of Cholpon Ata was "accidental."

According to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Egizbaev had recently received threats via telephone and mail in connection with his reports about corruption.

That prompted speculation on social media that the 28-year-old reporter may have been targeted by an attack.

Issyk-Kul's regional Internal Affairs Department quickly rejected "murder" claims by "individuals on social media" as "false information."

Interior Minister Kashkar Junushaliev has since taken control of the investigation.

Initial results of an autopsy carried out on July 23 at the request of Egizbaev's family by the Bishkek Forensic Medical Examination Center listed the cause of his death as "drowning."

But final autopsy results, including a toxicology report, are expected to take about a month.

Presidential Condolences

Expressing condolences to Egizbaev's relatives and his colleagues at RFE/RL, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov on July 23 praised Egizbaev's investigative reports on corrupt government officials -- saying Kyrgyzstan "has lost a talented journalist who selflessly fought against the ills of our society."

"The name of Ulanbek Egizbaev will live on in the history of Kyrgyz journalism, and his active civic position and high professionalism will serve as an example for the younger generations," Jeenbekov said.

Jeenbekov said Egizbaev's work "raised acute issues within our society" and "contributed to our fight against corruption."

If Egizbaev had not died, the Kyrgyz president said, "his characteristic ability would have exposed many more corrupt officials and their dubious deeds."

Egizbaev won a prestigious international Webby award in 2016
Egizbaev won a prestigious international Webby award in 2016

Interior Minister Junushaliev has formed an investigative commission comprising criminologists, medical experts, a representative of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and one of Egizbaev's relatives.

Prime Minister Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev told his cabinet during a July 23 meeting that clear and transparent results from the investigation must be presented to Kyrgyzstan's public to prevent further speculation about his death.

Witnesses say two children who were selling snacks to vacationers on the north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul first noticed Egizbaev struggling to swim near a dock.

However, they said, there was no lifeguard on duty at the beach at the time.

"Two people who were on holiday rushed into the water to rescue him and pulled him from the water unconscious," witness and Kyrgyz National Television journalist Adilet Chubakov told RFE/RL. "They tried to resuscitate him, but they couldn't revive him."

Chubakov, who posted a video of the scene to his Facebook page, said it took a lifeguard and nurse employed by the Akun resort about 15 minutes to arrive after Egizbaev had been pulled from the water.

According to Chubakov, the nurse said Egizbaev showed signs of breathing when she arrived. But the nurse and lifeguard also were unable to resuscitate him.

Chubakov said it took emergency medical workers from a nearby hospital another quarter of an hour to arrive in an ambulance.

Egizbaev was pronounced dead on arrival at the regional hospital in Cholpon Ata.

Exposing Corruption

Egizbaev's investigative reporting exposed illegal land sales involving public officials within exclusive neighbors of Kyrgyzstan's capital.

He also exposed the illegal sale of burial plots at Bishkek's cemeteries, where graves are supposed to be free.

Those reports included allegations that cemetery plots were being sold for the equivalent of hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars -- depending on whether the buyer was a Muslim, a Christian, a foreigner, or a member of the minority Romany community.

In February, an RFE/RL report by Egizbaev documented a $100 million corruption scandal that caused a newly modernized thermal power plant in Bishkek to break down during the coldest spell of the winter -- leaving many residents of the capital without heat or electricity for three days. That article has fed criticism of the previous administration and allies of ex-President Almazbek Atambaev.

In 2016, a feature video produced by Egizbaev won the prestigious Webby People's Voice Award given out by the New York-based International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS).

The video told the story of a disabled teenager's daily trip to school in a wheelchair along a rugged path and his elation when a local NGO gave him a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle that he could operate himself to make the journey. Presented in Russian, English, and Kyrgyz, that video has been viewed more than 1 million times around the world.

Watch This Disabled Boy's World Change In Two Minutes
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The Webby Awards have been described by The New York Times as "the Internet's highest honor."

In June, Egizbaev received the Golden Pen award from Kyrgyzstan's Independent Union of Journalists.

Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek
Kazakh rights activist Yelena Semyonova (file photo)

A Kazakh human rights activist, Yelena Semyonova, is under investigation after she testified at the European Parliament about a mass self-mutilation by inmates in a Kazakh penitentiary.

Semyonova told RFE/RL on July 23 that police had visited her apartment in the northern city of Pavlodar on July 20 and taken her to a police station, where she was questioned for several hours.

Semyonova says she was questioned regarding her visit to Strasbourg on July 3-5 where she met with European politicians with whom she discussed cases of torture, beatings, and rapes, in Kazakh prisons.

Police informed Semyonova that a probe had been launched against her by the Interior Affairs Department of the central Qaraghandy region on charges of "intentionally spreading false information" about mass self-mutilation by inmates in a Qaragandhy prison.

If charged and convicted, Semyonova may face up to five years in prison.

After the questioning, police confiscated Semyonova’s phone and searched her apartment, taking away her computer, her daughter's computer, and many documents, including papers linked to inmates' complaints about their rights being abused.

Semyonova says she was ordered not to leave Pavlodar while investigations against her are under way.

The Frontline Defenders and Open Dialogue rights organization expressed concerns over Semyonova's fate after her whereabouts remained unknown following her questioning by police on June 20.

The group called on European Parliament members to raise her case with Kazakh authorities.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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