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Akyn Askat Zhetigen Sentenced to 3 Years by Kyrgyz Court

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Akyn Askat Zhetigen Sentenced to 3 Years by Kyrgyz Court

The musician’s social commentary is entirely within the grand tradition of Kyrgyz akyns going back centuries. But speaking up is risky business in Kyrgyzstan these days. 

Akyn Askat Zhetigen Sentenced to 3 Years by Kyrgyz Court
Credit: Depositphotos

Kyrgyz musician Askat Zhetigen was sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted on a charge of calling for the violent seizure of power. In the same trial, he was acquitted on another charge of calling for mass unrest.

According to Kloop’s reporting, the akyn called the verdict “unfounded” and vowed to fight it.

“I will fight for justice. I do not agree with this decision. This decision is unfounded. Justice will prevail, we will fight,” he reportedly said as guards led him from the court.

An akyn is a improvisational poet and singer, a distinctive and traditional artform in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The art of the akyn – a combination of improvisational singing and music accompaniment (typically a Kazakh dombyra or Kyrgyz komuz) – was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in 2008 and aitys(h) – a contest of improvised oral poetry between two akyns – was added in 2015.

This heritage is important to keep in mind. It’s a traditional artform, but one that lends itself to contemporary discussions, as the material in such competitions is drawn from the issues of the day. 

Zhetigen was arrested in March after posting a video in which he criticized Krygyz President Sadyr Japarov. He has since apologized for using profanity in the video, but maintains that his words were not a criminal offense. He also complained of being tortured with an electric shocker after his arrest, an allegation the authorities have not commented on. 

The prosecutor, who had sought an eight-year prison term on the two charges, characterized Zhetigen’s criticism of the president – and use of profanity in doing so – as “causing resonance and discussion on social networks, which could cause popular unrest and a threat to the security of the population of the Kyrgyz Republic.” 

In other words: Criticizing the president in such a way that other people might discuss it is a threat to security of the state. Effectively, this makes it a crime to compellingly criticize the president. What kind of democratic political discussion could occur in such an environment? None. And that’s perhaps the point.

Zhetigen has spoken out in recent years about gambling in Kyrgyzstan and the recent change of the country’s flag; he condemned the arrest of activists and was vocal on other issues. As I’ve written previously, his social commentary is entirely within “the grand tradition of Kyrgyz akyns going back centuries.”