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Kyrgyz Passport Scam

Corruption within passport system may jeopardise reforms aimed at curbing counterfeit travel document trade.
By Leila Saralaeva

New-style Kyrgyz passport.
First page of the new Kyrgyz passport.
Old-style Kyrgyz passport.
Yuri Lysogorov, head of the state agency for informationand technology, showing samples of the new passports.

The Kyrgyz government’s recently announced plans to revamp the country’s passport system were long overdue, observers say.


The reforms, outlined at a press conference on May 11, are designed to address problems with the current rudimentary system that make it an easy target for fraudsters, including drug traffickers and militants.


Kyrgyz officials working on the new project, alongside the International Organization for Migration, IOM, and the US embassy, say more secure passports will be issued from July 28.


Observers have welcomed the move, saying the current system has long been due an overhaul.


“I am very glad that the process of replacing passports has started, because I often travel out of the country and experience unpleasant moments when my document is thoroughly scrutinised by border guards of different countries,” said Edil Baisalov, head of the Coalition of NGOs.


“The passports that are currently in use were really made sloppily,” agreed former foreign affairs minister Muratbek Imanaliev. “That the data was filled in by hand is definitely seventeenth century. I don’t know any country where the passports would be issued in such a way.”


But government officials are concerned about more than mere cosmetics. Kyrgyzstan currently lacks even such basic facilities as a unified database of issued documents or coded markers so that they can be checked electronically - all of which means that forging Kyrgyz passports is a relatively simple process.


“Our passports don’t meet international standards, they are the easiest to forge,” Sabyr Omorbekov, head of investigation department of the Kyrgyz national security service, told IWPR. “They are filled by hand, the photo can be replaced, and the pages have no serial number, which means that pages from one passport can be put in another. Our passports are roaming around the world.”


Kyrgyz travel papers are widely known for being easy to forge. In Russian television serials, it is common to see criminals portrayed carrying fake Kyrgyz ones – an example is the 2001 television film “Bad Ones and Good Ones”, where a criminal is shown buying Kyrgyz counterfeits for 1000 US dollars.


Figures published in the Kyrgyz media hint at the extent of the problem.


Local newspapers reported in February that last year 145 people were arrested for attempting to cross Kyrgyz borders using bogus documents. Of these, the vast majority were Kyrgyz citizens whose own passports were doctored - often with fake stamps or visas - or who were using someone else’s with the photographs changed. The press office of the Kyrgyz border service told IWPR that the accurate figure is 132.


The newspaper Obshestvenny Reyting also reported changing trends in the kinds of people attempting to cross Kyrgyz borders illegally. In the past most of those making the journey were female Kyrgyz citizens en route to the United Arab Emirates but, recently, fake visas for western European countries such as Britain have become increasingly common.


Officials say the problems with the current Kyrgyz passport system are serious. “The interior ministry is now investigating a criminal case concerning the disappearance of 358 unfilled Kyrgyz passports,” Omorbekov told IWPR. “One can only guess for what purposes they will be used.”


One major concern is that militants are able to use fake Kyrgyz papers to cross international borders unchecked. Yuri Lysogorov, director of the agency of information and technology, told IWPR that international terrorists were traveling the world using such counterfeits.


Imanaliev confirmed that border guards in countries party to the Schengen agreement are instructed to thoroughly check Kyrgyz passports, because “dozens of terrorists and extremists” with counterfeit documents are arrested every year.


The security services of Central Asian states say such papers are used by members of radical Islamic organisations, like the East Turkestan Liberation Organization, Hizb-ut-Takhrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.


Recent court cases confirm this problem.


When IMU members Azizbek Karimov and Ilkhom Izatullaev were charged in relation to a December 2002 explosion at Bishkek’s Oberon market and a 2003 blast at a currency exchange in Osh, both confessed that they had bought Kyrgyz passports there for just 300 dollars. They were able to use the documents to rent apartments in the capital, marry Kyrgyz citizens and even start their own business.


Another worry is that, under the current system, fake Kyrgyz passports are easily obtained by drug traffickers.


Almaz Garifulin, head of the information centre at the agency for drug control, described an incident in spring 2003, when law enforcers discovered two kilogrammes of heroin during a search of a Zhiguli car on the Bishkek-Almaty highway. The car was coming from Tajikistan and was driven by two Tajik nationals, both carrying forged Kyrgyz documents.


The ease with which Kyrgyz papers can be forged is linked to abuses within the current passport system.


According to Tolekan Ismailova, head of the NGO Civil Society Against Corruption, “Passports have become a very profitable and lucrative business for people whose relatives work in that system,” she told IWPR.


“Consular departments, passport departments – it is a real chain, in which people enrich themselves. Without a bribe it is impossible to register the passport’s foreign travel page. It is a clear example of corruption.”


Imanaliev expressed concern that this could mean that the problem of passport fraud will be difficult to wipe out.


“Such things are possible here due to a high level of corruption at all levels of authority,” he told IWPR.


“Regardless of any high technology protection used in making of new passports, there are considerable doubts that the problem will be solved.”


Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist and Aida Kasymalieva is a trainee contributor in Bishkek.


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