In the span of two days, former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has gone from prison to Spain.
It’s a sudden change of fate for the former president, who has been in jail, save for a few days free following the October 2020 protests, since 2019. He was convicted in June 2020 and sentenced to 11 years in jail on corruption charges related to the early release in 2013 of Aziz Batukayev, an ethnic Chechen criminal serving a 17-year sentence for various serious crimes, including murder. Batukayev was released early on ostensibly humanitarian grounds, following an alleged leukemia diagnosis (which in retrospect seems to have been a scam).
On February 13, Atambayev’s appeal to the Kyrgyz Supreme Court, which he claimed newly discovered circumstances and seeking yet another new trial, met with success. The court annulled the verdict against Atambayev and sent the case for retrial. Subsequently, and more surprisingly considering Atambayev is embroiled in several other court cases, the former president was released to seek medical treatment abroad and by February 15 he was on his way, reportedly, to Spain.
Answering questions from journalists outside the prison, Atambayev was vague about the circumstances of his release, mentioning Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez along with current Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and security chief Kamchybek Tashiev but not stating clearly in what capacity they influenced the court’s decision to release him.
Atambayev served as Kyrgyz president from 2011 to 2017 and has the distinction of being the only regularly-elected Kyrgyz president to leave office as scheduled after completing a six-year term. His political career, however, was rife with contention. Atambayev often jousted with the press, including suing several media outlets, decrying media for what is by now a standard trio: “fake news, lies, and slander.”
Atambayev’s protégé, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, succeeded him in office but their friendship crumbled as Jeenbekov asserted himself in the presidency. It was not the Medvedev-Putin swap Atambayev perhaps had hoped for. Their falling out ultimately led to the remarkable scenes of August 2019 in which Kyrgyz security forces besieged Atambayev’s compound in the village of Koi-Tash. The former president had refused several court subpoenas and the police arrived to bring him in. In the ensuing fight, a member of the special forces was killed by gunshot. Atambayev’s legal woes intensified thereafter even as Jeenbekov found himself pushed out of power in October 2020.
For his part, Japarov has stuck to his oft-repeated mantra that he merely respects the decisions of the justice system and does not direct them. “Since the court and law enforcement agencies have decided so, then we must obey this,” he commented. Japarov, who had been arrested and convicted under Atamabyev’s government in 2017, served time in prison up until the very weeks in which he rose to power in 2020 and has used that past in posturing himself, politically, as a defender of the unjustly persecuted. Although he has no reason to love Atambayev, in an interview with Kabar, a Kyrgyz state-run newspaper, he said he would not want even his enemies to be imprisoned.
There’s no shortage of irony in Kyrgyz politics, and those claiming to have been persecuted tend to go on to persecute others when their turn at the top comes.
Japarov’s government last October swept up two dozen political figures, activists, journalists, and lawyers, alleging that they were plotting mass protests and a coup, tied to their opposition to the border deal with Uzbekistan. In the four months since, pre-trial detention terms for most of those detained have been extended multiple times and Kyrgyz authorities seem to be digging around for any charge that might stick.
For example, authorities have opened a new charge against well-known former Constitutional Court judge Klara Sooronkulova, who was detained with the other Kempir-Abad dissenters in October. The new charge is linked to a February 2022 Facebook post she shared, made as part of a “flash mob” organized in defense of Mirlan Uraimov. Uraimov, an activist and Butun Kyrgyzstan Party member, had earlier shared a post criticizing the authorities. He was detained on suspicion of publicly calling for the violent seizure of power due to the post, which he claimed was the result of his account being hacked.
This is part of the backdrop against which Atambayev has been released and provides some fundamental context. Justice in Kyrgyzstan remains highly politicized. Releasing Atambayev in a way, softens Japarov’s image at a time of both political and economic hardship. (Political analyst Asel Alymbayeva’s comments to OCCRP on this angle are well worth reading.) Atambayev, Kloop reported, does not plan to re-enter the political arena, though he did say he would return to Kyrgyzstan.
In the meantime, Japarov gets to look magnanimous and Atambayev as a political threat is essentially neutralized. If and when Atambayev returns to Kyrgyzstan, he ostensibly faces yet another retrial of the Batukayev case, plus four other serious cases, including charges of corruption, organizing a riot, and attempted murder. This should provide ample motivation for the former president to remain out of politics, at least for now.