Before the security services in Kyrgyzstan came for Omurbek Tekebayev, there were many other opposition politicians being thrown in jail.
Last month’s arrest of the Ata-Meken party leader sent shockwaves through the country as an escalating confrontation between short-tempered President Almazbek Atambayev and his critics began assuming a more sinister tone.
Tekebayev is one of Kyrgyzstan’s most recognizable politicians and retains strong, if waning, support in his bulwarks in the south, so the rallies that followed his jailing were to be expected.
But as political observers and rights activists note, many other politicians have been arrested, and to much less fanfare. The pattern leading to those jailings has been so consistent as to raise suspicions about the legitimacy of investigations.
“It is a simple scheme — they blacken their names, defame them, arrest them, and then you see little desire for investigators to pursue objective cases,” said Zulfiya Marat, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Political Prisoners rights group.
There are at least nine members of small opposition groups currently awaiting sentences in the detention facilities of the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, the successor agency to the KGB. Their stories are roughly similar.
Around March 22, 2016, recordings of wiretapped conversations suddenly appeared online with accompanying transcripts. In those exchanges, people sounding like representatives of a cluster of regionally focused opposition groups — Bektur Asanov, Kubanychbek Kadyrov and Duulatbek Turdunaliev — are heard to purportedly discuss ways to sow unrest. In one call, the speakers reveal their intent to “bring people onto the streets” and to “seize the White House,” the name of the government building that also houses the parliament.
Without explaining how these recordings were made or how they had surfaced on the Internet, the GKNB hastily assured the public that they were genuine.
“The GKNB states that the recordings that appeared on the Internet … are verified by audio recordings already made by the GKNB in relation to an earlier criminal investigation,” the security services said in a statement.
A GKNB spokesman added that as “unconstitutional activities” were mentioned in the conversations, action would have to be taken. Asanov and Kadyrov were later arrested, although Turdunaliev appears to remain at large.
Asanov insisted that the content of the phone conversations had been heavily edited and been made to sound incriminating. The former governor of the southern Jalal-Abad region had, however, indeed held peaceful, low-key rallies around that time. He said in an interview after the recordings were leaked that his hope was to unseat the country’s leadership by legal means.
In mid-March, Asanov and his ally Kadyrov reportedly mustered around 500 supporters in a main square in the city of Jalal-Abad. Police scoffed at those estimates, insisting the turnout was closer to 50. On the day of the rally, the state broadcaster ran a news report mocking Asanov as a has-been and deriding his ability to summon any substantial amount of supporters.
If Asanov and Kadyrov could be dismissed as embittered failed politicians, Turdunaliev presented another kind of problem. Turdunaliev’s claim to any kind of leadership stems from his involvement in organizing the rowdy political protests in the western city of Talas on April 6, 2010, that culminated in the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev the following day. The “Aprilites,” as the revolutionaries are commonly known, hold a hallowed status in some sections of Kyrgyz society, and Atambayev has insistently sought to cash in on their moral capital.
In early March 2016, Turdunaliev drew the wrong kind of attention, however, after recording a video appeal accusing Atambayev of failing to live up to promises made to the country following the bloody 2010 revolts.
“I’m not afraid of death; I went out against Bakiyev and started a revolution in Talas. If you want to kill me, I’m ready, I’ve already dug up my grave,” Turdunaliev said, standing in the middle of a cemetery in his hometown. “These days, all we have left in power are corrupt officials and spongers. If this does not stop, everything is going to go sour for those at the top.”
Turdunaliev’s critics have derided him as an irrelevance and said his activism was aimed solely at securing a remunerative government post.
Shortly after these three were hit with investigations, authorities turned their attentions to another pair of political activists — Ernst Karybekov and Dastan Sarygulov. They were likewise objects of wiretapping and had their alleged discussions of conspiracies posted online. Both were later arrested.
Sarygulov confirmed the conversations had occurred, but said his statements were heavily edited and taken out of context. Karybekov said he was convinced he had been targeted as a reprisal for his activism.
“For more than 10 years, I have opposed the mafia in the energy industry and the government’s anti-people and criminal activities. Corruption is being protected by the upper echelons of the country’s political establishment. In my most recent statements, I began naming names,” Karybekov said in a letter written in his GKNB holding cell.
With that wave of arrests completed, the GKNB turned to representatives of another, similarly obscure, wing of the opposition billing itself the “People’s Parliament.” Among those arrested were former Agriculture Minister Bekbolot Talgarbekov, ex-Finance Minister Marat Sultanov and one-time presidential candidate Torobay Kolubayev. Other would-be co-conspirators named were Alexander Gusev and Toigonbek Kalmatov.
The prelude was the same. A recording of a phone conversation appeared online, featuring a full transcript and the phone numbers of those involved. Several people in the conversation had all previously distinguished themselves with calls for the resignation of President Atambayev.
Authorities quickly accused the group of plotting to use a planned rally in May to seize power.
Verdicts against all these men are expected any week now, although trial proceedings are taking place behind closed doors and officials are divulging few details. It is known, however, that prosecutors are demanding sentences of between 12 and 22 years in jail.
Marat, of the Committee for the Protection of Political Prisoners, said it is only the arrest of Tekebayev, a member of parliament, that has reignited attention to the situation of the jailed politicians.
“That was the first stage of persecuting opposition politicians, and then there was the second round when they went after those with parliamentary immunity, and third they have gone after the media. This is all in preparation for the final stages, when anybody can be harshly punished for any form of criticism,” Marat told EurasiaNet.org.
Another rights activist, Adil Turdukulov, has described the campaign against the politicians as systematic and dubbed the GKNB “an organ of repression.” The reason for this, Turdukulov said, lies in the upcoming presidential elections in November.
Atambayev is required by constitution to step down, but suspicion lingers that he intends to give the nod to a handpicked successor in order to protect the interests of his entourage. Although whoever aspires to become the next president will have to compete in an election, the use of what are euphemistically referred to as “administrative resources” — putting the thumb on the scales by various means — is presumed to be enough to ensure victory for an anointed successor.
Turdukulov said the opposition has at several turns foiled Atambayev’s effort to clear the political field and seamlessly carry out what some mischievously call “Operation Successor.”
“He has nothing left but to close the mouth of Ata-Meken leader [Tekebayev], and on a very contrived basis at that,” said Turdukulov, referring to the corruption case leveled at the opposition politician.
Atambayev has spared little contempt for his critics. In one May 2016 speech posted on the presidential website, he referred to figures behind the so-called People’s Parliament as little more than “shitocrats” — a crude Russian language pun effected by a slight transposition of letters in the word “democrats.”
“As long as I am head of state, I want to warn you once more — any attempts at destabilizing the country will be severely halted and strictly punished in line with the law. Nobody will be getting any more free rides,” he said.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a reporter based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.