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New Kyrgyz Espionage Affair

Kyrgyz security services uncover alleged spying scandal in wake of critical parliamentary commission report into their working practices.
By Leila Saralaeva

Less than two months after its own image was tainted in a bugging incident, the Kyrgyz security service claims to have uncovered an espionage scandal. Critics are divided over whether the episode is little more than a public relations stunt, or the government is exploiting an actual case of espionage for its own ends.

Chief of the National Security Service, NSS, Kalyk Imankulov called a press conference on July 8 to announce the names of six Kyrgyz citizens accused of having engaged in "the illegal collection of information incorporating state and official secrets, with the intention of dissemination to a foreign organisation".

The accused, mainly senior civil servants with access to internal correspondence and classified information, were named as Cholpon Ergeshova, an interior ministry official; Anvar Makeev, from the courier service of the transport and communications ministry; Ulugbek Ashyrbekov, a former official with the interior ministry; Kelsinbek Akimaliev of the border protection service; businessman Kurban Havanshanov; and Rashid Yusupov, a university lecturer.

Imankulov said that the investigation will take some time, as the alleged espionage had taken place over two years, and each of the 700 documents, channels of information and personnel with access to relevant materials, need to be identified. He said that it was too early to say whether investigators would bring charges of espionage.

Only one of the accused, Kelsinbek Akimaliev, who himself previously worked for the NSS, has been officially indicted. Akimaliev is alleged to be the main source of revelations which led to the parliamentary commission, whose report, published on May 21, accused the security services of bugging members of the parliament since 2001 and spying on foreign organisations. On July 3, Akimaliev was indicted for "disclosing a state secret".

The press conference at the NSS headquarters included a videotape in which Akimaliev testified that he had generated the incriminating evidence on the NSS himself and also handed "bugs" to opposition deputies and authors of the parliamentary commission report, Alisher Abdimomunov and Ismail Isakov.

Akimaliev said that he had "sought to discredit the NSS management" under pressure from the two deputies and also because he was angry following dismissal from his NSS job.

"These allegations confirm our suspicions that this 'scandal' is directly related to the criticisms made about the NSS in the parliamentary report," said Edil Baisalov, leader of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society. "Here we see an implicit threat against deputies Alisher Abdimomunov and Ismail Isakov, who could be accused of violating the law against the unsanctioned collection of information."

Alisher Abdimomunov, the chair of the parliamentary committee on state security issue and former KGB colonel, pointed out that the spy scandal was timely for the NSS, which needs to shore up its reputation after the report. "They are trying to get out of a difficult corner by way of a smear campaign, but this will rebound on them because they started off by denying the same information which they now say was illegally obtained," he said.

Abdimomunov told IWPR that he does not know Akimaliev, who is alleged to have passed information to him. He believes that Akimaliev's confession was extracted under duress.

Abdimomunov was sceptical about the secret services’ latest operation saying that the way they have presented the case raises doubts.

"On July 25 they alleged a case of espionage and the detention of ten high-ranking officials acting in the interests of a foreign state, now the number of suspects has fallen to six and they are talking about an 'information leak'," he said.

"Having rejected their initial version, they might announce soon that there was no information leak," continued Abdimomunov, who has long experience of security issues. "Moreover, in a case of espionage, they would need to prove what type of a state secret it was. Who owned it? And why did some foreign state need it? There is no logic to this."

The chair of the parliamentary committee on the rule of law and fighting crime, Alymbai Sultanov, agreed that the NSS had every reason to try and reassert its authority and reputation following the bugging scandal.

"The NSS has been criticised and there is no doubt they are still angry," he said. "Charges of espionage are simply ridiculous. Half of Kyrgyzstan can be labelled spies, no one controls anyone. What secrets do we have here anyway? You can buy any secret you want, just go to a bazaar!"

The NSS leadership claimed that searches had uncovered more than 700 copies of official documents, classified "for official use", "secret" and "top secret". Hard drives and compact disks seized held copies of documents originating from the president's office, the prime minister's office, the security council, the foreign affairs ministry, the interior ministry, the ministry of defence, the main intelligence division of the chief of staff of the armed forces, the border service and the ministry of justice, they said.

Not everybody is entirely sceptical about the allegations. Muratbek Imanaliev, chair of the Justice and Progress Party and former foreign minister, believes that there is some basis to the allegations. "I don’t entirely discount the truthfulness of this spy story, however NSS has presented a case which is neither clear nor totally convincing. And the alleged spies are quite a motley group," he said.

"If the spies are genuine, then they must be investigated in strict accordance with the rule of law."

However, he acknowledged that the scandal could equally be a ruse whereby the NSS is trying to establish supremacy over the interior ministry, "If so, the president should call a halt to this before it becomes a major scandal which could damage our international reputation."

Imankulov claimed that the group was motivated by money, not ideology. In 2003, it is said to have received 60,000 US dollars, although the source of the money was not identified.

Director of the Human Rights Institute and a staunch opponent of the authorities, Topchubek Turgunaliev, pointed out that the spy scandal could also serve the interests of the president Askar Akaev.

"On the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections, Akaev and his team want to distract public attention from socio-economic problems, while also scoring some points in the eyes of the people," he said.

He also acknowledged that some unscrupulous officials might have committed illegal acts, but questioned whether the NSS would ever arrest any powerful figures.

"I don’t think that our impoverished army is in possession of any information which Russia and the US wouldn't already have. Maybe the officials in question were selling some documents concerning the US Gansi airbase or the Russian airbase in Kant," he said.

"Those detained are probably only intermediaries in the sale of secrets by high-ranking state officials to foreign intelligence services. But while some minor officials become scapegoats, the NSS would never follow the chain upwards.”

Another opposition leader, Emil Aliev of the Arnamys party, also believes that the NSS could be exploiting a real case of espionage for its own ends. "First, to show that they are working and uncovering something. Second, to limit political activity in the country on the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections. This offers a pretext to intimidate the opposition, civil society and even the mass media," he said.

The confused response to the alleged scandal reflects a common perception that Kyrgysztan combines an undisciplined bureaucracy with a compromised state, operating beyond the rule of law.

As Edil Baisalov, of For Democracy and Civil Society, summed it up to IWPR, "The state apparatus is decomposing, every day we see corruption involving millions and billions of soms, through the sale of state secrets. The accused, whose names have been made public were stealing what they could lay their hands on. Many Kyrgyz do the same, stealing millions from other institutions, like universities or the army."

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Kyrgyzstan.

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