Investigative reporting and Kyrgyzstan’s selective justice

At a Bishkek roundtable Tuesday called “The Fourth Estate: Rule of the Game,” Almambet Shykmamatov, Kyrgyzstan’s justice minister, encouraged local reporters to expose government corruption, local press reported. The minister said authorities would follow up on such reports, grant security to investigative journalists, and might even pay them up to 20 percent of the funds that corrupt officials return to state coffers.

The minister’s call might sound encouraging to those who are aware of how deeply corruption is embedded in this mountainous Central Asian nation. In its most recent report, Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization, ranked Kyrgyzstan 164 out of 183 countries surveyed. In other words, the country was placed among those nations with the strongest perceptions of corruption.

At the same time, local news reports and CPJ research show that those who expose corruption are targeted in retaliation for their work while the officials they investigate enjoy impunity. Unless authorities reverse these trends–as exemplified in two cases below–the minister’s call will be meaningless.

Azimjon Askarov, an investigative reporter and the head of a local human rights group, did exactly what Shykmamatov called on the journalists to do–he exposed corruption and abuse among police and prosecutors in the southern Jalal-Abad region. For years, he investigated and reported on the fabrication of criminal cases, and torture, rape, and killing of detainees by police in his native village of Bazar-Korgon. But in June 2010, local authorities imprisoned him in connection to the then-ravaging ethnic conflict in the region, and slammed him with a life sentence three months later on a set of politicized and fabricated charges.

Askarov and his lawyers told CPJ that local police and prosecutors had long sought to pay him back for his exposés, which had forced many officials out of office. Following his arrest, police tortured the journalist in custody, and threatened to rape his daughter and wife if he refused to hand over his reporting materials, Askarov told CPJ. Despite protests by his lawyer and rights activists, including CPJ, authorities refused to hold police responsible, and the judges failed to inquire into bruises on his face. The journalist continues to serve his term; advocacy for his release is ongoing. Last week, a CPJ delegation met with the Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States to discuss Askarov’s case, and the ambassador agreed to present our findings to the president.

Meanwhile, according to the regional news website Ferghana News, in early June authorities in the Jalal-Abad region released from pretrial custody into house arrest four Bazar-Korgon police officers who were arrested on charges of killing a detainee in August 2011. The case stems from the detention of a local man whom police held and brutally beat while trying to extort US$6,000, Ferghana News reported. After the man gave his captors part of the sum, he was let go–but died at a hospital two days later, having been diagnosed with a broken sternum, post-traumatic shock, and injury to his internal organs. Before he died, the man described his torture to his wife and doctors.

Outcry in the media prompted regional authorities to arrest the four officers. But, according to local media, prosecution in the seemingly clear-cut case became troublesome due to threats and pressure by the officers’ families and supporters against witnesses and a local doctor, who examined the man before his death. According to the regional news website Voice of Freedom, during the trial those who testified against the police reversed their statements. The judges ignored this, sent the case back to regional prosecutors, and released the suspects to house arrest.

These cases show that in Kyrgyzstan, justice is enforced selectively; in addition to blocking press freedom and the rule of law, this trend only contributes to the spread of corruption. If Shykmamatov wants his call to be implemented, the minister should make sure that justice is universally applied according to the law. He could start with Askarov’s case.