Kyrgyzstan: Criminal Case Opened Against Losing Presidential Candidate
Prosecutors in Kyrgyzstan have opened a criminal case against the runner-up in recent presidential elections, the multimillionaire businessman Omurbek Babanov.
Officials are accusing Babanov of fomenting ethnic tension and attempting to incite the overthrow of the government during a campaign stump speech in a largely Uzbek community in the southern city of Osh.
“With the intent of garnering votes from the Uzbek section of the population, Babanov talked about rights violations toward ethnic Uzbek, about supposed ethnic inequality in the country and about pressure on ethnic Uzbeks from government bodies, and then he proceeded to incite people to actively resist this situation,” the General Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement on November 4.
In a statement, Babanov refuted the accusations made against him, calling them “a contrived, politicized criminal case.”
Prosecutors are dwelling in particular on select phrases used by Bababov during the speech. In one passage, he told the crowd it was “better to die standing than to live on your knees” and that “if even one policeman should disrespect Uzbeks, they should be fired from their job.”
The ethnic issue is deeply toxic in southern Kyrgyzstan, which was rocked in June 2010 by a wave of inter-communal violence that left hundreds, mostly Uzbeks, dead. Police sweeps and investigations that followed the unrest almost exclusively targeted members of the Uzbek community.
Edited sections of Babanov’s speech were widely circulated on messaging apps in the dying days of campaigning and appear to have severely harmed his election prospects. His campaign team has previously rejected suggestions that Babanov was making incendiary remarks and that the footage doing the rounds was heavily edited and that the remarks were taken out of context.
In a statement issued after the General Prosecutor’s Office announcement, Babanov warned against pursuing the case against him.
“Any injustice will be revealed ultimately. Do not make the same mistakes of the past. Be objective, otherwise the autocracy that fought so many years to leave behind us will one more take root in our country,” he said.
Babanov did not divulge his whereabout in the statement, but local media have reported that he is currently outside Kyrgyzstan.
Babanov was the only viable rival to the ultimate winner of the presidential election, ruling party candidate Soronbai Jeenbekov. In the end, however, Babanov failed to force a runoff vote, as Jeenebekov managed to garner almost 55 percent of the vote, well over the 50 percent threshold needed. Babanov got around 34 percent of the ballots cast.
Independent observers have noted that Jeenebekov was significantly aided by the deployment of so-called administrative resources. State workers were mobilized to aid Jeenebekov’s cause and the security services openly pressured Babanov’s campaign by arresting allies and hinting at the possibility of prosecution over the Osh speech.
Jeenbekov is set to be inaugurated as president on November 24, taking over from his ally and outgoing leader Almazbek Atambayev, who was limited constitutionally to one six-year term in office.
This article has been updated with a statement from Babanov.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.