Kyrgyz Authorities Annul Investigative Journalist’s Passport as His Trial Begins
First someone bugged Bolot Temirov’s apartment. Then police raided his office and allegedly planted drugs on him.
Now, Kyrgyz law enforcement has gone even farther: On May 17, the journalist announced that the interior ministry had declared his passport invalid, potentially stripping him of his Kyrgyz citizenship.
Temirov is one of Kyrgyzstan’s top investigative reporters and the chief editor of Temirov LIVE, a media outlet whose journalists have revealed corruption by high-level Kyrgyz officials and their family members. In retaliation for those investigations, the journalists have been surveilled, slandered, assaulted, and prosecuted.
The news that Temirov’s passport was annulled came just one day before the preliminary hearing of his trial. He stands accused of possessing and selling drugs, falsifying documents, and illegally crossing the border — accusations that rights activists say are politically motivated.
The first hearing of Temirov’s case began on Thursday at 10 a.m. in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. If convicted, he could face up to fifteen years in prison.
Temirov denies any guilt and believes that the purpose of the case is not to punish a real crime. Rather, he says, the charges are meant to “scare journalists, activists, and other citizens who are revealing the country’s corruption and lawlessness.”
Leila Nazgul Seiitbek, a Kyrgyz lawyer and chairwoman of the rights organization Freedom for Eurasia, pointed to claims made on several occasions by Kyrgyz authorities that Temirov’s citizenship is invalid.
“It should be clear to everyone that these actions against Bolot Temirov are clearly persecution for his investigative work uncovering corruption,” Seiitbek told OCCRP.
Temirov has long been a thorn in the side of the Kyrgyz authorities — and has faced retaliation for it.
In 2020, while leading his first outlet, FactCheck.kg, he was attacked and savagely beaten by three men a month after publishing an investigation into a top customs official. He and his colleagues were also slandered by online trolls and the website was hit with a DDOS attack.
Later that year, he founded Temirov LIVE to pursue investigative journalism in a new, more accessible format: YouTube. He and his colleagues began publishing video investigations, similar in style to those produced by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, that focused on corruption and other misdeeds by politicians.
By the end of 2021, the pressure was on again.
That October, Temirov and his employees began to notice suspicious cars parked outside their office. A few months after that, his family discovered a hidden microphone and video camera filming the living room of their rented apartment through a tiny hole in the wall.
Then, this January, Temirov LIVE published a new investigation alleging that a family member of Kamchybek Tashiev, the powerful chief of Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB security agency, had benefited from highly lucrative deals involving a state oil company.
A few days later, the police showed up.
On January 22, officers burst into Temirov.Live’s office and forced the employees onto the floor. Two officers held Temirov down on the ground. Then, they lifted him up and made him empty his pockets. To his horror, he discovered a small cellophane packet containing what police said was marijuana in his back pocket.
“They planted it!” Temirov shouted as police carted him off. His colleagues are also convinced that the police planted the packet, and Temirov later tested negative for drugs.
At around this time, one of Temirov’s female employees was ensnared in a plot that appears to have been instigated by the security services. Intimate videos of her were secretly recorded in an attempt to pressure her to report to the authorities about what went on at her workplace. When she refused, they were published online.
Other clips featuring audio from Temirov’s home and office were also published and selectively edited in an attempt to discredit him for receiving foreign funding.
Last month, after Temirov published a new investigation, Kyrgyz law enforcement issued new charges against him, alleging that he had obtained his Kyrgyz passport fraudulently and that his use of it for international travel was illegal. At a press conference, representatives of the interior ministry said that this meant he was not a Kyrgyz citizen.
But Temirov didn’t realize his passport had been annulled until he and his lawyers found a declaration to that effect as they reviewed case materials.
Temirov’s legal team filed a formal protest against that decision. But, on May 17, the prosecutor’s office ruled that the decision was lawful, Temirov told OCCRP. That same day, he learned that his passport had been deleted from all the official databases.
Temirov denies that he did anything illegal. He says that he was born and raised in Kyrgyzstan, but used a Soviet passport until 2001, when he received a Russian passport while studying there. He then got a Kyrgyz passport in 2008.
His lawyer, Batyr Botobekov stresses that it is not against the law to have two passports and that the annulment of Temirov’s passport does not affect his citizenship.
“Bolot Temirov was born on the territory of Soviet Kyrgyzstan and has an officially recorded birth, a birth certificate,” Botobekov told OCCRP. “Based on that alone, he is a citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic.”
Under the Kyrgyz Constitution, no citizen can be forcibly deprived of their citizenship. Additionally, lawyer Seiitbek says the correct way of addressing any allegations concerning Temirov’s passport would have been to conduct a formal inquiry through Kyrgyzstan’s passport agency.
“It shouldn’t be done by just one person who is a police investigator,” she said.
But many things about the charges against Temirov are far from ordinary. For that reason, few are optimistic.
“Almost all of the law enforcement agencies’ actions defy logic and the letter of the law,” Temirov told OCCRP. “That once again proves that their goal is not to restore justice, but to create maximum obstacles for our team’s work.”
Editor’s Note: Bolot Temirov has been an OCCRP fellow and has collaborated with OCCRP, and with OCCRP partner Kloop, on several investigations.