A court in Kyrgyzstan has released an imprisoned former president and authorized him to go abroad for medical treatment in a move that has been greeted jubilantly by his supporters.
In a double victory for Almazbek Atambayev, in addition to the Pervomaisk district court in Bishkek ruling to let him leave the country, the Supreme Court on February 14 overturned an 11-year sentence handed down in 2020 for his involvement in the early release of a crime boss.
Atambayev’s lawyer, Sergei Slesarev, told Eurasianet that he could not divulge what new discoveries had been made in that latter case that laid the ground for his client’s release.
“I would not say that everything happened in one day. We have been preparing for this for a long time. At the end of January, we appealed to the Prosecutor General’s Office and after that we filed an application with the Supreme Court, which has made this decision,” he said.
The last few years of Atambayev’s life have been nothing if not eventful. He stepped down as president in late 2017, handing over the reins to what he considered to be any ally he could manipulate from behind the scenes: Sooronbai Jeenbekov. That plan backfired disastrously when Jeenbekov turned out to be far more independent than expected.
After Atambayev started making his displeasure known, Jeenbekov moved to sideline his holdover cronies still in the government. In time, lawmakers would strip Atambayev of his immunity status as a former president. The nadir arrived in mid-2019, when Atambayev holed up at his sweeping country estate outside Bishkek as he defied a summons to an interview with the police. The standoff ended with special forces raiding the compound and the former president in handcuffs. One special forces soldier died from gunshot wounds.
In October 2020, it was Jeenbekov’s turn to be deposed. Days of unruly protests in the wake of dirty parliamentary elections led to his ouster and current President Sadyr Japarov seizing power.
Japarov hardly has grounds for feeling any affection for Atambayev. The latter was in power in March 2017 when the former returned to Kyrgyzstan from some years in exile, which he spent evading arrest for his alleged involvement in whipping up disturbances in 2013, only to be thrown back behind bars.
It was no surprise then that Atambayev supporters awaiting his release at the gates of the Moldovanovka prison colony expressed gratitude at the president’s magnanimity.
“It is impossible not to mention President Sadyr Japarov, as well as chairman of the State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiyev, for creating the conditions for fair justice without interference,” said politician Temirlan Sultanbekov, who has previously strongly criticized both men.
After his departure from the prison, Atambayev was immediately whisked away to the very same compound were he was arrested at the end of his last stand in 2019. A crowd of around 100 people were waiting.
Addressing his well-wishers, Atambayev promised that would no longer engage in politics and that he planned to devote his life to his family.
“Prison changes a person a lot,” he said. “You see what is true and what is false, including among people and your friends.”
Despite affecting a more sedate demeanor, Atambayev has some bile set aside for the would-be patsy-turned-foe, Jeenbekov.
“Well, it sometimes happens that you’re walking along the street and you step in something. You scrape your shoe and walk on,” he said.
Atambayev’s stated plan is to travel to Spain to treat unspecified heart and back conditions. The question is whether he will return. In one quip to reporters, he quoted a famous line in English from The Terminator — “I’ll be back” — to indicate that he saw his future in Kyrgyzstan.
If he keeps his word, more legal trouble could await him, though. The Supreme Court may have set aside the case over the released crime boss, but Atambayev still faces other charges, not the least of which is the one connected to the special forces soldier killed during the operation to detain him.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.