Toward the end of October, Kyrgyzstan’s jittery security services acted to forestall what they assured the public was an imminent attempt to seize power through force.
In a matter of days, agents with the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, a successor agency to the KGB, arrested more than two dozen activists and politicians. This disparate group, they alleged, were planning disruptive rallies against a planned land swap deal with Uzbekistan. One key asset being relinquished by Kyrgyzstan was the Kempir-Abad water reservoir in the southern Jalal-Abad region.
There is no law against holding demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan. But investigators have hinted something more sinister was happening here. By exploiting deep-seated nationalist sentiments, this group was going to whip crowds into a rage and unseat President Sadyr Japarov, the GKNB appeared to be arguing.
Japarov’s entourage are intimately familiar with this type of scenario. That was more or less how he was propelled into office in October 2020 in the wake of a contentious parliamentary election.
The exact mechanics of the alleged Kempir-Abad plot are still hazy, however, since prosecutors have not, in the six months since this saga began, provided any evidence for their claims.
The prisoners themselves are unclear what exactly it is they are accused of wanting to do. Case files are being kept under wraps — officials have cited national security as the motivation for the secrecy. No trial dates have been set. One senior parastatal official who spoke out in defense of the detainees was pushed out of her job.
There are some indications that the authorities would like the entire case to quietly slide out of public view. Some prisoners may get leniency; others are being pressured into compliance.
In one recent major development, Bishkek’s Pervomaisky court on April 12 ordered seven of the prisoners to be moved from jail to house arrest. This group included a one-time judge Klara Sooronkulova, former deputy parliament speaker Asiya Sasykbayeva, and the activist Chyngyz Kaparov. The court said this mass release was motivated by concern over the prisoners’ state of health.
The remaining 20 accused plotters are still behind bars, however. In mid-April, a court ruled to extend their detention until June 20 pending nebulously conducted investigations.
“The investigation is being carried out by 20 of our finest investigators,” Rita Karasartova, an anti-corruption activist and one of the detainees, said in a written interview conducted in early April with the Bishkek-based newspaper Novye Litsa. “I very much hope that they are coming to the end. They are not going to ‘get us’ just by wearing us down.”
Bakyt Aftandil, a lawyer representing several of the prisoners — namely, Kaparov and fellow rights activists Gulnara Dzhurabayeva and Ilgiz Shamenov — said the delay in the investigation is likely the result of a paucity of incriminating facts.
"Investigators suspect our clients of attempting to sow mass disorder and seize power, but there is no evidence to support this. This is supported only by some fictitious expert opinions of people linked to government structures,” Aftandil told Eurasianet.
Aftandil noted that the investigation can only be dragged out for nine months. After that, the case must be handed over to the courts for processing, unless the Prosecutor General personally intervenes to authorize yet another extension.
All the accused are facing charges of inciting mass riots, an offense punishable but up to 10 years in prison.
Some are being targeted with graver consequences, however. The journalist Aidanbek Akmatov is accused of seeking to seize power through violence, which carries a 15-year prison sentence. Shamenov faces similar charges.
It is against all this background that proxies for the authorities this month succeeded in unseating a semi-official figure making representations on behalf of the Kempir-Abad group.
On May 3, the pliable parliament voted in a plenary session to end the mandate of human rights ombudswoman Adyr Abdrakhmatova. This vote arrived just two weeks after Abdrakhmatova presented a report to lawmakers in which she maintained that journalists, activists, and bloggers have been coming under increasing pressure from the authorities.
“This has generated discontent among the public and the international community,” she told lawmakers.
Abdrakhmatova also argued that the Kempir-Abad prisoners had been maltreated.
The response to the report from the president’s office was a grim omen for the Kempir-Abad group and a tacit confirmation that the courts will likely be required, as is the norm in practice in Kyrgyzstan, to hand down a politically conditioned ruling.
“The Ombudswoman was covering for those people who want to destabilize the situation in the country. Maybe that's why she sees the situation the way she does,” Erbol Sultanbayev, a spokesman for Japarov, told state news agency Kabar on April 20.
Sultanbayev did not specify whether that remark was a reference to the Kempir-Abad case, but few are in doubt that it was.
Aftandil told Eurasianet that he believes this situation is creating a disturbing precedent, wherein anybody hoping to organize a peaceful picket can with little ceremony be accused of plotting to foment mass riots.
“Investigators are confusing the concepts of fomenting mass riots with the right to peaceful assembly. According to the constitution, everyone has the right to peaceful assembly,” he said.
This reading of events has been supported by the likes of Amnesty International
“The many procedural violations that have marred this case speak to the fact that these accusations are politically motivated and designed to stifle state critics. Precious little evidence has been presented to support the charges, besides emails, text messages and social media posts expressing legitimate dissent and calling for peaceful assemblies,” Heather McGill, a researcher on Central Asia for Amnesty, said in a statement.
While this legal drama is playing out, the point of contention that galvanized all these jailed activists in the first place is to all intents and purposes a dead-letter issue.
Only weeks after the arrests took place, the increasingly rubber stamp parliament, known in Kyrgyz as the Jogorku Kenesh, overwhelmingly approved the contentious border deal with Uzbekistan that saw the latter take effective control over Kempir-Abad.
Public debate on the question all but died after that.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.