Kyrgyz opposition party says its leader’s arrest linked to plane crash probe

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BISHKEK (TCA) — Kyrgyzstan’s Ata-Meken opposition party has claimed that the arrest of its leader Omurbek Tekebaev was aimed to suppress evidence that a cargo plane that crashed near Bishkek’s Manas airport on January 16 was carrying goods belonging to President Almazbek Atambayev, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

Atambayev’s spokesman denied the claim, calling it a “lie”.

Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry on March 1 also rejected the allegations, saying that Turkey’s ambassador had called the opposition’s purported evidence “fake”.

A lawyer for Tekebaev’s Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party asserted on March 1 that law enforcement officers detained Tekebaev upon his arrival from Cyprus via Turkey on February 26 in order to prevent him from publicizing documents she said showed that goods aboard the cargo plane belonged to Atambayev and his wife.

“In order to gain [possession of] the documents before they become public the law-enforcement officers detained Tekebaev at the airport and made sure that lawyers could not reach him,” the lawyer, Taalaigul Toktakunova told journalists.

The MyCargo 747-400 crashed on January 16 near Bishkek, killing four crew members and 35 people on the ground and setting off speculation about the ownership and destination of its cargo.

At a news conference in Bishkek, Toktakunova presented a document with what she said was a Turkish Security Service letterhead. She read aloud from what she said was a Russian translation of the document that said the Turkish security service had conducted investigations into the plane crash and concluded that “mobile phones, computers, other electronic devices, cash, valuable metals and stones belonged to the President of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambayev and his spouse.”

The text she read also said that the cargo’s transportation to Bishkek has been organized by a Turkish national known as “Rattlesnake” and several citizens of Turkey and Kyrgyzstan.

But Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev met personally in Bishkek with Turkey’s Ambassador Metin Kilic after Toktakunova’s press conference to discuss the opposition’s claims.

In a statement, the ministry said Turkey’s ambassador told Abdyldaev that the Turkish Security Service “does not work in such a way and doesn’t give documents with their letterhead to anyone.”

The ministry statement said Kilic also told Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister that the document shown to journalists on March 1 by Toktakunova was “a forged document — a fake.”

Tekebaev is deputy chairman of a parliamentary commission set up to investigate the plane crash, and had been actively involved in the parliamentary probe.

Residents of the village where the plane crashed have said that looting broke out soon after it went down, telling journalists that first responders took many smartphones and other electronic devices that had been part of the cargo and were found in the debris.

Residents also found printed instructions for electronic devices written in Kyrgyz and Russian, prompting speculation that the goods were being shipped to Kyrgyzstan.

Tekebaev has accused Kyrgyz authorities of trying to cover up information about the crash, citing contradictory statements by Kyrgyz officials and those of the company that owned the plane.

Almaz Usonov, chief of the presidential administration’s information-policy department, said the lawyer’s claim was “not just absurd” and “not just a lie.”

“In fact, what Tekebaev’s lawyers did is an obstruction of the investigation,” Usonov told RFE/RL. “It is an attempt to politicize the case and hijack public opinion by attracting citizens’ attention to something else.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of supporters of Tekebaev protested for a fourth straight day, demanding his release.

On February 27, a court ordered Tekebaev held in custody until April 25. He is being investigated in a corruption and fraud case related to allegations that he received a $1 million bribe from a Russian businessman while serving as deputy prime minister of the Kyrgyz interim government in 2010.

A former ally, Tekebaev fell out with Atambayev in 2016 over constitutional amendments that critics suspect were aimed at prolonging Atambayev’s power after a November 19 presidential election in which he is barred from running by a single-term limit.

Supporters of Tekebayev say they believe the criminal investigation is aimed at preventing him from running for president.

Sergey Kwan

TCA