Kyrgyzstan ex-leader sentenced to 11 years in crime boss case


Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) (AFP)

Kyrgyzstan's former president was sentenced to 11 years in jail Tuesday over the illegal release of a crime boss, a case that caused a violent power struggle with his successor.

The presiding judge at a court in the capital Bishkek handed Almazbek Atambayev the sentence of 11 years and two months and ruled the ex-leader be stripped of all state honours as well as his homes and businesses.

Atambayev, who is 63 and has claimed ill health, did not attend the sentencing.

Speaking after the verdict, Atambayev's lawyer Sergei Slesarev said the prosecution had not proved his client's guilt. In sentencing him, the judicial system had "fulfilled the task put before it" by authorities, he argued.

The early release from jail of ethnic Chechen crime boss Aziz Batukayev in 2013 caused a scandal in Central Asian Kyrgyzstan, where organised crime and politics are often seen as closely linked.

Investigators later found that the medical documents that provided the basis for Batukayev's release and subsequent travel to Russia had been forged.

Atambayev, who was president at the time, has always denied knowledge of the falsification.

Ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan, which has seen two revolutions in less than two decades, saw a standoff last year between Atambayev and his one-time protege President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

Atambayev faces a series of other charges, including murder, in a separate court case covering violent clashes between his supporters and the security forces last year.

The clashes occurred after he ignored a police summons for questioning over the Batukayev case.

A special forces officer was killed during the dramatic operation to detain the former leader.

Last year's stand-off between the two politicians briefly sparked fears of violence between regions. Atambayev hails from the north of the impoverished country, while Jeenbekov is from the south.

- Russia watching -

Political tensions in the mountainous, landlocked republic bordering China created an awkward situation for traditional patron Russia, which has a military base in the republic.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin met with both Jeenbekov and Atambayev last year in the build-up to the clashes and called on them to defuse the conflict.

Putin's intervention was widely believed to have thrown Atambayev a lifeline but the operation to detain him went ahead regardless.

Critics argue that Jeenbekov has continued his predecessor's habit of using trumped-up cases to persecute political opponents.

Sapar Isakov, who was prime minister when Jeenbekov became president, was sentenced to 18 years in jail over two court cases that saw him and other former top officials accused of corruption.

Atambayev was unable to repeat his six-year term, which ended in 2017, due to a constitutional provision that bars incumbent presidents from running for office.

At first, he campaigned enthusiastically for Jeenbekov, who he called "my friend Soke", but the pair soon fell out as Jeenbekov moved to remove other Atambayev allies from top positions.