December 14 marked 40 days since the murder of Ulan Salyanov in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and his family gathered for a traditional ceremony to remember the deceased. While no one has been charged for the murder, the circumstances appeared suspicious. First, there was no clear motive. The killers came and left without taking anything of value from the house. Second, the killers wore special uniforms and carried the same weapons, giving the impression of an organized group with serious money behind it.
Such doubts were raised during a parliamentary speech by Aida Salyanova, Ulan’s elder sister and a member of the Jogorku Kenesh (Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament) for the opposition Ata Meken party, whose leader Omurbek Tekebayev was sentenced to eight years in jail for corruption and fraud ahead of the October 2017 presidential elections, in which he had planned to run. Many saw this as a move by outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev to favor his hand-picked candidate, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, from his Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan. Jeenbekov eventually won the election with more than 54 percent of the popular vote and was sworn in as Kyrgyzstan’s new president in late November.
Salyanova is best known in the country for serving as prosecutor general between April 2011 and January 2015, when she made headlines with an anti-corruption campaign that led to high profile arrests including the former Mayor of Bishkek Nariman Tuleev, before being summarily removed from her post by then-President Atambayev. Her dismissal came as a surprise because only a few weeks before the president had told journalists during a press conference that she was “a very important and necessary person for the country.”
“Let’s hope that in the future Kyrgyzstan will have a president like Aida Salyanova,” Atambayev said at the time.
Following Salyanova’s falling out with the president, she faced charges of abuse of office for renewing the license of Alexey Eliseev, a shady lawyer associated with Maxim Bakiyev, son of Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was deposed in a popular uprising in April 2010.
Salyanova agreed to discuss her trial and sentence, the abrupt end to her work as prosecutor general, Atambayev’s legacy and her vision for the future of Kyrgyzstan with The Diplomat.
In October 2017, you were given a five year suspended sentence for abuse of office (Article 304 of the Criminal Code). After the sentence, you stated that the trial was “political” and the verdict “pre-ordered.” Who ordered to prosecute you and why?
What I did to renew Alexey Eliseev’s license to practice law isn’t illegal. Article 304 of the Criminal Code specifically states that such “abuse” should bring me or someone else some sort of benefit. The investigation could not prove any of this. Moreover, apart from material benefits, Article 304 requires other circumstances to obtain for someone to be found guilty, such as acts that result in particularly large damage or committed in the interests of organized criminal groups. You see, I have never actually met Eliseev and the license is only valid in the territory of the Kyrgyz Republic, which he left following the April 2010 events. What benefits are we talking about then? Instead, who benefits from my trial? Now, that is a reasonable question.
Do you think your trial and the conviction of the head of Ata Meken, Omurbek Tekebayev, are linked and if so, why?
My case was initiated six and a half years after the contested facts took place, that is only after Ata Meken harshly criticized former President Almazbek Atambayev’s initiative to change the Constitution. Only then did the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) fabricate allegations against three opposition deputies from Ata Meken, namely Tekebayev, [former Justice Minister Almambet] Shykmamatov and me. The GKNB presented the case about Eliseev’s license renewal as part of what came to be known as “Belize Gate,” [after the small Central American state whose government had allegedly provided the Kyrgyz authorities with documents linking these three politicians to offshore companies purportedly set up to help the hated son of deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Maxim].
Atambayev publicly promised that if this information wasn’t confirmed, [GKNB head Abdil] Segizbayev would be punished. But once the plan to discredit the members of the opposition failed, during the more than one year of Atambayev’s remaining term in office, no one was punished. On top of that, long before charges were brought against me, Atambayev publicly talked about the series of violations I allegedly committed when renewing Eliseev’s law license. In short, he gave a direct indication to the law enforcement agencies for my political persecution.
Then interim President Roza Otunbayeva appointed you as prosecutor general in 2011. After his election in October the same year, President Atambayev kept you in the post, but then suddenly fired you in January 2015. In a press conference at the time, you stated that President Atambayev “could not, or did not want to defend me, or resist these forces” arrayed against you. What did you mean by that?
I will just say that the fight against corruption was only just gaining momentum then, and every dishonest official saw a real threat for themselves. So, with their resources, influence and contacts they organized a large-scale campaign to discredit me. Eventually, Atambayev himself continued this same campaign.
Given all of the above, what should be done to ensure judicial independence in Kyrgyzstan?
We are in a paradoxical situation whereby the laws of the country establish the highest standards of independence for judges, but the latter continue to fear the president and the executive. Secondly, the independence of judges should not mean their impunity. Under our laws, it is practically impossible to hold judges accountable for illegal rulings. The judiciary is among the country’s most corrupt institutions, and yet there is no way to bring judges to justice for wrongful decisions. In this regard, I believe that the main lines of judicial reform should be, on the one hand, the institutionalization of the protection of judges from outside interference and, on the other, the establishment of real accountability mechanisms in case of arbitrary behavior on the part of judges. All in all, judicial reform starts with the president and goes all the way down to ordinary judges and prosecutors.
President Atambayev’s term in office has ended. What do you think will be his legacy?
I think that his “legacy” will now require a whole strategy of countermeasures from the newly elected President [Sooronbay Jeenbekov]. It is important not to waste the high degree of public confidence that there undoubtedly is today, in order to steer the country away from political and economic turbulence and toward stability. I really hope that the people’s optimism is justified. As for Atambayev himself, the desire to call him to account for the political persecution of opponents and the direct interference in the work of law enforcement agencies and the judiciary in the next [presidential term of] six years is an illusion. And it became obvious as soon as it was announced that the new president wanted to award the Hero of Kyrgyzstan title to him.
What do you think of the recent presidential elections? What do you expect from the new President, Sooronbay Jeenbekov? In your opinion, what are the main priorities for Kyrgyzstan in the next six years?
There has been a peaceful transfer of power and this has given hope for change. The challenge now is to unite all Kyrgyzstanis around one goal, namely a state that upholds the rule of law: ensuring freedom of speech, the fight against corruption, judicial reform, road safety. I’m not an economist, so I won’t give advice on the economy, but establishing legality in the country should be the basic trend, as such positive changes would affect all spheres of life and human activity, from education, to social services, healthcare, energy etc. Naturally, to achieve this the president needs vision, enthusiasm, or rather devotion, and of course, high emotional stability.
Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and producer specializing in the Middle East and Central Asia, where he has lived on and off since 2000.