Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Bugging Affair

The alleged discovery of listening devices in opposition members’ offices provokes political storm.
By Leila Saralaeva

Parliamentary deputy Ismail Isakov inspecting a rubber hose discovered in his office.
Parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov in his office.
Speaker of parliament Abdygany Erkebaev talking to journalists.

A furious war of words has erupted in Kyrgyzstan after five opposition deputies claimed that the authorities illegally bugged their offices.


While the National Security Service, NSS, has denied claims that it was responsible for planting the listening devices, calls for the resignation of its chief grew, with some outraged deputies going so far as to call for President Askar Akaev to stand down.


The government has countered the deputies’ claim by suggesting that the opposition itself planted the surveillance equipment in order to cause controversy.


The first deputy to allegedly find a bugging device in his office was General Ismail Isakov, a former leader of the opposition movement For Resignation of Akaev and Reforms for People.


“In the morning of January 14 I entered my office, but I was not able to work normally as there was a very pungent smell in the air,” he told the media, adding that at first he suspected a dead mouse was lying out of sight.


A technician was called to discover the source of the bad smell, which was judged to be coming from the corner of a heater. But when the worker investigated further, he allegedly found listening devices attached to the heater’s battery.


In a matter of hours, Isakov had called an impromptu press conference to show journalists what had been found.


“These microphone, amplifier and antenna were used to hear and record all my telephone conversations on governmental network, possibly for last two years,” he claimed, adding that he suspected the NSS to be responsible.


“The NSS leadership must resign,” he thundered, “as secretly taping the telephone calls of a member of parliament or any other citizen is an unlawful act.”


Isakov complained that his team also discovered a rubber hose connected to a metallic box hidden in a wall panel, which appeared to be the source of the unpleasant smell.


“I believe they wanted to liquidate me this way, through gradual gassing. Sending a small doses everyday, they would lead me to the heart attack,” he claimed.


Isakov’s discoveries were only the beginning. Popular opposition deputy Azimbek Beknazarov - one of the government’s most vocal critics, and whose brief imprisonment in 2002 led to the tragic Aksy uprising - was also present at the press conference.


He invited journalists to inspect his office, joking that it was no doubt bugged as well. Identical devices were found attached to the heating battery in his room


Later, deputies Ishenbai Kadyrbekov and Omurbek Tekebaev also discovered such equipment in their premises. Early the next day, colleagues of deputy Adakhan Madumarov – who has been absent through ill health – found another bug in his office.


Tekebaev, who heads the opposition Atameken party, said, “I am outraged by such a gross violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.”


A meeting was called for January 15, where outraged deputies demanded answers – and resignations.


However, security chief Kalyk Imankulov flatly denied that the NSS had anything to do with the alleged devices.


He argued that as the organisation was currently struggling to pay its officers’ salaries, it would be foolish to waste money bugging opposition offices to gauge their opinions on the regime, as such deputies openly criticise the authorities through the media.


He also dismissed the surveillance tools as “far too primitive” to belong to the NSS. “We do lag behind our colleagues in neighboring countries in terms of technical equipment,” he admitted, “but the devices that we use on the sanction of prosecutor are much more modern that the ones found by these deputies.


“NSS officers stopped using such primitive devices a decade ago. And we certainly don’t have gases or powders which lead to a slow death.”


Asked who was responsible if not the authorities, the NSS chief said, “I assume that it could be a provocation by the deputies themselves.


“If there are weighty grounds, I am ready to assume responsibility according to the law, but I will not resign over fabricated accusations,” he went on, adding that he supported calls for an independent investigation into the affair.


Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the presidential administration, also dismissed the accusations of illegal snooping. “But I will allow the possibility that it was just another public relations campaign boosted by certain people,” he told IWPR.


On January 16, after an emotional discussion, opposition deputies passed a resolution condemning all such illicit eavesdropping as unconstitutional, and formed a special parliamentary group to investigate the case further.


The general prosecutor Myktybek Abdyldaev refrained from commenting, but confirmed that – if true – the bugging violated Article 136 of the Kyrgyz criminal code.


In the meantime, human rights activists have seized on the alleged discovery as evidence that the security services are attempting to undermine the For Resignation of Akaev and Reforms for People movement and opposition deputies in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005.


But some observers believe the Kyrgyz spying affair is unlikely to have serious consequences. “Neither the opposition nor the government will gain anything from this,” political scientist Nur Omarov told IWPR.


Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.