Parliamentarians in Kyrgyzstan have voted overwhelmingly to lift the immunity of former President Almazbek Atambayev, paving the way for his prosecution that could provoke a political crisis in the fragile Central Asian country.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, loyal to Atambayev’s handpicked successor Sooronbai Jeenbekov, voted 103 to six in favour of lifting that protection on Thursday.
Prosecutors accuse the 62-year-old Atambayev of making illegal land purchases and of corruption, but he previously enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution as a former head of state.
The moves against the former president have sparked fears that a major power struggle in Kyrgyzstan could be on the horizon.
The poverty-stricken country has seen a series of political crises and revolutions since gaining independence with the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union.
Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, a defiant Atambayev said he would “stand to the end” against the charges.
“I am not afraid of anything in this world. I’ve been in jail, had attacks on my life, I was poisoned,” Atambayev, who served as president from 2011 to 2017, said at his residence in the village of Koi-Tash near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
“If I submit to this mafia clan, then maybe half the population of Kyrgyzstan will fall,” he said in a reference to his successor Jeenbekov’s administration.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Atambayev has said he has weapons to protect himself in case of his arrest.
Several hundred supporters gathered at Atambayev’s residence in the foothills of Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountains, where nomadic yurts have been converted into a press centre and a venue for political gatherings.
“Ordinary people will not allow the authorities to implement their plan to annihilate [Atambayev],” supporter Farkhat Baabiev told RFE/RL.
Long in opposition, Atambayev became Russia-allied Kyrgyzstan’s first elected president to hand over power peacefully in 2017, following revolutions in 2005 and 2010.
He was active in securing Jeenbekov’s election victory in 2017 during a feisty campaign that saw a criminal case opened against the main opposition candidate, who Atambayev repeatedly smeared in public.
Atambayev’s critics accuse him of exploiting north-south divisions in the poverty-stricken country to bolster his public standing and using state organs to get rid of political opponents, a criticism now also levelled at Jeenbekov.
The two had a public falling out and under Jeenbekov, several figures from Atambayev’s administration have been arrested on corruption charges.
Earlier this month, authorities arrested Manasbek Arabayev, ex-chief of the presidential office’s department, for judicial system reform.
Sapar Isakov and Jantoro Satybaldiev, who both served as prime ministers under Atambayev, have also been charged with corruption.
Last year, Kyrgyz officials arrested former customs chief, Adamkul Junusov, and former adviser Ikramjan Ilmiyanov on similar charges, according to RFE/RL.