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Questions Over Arrest of Kyrgyz Opposition Figure

Authorities accused of a selective use of the law when dealing with opponents.
By Mariya Zozulya
  • A veteran politician Omurbek Tekebaev was detained for two months in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo: RFE/RL)
    A veteran politician Omurbek Tekebaev was detained for two months in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo: RFE/RL)

Supporters of detained opposition lawmaker Omurbek Tekebaev have warned that his arrest is nothing more than an attempt by President Almazbek Atambaev to settle scores with the veteran politician.

Tekebaev, who heads the Ata Meken faction,  was stopped on February 26 as he stepped off a plane at Manas airport, and the following day a court ordered him to be held in pre-trial detention for a two month period.

He is accused of accepting a million dollar bribe from Russian businessman Leonid Mayevsky seven years ago in return for promising to facilitate the privatisation of one of Kyrgyzstan’s largest mobile phone operators, Megacom.

Mayevsky, who said Tekebaev had failed to keep his side of the bargain, has provided the Kyrgyz authorities with a statement.

The news of the possible charges broke while Tekebaev was in Vienna at the winter session of the OSCE parliamentary assembly. He told media that he fully expected to receive a “special welcome” at the airport on his return to Kyrgyzstan, but had decided to proceed anyway.

Tekebaev denied all charges against him, claiming they was politically motivated because of his outspoken criticism of Atambaev.

Both Atambaev and Tekebaev served in the interim government that followed the ousting of Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010. But the two men have been involved in a dispute over the country’s constitution for the last year, with Tekebaev among the few politicians to openly oppose the reform process.

(See also Kyrgyzstan Poised to Vote on Constitutional Change).

Tekebaev made a high-profile statement about the president’s foreign assets last year, claiming he was gathering information that would to lead to Atambaev’s impeachment by the spring of 2017.

He also accused Atambaev of building a private mansion on a piece of land belonging to Bakiev.

In response, Atambaev instructed the prosecutor general’s office to launch an investigation into the tax affairs of both Tekebaev and his family.

Tekebaev has had his fair share of scandals in the past. He was arrested in Poland in 2006 in suspicion of trafficking drugs inside a Matryoshka doll, but later cleared by a Polish court.

(See Kyrgyz Opposition Fails to Seize Initiative).

Some damaging videos involving Tekebaev and his allies were made public in 2010 and 2013. One clip, which appeared on YouTube and was aired by the Russian NTV channel, appeared to show a sexual encounter involving a man who looked like Tekebaev.

Another, aired in 2013 on Kyrgyzstan’s public service provider KTRK, showed Kyrgyz opposition members discussing plans to overthrow the authorities.

DETENTION SENDS A MESSAGE

Tekebaev’s supporters allege that there were a number of procedural violations during his arrest and interrogation.

Taalaigul Toktokunova, Tekebaev’s lawyer and head of the Ata Meken secretariat, told IWPR that the criminal code gave a suspect the right to a defence from the moment of detention.

“At 3:10 am, when Tekebaev came off the plane, he was arrested,” she said. “We immediately notified the authorities that we were at the airport. However, we were denied access to our client. The same thing happened when we followed him to the building of the state security committee.”

“We also learned that the investigation had started. However, the law clearly states that this is strictly forbidden without the lawyer’s presence. The interrogation itself lasted for 17 hours without break. During this time, our client was given only water, not food,” Toktokunova said.

She also noted that Mayevsky was not being pursued for his part in the affair, although under Kyrgyz law both offering and receiving bribes are criminal offences. 

Rallies in support of Tekebaev have been held in the capital Bishkek, the largest southern city of Osh and in Bazar Korgon in the Jalal-Abad region. Human Rights Watch and European Union officials also expressed concerns about his detention.

But Kyrgyz politicians have been circumspect in their reaction to the arrest.

Former Kyrgyz president Roza Otunbaeva published a general statement on the rule of law in the country, while presidential candidates Temir Sariev and Omurbek Babanov called only for “justice” in the investigation.

Other parliamentarians told IWPR that they were too busy to comment, due to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s visit to Kyrgyzstan on February 28.

Although Atambaev has also not commented directly on the arrest of his former associate, on the day Tekebaev was sent to pre-trial detention he told a meeting of social activists, “There are no more untouchables in the country. This concerns the heads of all branches of government, both current and former.”

DUBIOUS MOTIVATIONS

Some commentators believe the government’s heavy-handed treatment is intended to send a warning to other opposition politicians not to confront the authorities.

Although Tekebaev had himself not expressed any plans to run for the presidency, he had openly opposed Atambaev on numerous occasions.

Cholpon Dzhakupova, a former parliamentarian who heads Kyrgyz human rights NGO Legal Clinic Adilet, said, "The MegaCom case has been pending since 2010. This ‘bribery’ has been reported before. Where was Atambaev then and why didn’t he carry out an investigation?

“The answer is obvious. Back then Tekebaev was on his team and it was a selective use of the law,” she continued.

“If the authorities decided to fight corruption, they should… apply the same law to everyone. Otherwise, it’s simply an act of revenge [to those who oppose the president],” Dzhakupova said.  

She judged that Tekebaev was likely to be released without charge, but warned that politicians would be concerned nonetheless “because most of them have been involved in corruption. And it has been clearly demonstrated how arbitrarily they can be treated”.

But Dzhakupova said that the arrest might benefit Tekebaev in the long term.

 “Tekebaev will turn into a symbol, and over time this sympathy for him will turn to his advantage. Atambaev doesn’t want to leave office as a tyrant, but he makes it clear that every minor thing should be coordinated with him or payback will follow,” she said.

Medet Tiulegenov, a political science lecturer at the American University of Central Asia, also put Tekebaev’s arrest down to a personal struggle with the president.

“[The political elite] still can’t get used to modern rules of politics,” he said. “They tend to… use the old methods of pressure, that were polished for dozens of years. There is already distrust towards the state, and such events destroy the good efforts [of building trust]. It’s a step back.”

Tamerlan Ibraimov, who heads Kyrgyz think-tank the Centre for Political and Legal Studies, predicted that the confrontation would further alienate voters from the political process. 

“I think this war of discrediting evidence is not over and it is going to influence the elections,” Ibraimov said. “More politicians might be involved in it, which will spoil their reputations too. Without doubt, it’s going to influence voter’s preferences.”

Mariya Zozulya is a Bishkek-based journalist.

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