Kyrgyzstan Reels at Prosecutor's Fall

Prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov was on a roll, charging former officials with corruption one after another. His sudden removal raises serious questions about the country’s future political direction.

Kyrgyzstan Reels at Prosecutor's Fall

Prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov was on a roll, charging former officials with corruption one after another. His sudden removal raises serious questions about the country’s future political direction.

The unexpected dismissal of Kyrgyzstan’s crusading prosecutor Azimbek Beknazarov has left political circles reeling, and many are now asking whether the vigorous campaign he led to pursue and charge officials for misdemeanours committed while President Askar Akaev was in power has been stopped in its track.

Beknazarov was dismissed as prosecutor general by President Kurmanbek Bakiev late on September 19, together with his deputy, Nurlanbek Jeenaliev.

The official reason – announced the same evening by a special government commission – was that Beknazarov’s office had breached legal procedure while investigating a dispute that turned violent in Karasuu, a district in southern Kyrgyzstan close to the Uzbek border.

The sacked prosecutor denies these charges vehemently, and says he has been eaten up by the persistently corrupt system that he was battling.

Many politicians sympathise with this view and say that Beknazarov’s days may have been numbered once he started going after the really big fish. On September 19th, he succeeded in getting parliament to strip the immunity normally accorded to one of its members – Aydar Akaev, son of the ex-president – to allow a prosecution on corruption charges to go ahead. Other senior officials who have recently been charged include ex-prime minister Nikolai Tanaev, former Central Electoral Commission chief Sulaiman Imanbaev, Kyrgyz National Bank head Ulan Sarbanov and Medet Sadyrkulov, who was head of Akaev’s presidential office.

Beknazarov has now been replaced on an acting basis by Busurmankul Tabaldiev, who heads the presidential office’s department for defence and security – and who, more significantly, was the man in charge of the special commission that recommended his removal.

Until the March revolution that toppled President Akaev, Beknazarov was a political outcast, as were Bakiev and much of the current leadership. His arrest and detention in 2002 sparked demonstrations in his home region of Aksy - and a violent backlash by police - that can be seen as a forerunner of this year’s events. In 2004, as head of the opposition party Asaba, he pushed Bakiev to take charge of the newly-created People’s Movement of Kyrgyzstan, PMK, an umbrella organisation of opposition groups that went on to lead a wave of protests over a controversial parliamentary election.

Installed as chief prosecutor by the interim government which took over after March, Beknazarov launched a wide-ranging series of investigations into alleged criminal activity by members of Akaev’s entourage.

It seemed at the time that he had caught the mood of the new administration – a desire to make a clean sweep and start afresh. However, IWPR interviews conducted earlier in September suggested that his uncompromising pursuit of Akaev-era figures left him increasingly on his own.

The former prosecutor defends his record, and says it is precisely his stance on corruption that got him sacked.

“I had the goal of fighting corruption and eliminating [all traces of] the Akaev regime,” he told a press conference the day after he was dismissed. “But I couldn’t achieve it - corruption has today beaten me. Corrupt people from the previous and current regimes have united to oust me.”

When Beknazarov and a delegation from the PMK went to see the president, they got a cool reception. According to the former prosecutor, Bakiev told them, “I have signed the decree and there is to be no more discussion. The decision has been made.” He also told them, “In future, don’t come here as a team – you’re no longer PMK or party activists, but state officials and acting ministers. I am not the PMK leader but the legitimate president.”

The move has left Beknazarov’s old allies from the opposition, now sitting in government or parliament, asking some hard questions about where the country – and they themselves – go from here.

Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, a member of parliament and Beknazarov ally, told IWPR that at least six government ministers are so angry that they are considering their position.

Beknazarov’s dismissal was the first item to be discussed when parliament met on September 20. Although nothing was decided, many deputies interviewed by IWPR afterwards expressed dismay at the decision, with some suggesting that Beknazarov had got too close to the fire. A minority said it was his own fault for behaving in too high-handed a manner.

“I am both surprised and disappointed at the method used for this dismissal,” said deputy Iskhak Masaliev, summing up many of his colleagues’ concerns. “Bakiev did not say anything – he neither discussed [Beknazarov’s] failings nor presented the allegations against him.”

“The official explanation for dismissal neither satisfies me nor convinces me. It is a major error. I think the real grounds are that Beknazarov sometimes forgot he was the prosecutor, and openly talked about mistakes committed by the new authorities.”

For another member of parliament, Melis Eshimkanov, the case is a bad sign for the future direction of politics and governance in Kyrgyzstan.

“Beknazarov’s dismissal represents a start of a serious political crisis within the Bakiev team. It shows things are following the classic pattern where the revolution eats its own children,” he said. “As in Ukraine, a redistribution of property is under way, and Beknazarov may have stuck in the throats of some of the new oligarchs. That caused a schism between the new national leadership and the prosecutor.”

Eshimkhanov’s suggestion that the prosecutor’s attempt to dig deep into ownership issues relating to property formerly controlled by Akaev associates may have made him powerful enemies was echoed by other deputies.

“It seems that Beknazarov caught red-handed some individual whose name is too frightening even to be uttered,” said Dooronbek Sadyrbaev.

Kubatbek Baibolov added, “There is a dispute over the issue of redistributing notorious [Akaev-era] properties. Beknazarov may have presented an obstacle to doing that.”

