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In Kyrgyzstan, Kempir-Abad Case Ends in Acquittal

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In Kyrgyzstan, Kempir-Abad Case Ends in Acquittal

The court acquitted most of the defendants in a case that began with the mass arrest of more than 20 politicians and activists opposed to a border deal with Uzbekistan in October 2022.

In Kyrgyzstan, Kempir-Abad Case Ends in Acquittal
Credit: Depositphotos

On June 14, a court in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, acquitted 22* defendants in the Kempir-Abad case, citing insufficient evidence.

The ruling came just days after prosecutors wrapped up criminal proceedings and asked the court to convict the group of more than 20 people on charges of plotting “mass riots,” “forcible seizure of power” and “public calls for a violent seizure of power.” Prosecutors had sought 20-year sentences for all involved.

It was a surprising outcome to a long saga that has come to encapsulate Kyrgyzstan’s repressive turn.

The roots of the Kempir-Abad case (although government figures did not like that phrasing) was a historic border agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan involving the Kempir-Abad Reservoir, which sits along the border — and the arguably small but vocal opposition to the deal.

Kyrgyzstan’s longest border is with Uzbekistan, running 1,314 kilometers around the edges of the famed Fergana Valley. Although the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border has been less volatile in recent years than Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan, it has not been without disputes or incidents in the 30 years since the Soviet Union’s collapse made it an international boundary. The 2016 death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov marked a sea-change in relations, however, with new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev much more invested in finalizing the border and broadening regional cooperation.

By 2017, around 85 percent of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border had been formally described and agreed to, but the remaining sections, including the Kempir-Abad reservoir (known in Uzbekistan as the Andijan reservoir), presented a greater challenge.

In March 2021, Chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS or GKNB) Kamchybek Tashiev somewhat prematurely celebrated the complete settling of the border issue. He said after a trip to Tashkent that “[i]ssues around the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border have been resolved 100 percent. We have tackled this difficult task. There is not a single patch of disputed territory left.” He mentioned a number of land swaps that would settle the deal, triggering some frustration and small protests in Osh.

The following year the two sides made more decisive steps toward an agreement, engaging in successive rounds of negotiation. By the end of 2022 the two governments announced an agreement and signed it, respectively, into law.

The agreements, as outlined by at the time, included a land swap, which saw Uzbekistan receive the 4,957 hectares on which the Kempir-Abad reservoir sits as well as an additional 19.5 hectares “for the maintenance and protection of the dam.” In turn, Kyrgyzstan received 1,019 hectares of pasture land plus 12,849 hectares in a separate section of the border as compensation. An additional agreement related to the joint management of the reservoir’s water, which Uzbekistan has been the primary user of since the reservoir’s creation in 1983.

There was opposition to the deal in Kyrgyzstan locally and nationally. When Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov traveled in early October 2022 to Uzgen, a town in Osh Region near the reservoir, he was faced with villagers holding signs reading “It is better to give life than land!” When the draft deal was released, and included land swaps, local dissent expanded into wider political and activist circles in the country.

On October 22, Kyrgyz politician Ravshan Jeenbekov announced the formation of a committee “in defense of Kempir-Abad” and announced a rally would be held on October 24 in Bishkek.

The Kyrgyz government moved swiftly to respond, detaining more than 20 people — politicians and activists, but also a former Constitutional Court judge and a journalist — on October 23, initially on charges of plotting mass unrest. Seizure of power allegations were tacked on later, in January 2023, and the case was classified.

For many of those detained, the initial two-month pretrial detention period was extended repeatedly. According to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Radio Azattyk, eight defendants remained in detention as of June 2024 ahead of the surprising acquittal; the remainder had been released to house arrest, most in April 2023. A trio of the initial defendants’ cases were separated from the main case and dropped earlier in 2024. A few others were separated and released to house arrest on account of health issues.

On June 12, following the news that prosecutors were seeking 20-year sentences, an array of eight human rights organizations urged Kyrgyzstan to drop “the politically motivated charges and immediately release the group, who were arrested arbitrarily, and some of whom have already spent up to 19 months in pretrial detention.” Human rights activists pointed to myriad violations of Kyrgyz and international law throughout the case, including the reading of the indictment aloud to only some of the defendants, hearings that took place without defense lawyers present, the repeated extension of the pre-trial detention of some of the defendants, and the classification of the case.

In a press release the human rights groups said, “The defendants in the Kempir-Abad case were arbitrarily arrested, their extended detention was unjustified, and they should never have been charged or prosecuted for any crime, far less the serious ones the authorities pursued… The authorities are blatantly retaliating against the activists’ peaceful and legitimate criticism and civic engagement against the transfer of the Kempir-Abad dam.”

Since Japarov came to power following the October 2020 revolution, Kyrgyzstan’s international reputation as an “island of democracy” has deteriorated. Kyrgyzstan dropped from “partly free” to “not free” after 2020 in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World ranking. Bishkek has been also criticized for the passage of a “foreign representatives” law and a crackdown on journalists.

The June 14 verdict was read in a closed court, with Radio Azattyk reporting that even the relatives of the defendants were not allowed to attend the proceeding and awaited news in the hallway while supporters gathered outside. The crowd chanted “our heroes” and “well done” as the defendants left the court, engaging in tearful embraces with loved ones and expressing their joy and surprise to journalists recording the scene.

Update: The court acquitted 22 of the 27 original defendants in the Kempir-Abad case. Several others have had their cases separated out and verdicts are pending.