Officers with Kyrgyzstan’s anticorruption agency moved to shut down an opposition-owned television station on December 19 in just one of several parallel developments underlining the country’s deepening authoritarian tendencies.
Elsewhere the same day, a court handed down a financially crippling ruling against independent journalists and a rights activist, while a criminal trial against a prominent opposition politician was reaching its conclusion.
There had been some hope that newly elected President Sooronbai Jeebenkov might seek to nurture goodwill after assuming office last month. Instead, officials have now taken aim at a television station known to be controlled by Jeebenkov’s main rival in the October 15 presidential elections, Omurbek Babanov.
Around 5 pm on December 19, a group of bailiffs and policemen descended on Bishkek-based broadcaster NTS with a court order to freeze the station’s assets. NTS presenter Aziyat Zheksheyev wrote on Facebook that the court order was presented by a group of police officers.
“Bailiffs have demanded that NTS close its premises and stop broadcasting,” Zheksheyev wrote.
NTS chief editor Mirzhan Balybayev said the asset freeze was approved by the Inter-District Court of Bishkek in response to a court filing by an obscure offshore company called Grexton Capital Ltd.
“[The company] filed suit against [the company that formerly owned NTS], Ayant, which was dissolved six years ago. A court decision against an inexistent company has no standing and is without basis,” Balybayev said.
With events still in flux, much remained unclear as of the evening of December 19.
The court order specifically requires that NTS, one of only a few remaining national TV broadcasters still pursuing reasonably critical coverage of the government, cease operations.
But local media cited a representative for Grexton Capital Ltd as stating that efforts by bailiffs to take an inventory of NTS assets would not “interfere with broadcasting.”
“I came here on the instructions of the court together with the bailiffs. The ruling is now being implemented. An inventory of the equipment is taking place,” the Grexton Capital Ltd representative was quoted as saying by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service. “To say that broadcasting would be suspended is simply an attempt by NTS employees to cause a scandal.”
The company spokeswoman declined to provide her name. It is not immediately clear to whom Grexton Capital Ltd belongs or whose interests it represents, although the company is described in a 2012 report by London-based anticorruption watchdog Global Witness as being based in Belize. Global Witness concludes in its research that the company is linked to Maksim Bakiyev, the son of the former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was deposed in a bloody revolt in 2010.
This is the latest government move in recent weeks seemingly intended to target Babanov. Prosecutors last month initiated a criminal case against the multimillionaire businessman-turned-politician on suspicion of fomenting ethnic tension and purportedly attempting to incite an overthrow of the government during a campaign stump speech in a largely Uzbek community in the southern city of Osh.
Babanov has pursued a relatively low-profile in response to the mounting pressure against him, urging supporters not to engage in unruly behavior. But following the ethnic incitement allegations, which his representatives have called utterly without basis, he warned the government to avoid confrontation.
“Any injustice will be revealed ultimately. Do not make the same mistakes of the past. Be objective, otherwise the autocracy that we fought so many years to leave behind us will once again take root in our country,” Babanov said in a statement.
Babanov is currently outside Kyrgyzstan.
Another development occurring just a few hours before NTS was raided appeared to suggest the government is intent on maintaining and intensifying the hostile policy toward government critics adopted by Jeebenkov’s predecessor and ally, Almazbek Atambayev.
Oktyabrsky district court in the capital, Bishkek, ruled to require Naryn Ayip and Dina Maslova, founders of the Zanoza news website, and rights activist Cholpon Dzhakupova to pay around $430,000 in previously awarded libel fees in one fell swoop rather than in monthly installments. A petition with the court to allow libel payments to be made by deducting 50 percent of monthly salaries has been rejected.
Ayip, Maslova and Dzhakupova earlier this year each faced a series of libel suits initiated by the General Prosecutor’s Office on Atambayev’s behalf. Authorities claimed that the trio had libeled the former president through their reporting and public pronouncements. Dzhakupova must pay the president 3 million som ($43,000), while Ayip and Maslova were ordered to pay 27 million som ($387,000) over the course of five separate lawsuits.
Ayip said after the court ruling that he was in no position to pay the damages, even if the authorities seize his property.
“This all points to the authoritarian order taking hold in Kyrgyzstan. The court knew its decision beforehand, which is why it took only half an hour between all three court hearings,” he said.
Ayip, Maslova and Dzhakupova have said they intend to appeal the rulings, while admitting their chances of success are meager.
Cases like these have drawn wide international criticism from advocacy groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.
“The government of Kyrgyzstan is directly attacking the very institutions necessary for the country’s democratic development,” Freedom House said in a statement in May.
In yet one more politically charged turn of events on the same day, a corruption trial against a leader of the opposition Ata-Meken party drew to a close. The Pervomaisky district court in Bishkek ordered Almambet Shykmamatov to pay a 5 million som ($71,700) fine.
Prosecutors maintain that Shykmamatov exploited his position as an auditor at the State Accounting Chamber in 2011 to influence the outcome of a government contract. Ata-Meken argues the corruption case is politically motivated and is part of a range of reprisals for the party’s efforts to oppose reforms to the constitution last year.
The party’s veteran leader, Omurbek Tekebayev, was sentenced to eight years in prison in August on charges that he took a $1 million kickback from a Russian businessman in 2010 in exchange for granting him ownership of a local mobile telecommunications company. Tekebayev staunchly denies the accusation.