The non-government organizations, NGOs, that played a key role in the March revolution are similarly dismayed at Beknazarov’s ousting, and its symbolism.

“Our coalition is deeply worried about the dismissal - we cannot understand it,” said Edil Baisalov, leader of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society. “Of all the leaders of the revolution, Beknazarov enjoyed the highest level of trust from Kyrgyzstan’s people in every respect…. He was an irreconcilable fighter against corruption, the personification of civic courage.”

According to Baisalov, the prosecutor had attempted to build his institution into a genuinely independent body rather than an arm of government, and his sacking has worrying implications for the whole country.

“This a step towards a stage leading to strengthening of authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan. This is why all the political forces should be on guard and demand explanation.” – said Baisalov.

Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Citizens against Corruption human rights group, said she believed the removal of Aidar Akaev’s parliamentary immunity played a role in Beknazarov’s demise.

Late on September 20, three NGOs – Baisalov’s and Ismailova’s groups plus the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights – issued a strongly-worded statement accusing the president of having “sacrificed Beknazarov to the interests of organised crime”, and demanding he restore the prosecutor to his job with immediate effect.

Some politicians said Beknazarov brought his end on himself by making his post too political.

“I don’t think fame or prominence frees one from responsibility,” said Miroslav Niyazov, who chairs Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council. “They turned [prosecution activities] into a political process. I think the decision was a correct and fair one. People should use their position to do work, not politics.”

Parliamentary deputy Alisher Sabirov said the prosecutor had been “extremely politicised”.

“Many of his statements were not backed up by real actions… As a lawyer, I can say that the work of general prosecutor’s office lacked clarity and concreteness. This is why the dismissal was natural enough,” he said.

Sabirov noted that the government commission identified a number of problems arising out of recent events in Karasuu.

This is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the case – Beknazarov was pushed out not because of his investigations into the Akaev years, but because of an affair that while perhaps important in its own right, is of little relevance to his attempt at a root-and-branch purge of a system widely seen as corrupt.

The dispute in this southern district revolves around a huge wholesale market which serves as a hub for traders from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.

After the March revolution, a series of protest actions mounted by traders against the market’s owner, parliamentary deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev, culminated in a takeover of the market site and offices by a crowd of demonstrators on June 11.

On June 13, the same protesters attempted to storm the Alai Hotel in the provincial capital Osh, which Erkinbaev also owns. But gunmen opened fire on the demonstrators outside the building, injuring 12 people.

Two men whom police accused of involvement in the shooting contacted Beknazarov’s office and went to the capital Bishkek where they gave themselves up. However, prosecution officials allowed them to walk free conditionally, as long as they signed a pledge not to leave Osh. Local police objected, saying that suspects in such cases must not be released pending an investigation.

Matters reached a head on September 5, when Abdalim Junusov, a businessman who had led the protest group opposed to Erkinbaev, was shot dead in his home, together with his driver. The government commission alleges that it has evidence that the killers were the same two men whom Beknazarov had failed to place in detention.

The situation deteriorated as thousands of allies of the late Junusov mounted protests outside government buildings in both Osh and Karasuu, blocked a main road and briefly seized the district prosecutor’s office in Karasuu. Their major demands were for a thorough and swift investigation into Junusov’s murder and the shootings outside the hotel, and they accused Beknazarov of a cover-up.

The sacked prosecutor says that on the contrary, the entire series of events in Karasuu has been stage-managed by the members of the Kyrgyz government. The seizure of Erkinbaev’s hotel, he said, was done because “Bayaman had announced he would run for the presidency, and the authorities decided to put him in his place.” In the event, Erkinbaev did not register as a candidate, and Bakiev easily won the July presidential election, formalising the powers he already held on an acting basis.

Beknazarov argues that the way the government has behaved leaves it, not him, ultimately responsible for Junusov’s murder.

His removal from office has led to a new wave of turbulence in southern Kyrgyzstan – the area where opposition to Akaev was most vocal, and from which the final revolution was mounted.

The day after his dismissal, Beknazarov supporters gathered outside the Kyrgyz government building in Bishkek. Back in his home village of Karasuu (in Aksy district – not to be confused with the border town of the same name where the market is located), more than 3,000 people gathered and warned that they would march on the capital if the government did not revoke its decision. In a statement, they also said they would demand that charges be brought against President Bakiev for his role in the Aksy violence of 2002, in which police gunfire left six Beknazarov supporters dead. At the time, Bakiev was prime minister and an ally of Akaev – he joined the opposition only in 2002 after being removed from the post.

Supporters of the dead Junusov staged a rival demonstration, setting up traditional Kyrgyz yurts outside local government offices to express support for Bakiev’s removal of Beknazarov and press for an investigation into the recent shootings.

At the moment it is unclear how the stand-off will be resolved. What is certain, though, is that Beknazarov is not going to disappear from the political scene. He has said he will now join the opposition, and his ally Dooronbek Sadyrbaev says, “Beknazarov is popular in his constituency, and I don’t think we will lose him as a political leader.”

On September 21, Bakiev sent a telegram to the protesters in Aksy, saying he had been forced to sack the prosecutor because "the law required this". But he promised that "Beknazarov’s experience” would be usefully employed again very soon.

Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek. Aziza Turdueva is a correspondent for Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL

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