Former Kyrgyz President Charged with Corruption Released from Prison
After serving less than two years of his 11-year sentence for corruption, former President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev was released and left on Wednesday to Spain for medical treatment although there are still outstanding charges against him.
Atambayev was convicted and sentenced in 2020 for allegedly receiving a bribe to release a notorious criminal from prison, but the conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court and the case was sent back to the lower court for new hearings.
Atambayev still faces four outstanding charges, including corruption, organizing a riot, and attempted murder. He has promised to return to Kyrgyzstan to clear his name.
Following his release, Atambayev, who is a member and former chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Social Democratic Party, credited the Prime Minister of Spain and President of the Socialist International, Pedro Sánchez, with providing crucial support. He also noted that current President Sadyr Japarov and the head of the National Security Agency Kamchybek Tashiev had played an important decision-making role.
“It was the right decision on their part,” Atambayev told journalists. “I didn't really believe that I would be released today.”
In 2011, then-prime minister Atambayev won the Kyrgyz presidential election in a landslide. His administration was marked by an anti-corruption campaign with lackluster results and a major diplomatic row with Kyrgyzstan’s important neighbor, Kazakhstan. Leaving office in 2017, Atambayev became the first Kyrgyz president to peacefully hand over power, rather than being ousted in a revolution.
However, Atambayev’s relations with his successor and former ally, former President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who had served under Atambayev as prime minister, soon soured. A war of words broke out after Jeenbekov criticized Atambayev’s administration for being corrupt, culminating in Atambayev’s public apology in March 2019 for helping to bring Jeenbekov to power.
Three months later, in June 2019, Atambayev was stripped of presidential immunity, and in August he was arrested by Kyrgyz special forces in a dramatic raid on his compound in which dozens of his supporters were injured and a soldier was killed.
A total of seven criminal charges were brought against Atambayev, all of which he denies. In June 2020, he was convicted of accepting a bribe to free from prison the notorious criminal and convicted murderer Aziz Batukayev, who was released early on parole in 2013 for medical treatment and immediately left the country, flying to Chechnya. Atambayev was later acquitted on three of the other charges against him.
On Tuesday, however, the Supreme Court reversed Atambayev’s corruption conviction and ordered new hearings, releasing him from prison immediately and granting him permission to leave the country for medical treatment. The following morning at 5 am, Atambayev left Kyrgyzstan on a flight to Dubai, with the stated intention of continuing to Spain.
Atambayev’s release came as a surprise to some, as it was under his rule that the current President Sadyr Japarov was himself incarcerated. In 2017, Japarov was sentenced to 11 years and six months in prison for allegedly organizing an attempted kidnapping during anti-government protests in 2013.
Freed by his supporters in Kyrgyzstan’s 2020 revolution, Japarov was elected president in 2021. His administration has been criticized for cracking down on civil society and independent media and, according to political analyst Asel Alymbayeva, this may be a way of attempting to soften his image.
“Sadyr Japarov wants to be seen by the population as a just ruler: look, he put me in prison, but I’m compassionate and I can release even him,” Alymbayeva told OCCRP. “He doesn’t want to lose public support in a period of economic crisis. I think that he released [Atambayev] only with the goal of remaining in power.”
Alymbayeva said that she believes that by releasing the former president, the government is also trying to neutralize a political threat.
“In Kyrgyzstan, a precedent has developed: when they release opposition activists from prison they immediately take power,” Alymbayeva said. “I think there was an agreement that Atambayev will not enter the political arena, but will leave the country. [His release] doesn’t threaten the stability of the regime because he himself will not be an active political player.”