A court in Kyrgyzstan has sentenced three people to lengthy jail terms for their alleged role in the car bomb attack on China’s embassy last August, but many questions remain over the rigor of the 10-month long investigation.
Khasamidin Ismailov was handed an 18-year sentence by the court in Bishkek on June 27, while Hikmatillo Abdulazhanov and Kunazim Mansirova were each ordered to serve 10 years in jail apiece.
All had pleaded not guilty to assisting the bomber in carrying out the August 30 embassy attack, which injured five people after a car packed with explosives rammed into the gates of the building. Nobody other than the attacker was killed in the attack.
Lawyers for the three have said they will appeal.
The account is confused and bears all too little scrutiny.
In the weeks after the attack, the press service of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, declared that the embassy attack had been commissioned by Uyghur extremists operating in Syria in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra and Jamaat Tawhid wal-Jihod. At the time, the GKNB released a list of around a dozen suspects identified by their initials and described them as being relatives of another person of interest, Burkhaniddin Zhantorayev.
Zhantorayev, who is listed as being wanted for terrorism-related charges on the Interpol website, hit Facebook from Turkey to declare his innocence shortly after the list was released. He has not returned home to face questioning.
The GKNB says that other Kyrgyzstan-based suspects had charges against them dropped during the course of the investigation.
One, Mubarak Turganbayev, was initially suspected of helping to organize the bombing, only to later become a witness for the prosecution, much to the chagrin of lawyers defending the accused.
Turganbayev, who worked for an Istanbul-based firm that arranges the delivery of cargo and cash between Turkey and Central Asia, spent two months in detention after he arrived from Turkey to clear his name.
Like Zhantorayev, he was quick to take to social media to protest his innocence following the list’s release. His confirmation that the Istanbul firm he worked for took an order to deliver cash to Bishkek "from a man called Burkhan" likely added to investigative pressures on his co-defendant.
The lawyer for Ismailov, who received the longest sentence of the three, made a plea for his acquittal at a June 7 hearing.
“My client has no previous convictions and is the father of four children. From the day of his detention he provided the same testimony. No group claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack at the Chinese Embassy, while the terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra, which my client has been accused of being a member of, has claimed responsibility for 57 of 70 terrorist attacks around the world [timeline unclear]. The investigation did not even analyze the charges against my client. I ask you to acquit Ismailov on the basis of lack of evidence,” the lawyer told the court.
According to news outlet Zanoza.kg, Ismailov was actually accused by the court of belonging to an entire smorgasbord of extremist organizations, from the Islamic Jihad Union (a Pakistan-based group that splintered from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) to another group that came to be referred to as Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It is the Jahbat al-Nusra link that supposedly ties the organization of the attack to extremist groups fighting in Syria, although little convincing evidence has been offered by Kyrgyz authorities.
According to press reports, both the ethnic Uyghur-dominated East Turkestan Islamic Movement, to which the GKNB also says the bomber belonged, and ethnic Uzbek-dominated Tawhid wal-Jihod, which is led by Kyrgyzstan native Sirozhiddin Mukhtarov, both operate under the Jahbat al-Nusra umbrella.
Mukhtarov is the man the GKNB has claimed as the embassy blast’s ultimate mastermind.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan seem conflicted over his ethnic background, describing him as Uyghur, while noting he is listed as an ethnic Uzbek in his Kyrgyz travel passport.
The Uyghur angle satisfies Beijing, which has been involved in the investigation form the outset and has long sought to promote the view that Uyghur separatist networks represent an international terror threat.
What is uncertain is where Kyrgyzstan found a link between Mukhtarov, Zhantorayev and his extended family, given that this line evidence doesn't appear to have come from witness or defense testimonies.
Reliable information is scarce while disinformation circulates freely, further complicating matters.
Mukhtarov, for example, was also linked by Russian security services, quoted anonymously in the Russian press, to the April bombing on the St. Petersburg metro that left 16 people dead. But later it was another group altogether that claimed the attack.