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Moscow set to establish second military base in Kyrgyzstan

  • Written by Paul Goble

BISHKEK (TCA) — The issue of opening a second Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan has re-emerged in recent weeks, which shows Moscow’s determination to strengthen its positions in Central Asia. We are republishing this article on the issue, written by Paul Goble, originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor:

Read more: Moscow set to establish second military base in Kyrgyzstan

Turkmenistan: USAID bolsters local transport and logistics companies

  • Written by TCA

ASHGABAT (TCA) — The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has concluded a five-day workshop designed to help transport and logistics companies in Turkmenistan improve their management systems and increase their export opportunities, the US Embassy in Ashgabat reported. Turkmenistan has developed numerous large-scale infrastructure projects to improve trade potential but, without good management practices, local transport and logistics companies will not be able to take advantage of improved trade opportunities.

Read more: Turkmenistan: USAID bolsters local transport and logistics companies

Uzbekistan: Hizb ut-Tahrir trial a testbed for religious boundaries

  • Written by EurasiaNet

TASHKENT (TCA) — Although there has been a marked change in the government’s attitude toward believers, being devout Muslims still remains dangerous in Uzbekistan. We are republishing this article on the issue, originally published by Eurasianet:

The opening hearing of Guzal Tokhtakhadjayeva’s criminal trial last month began late because of the hubbub that day at Tashkent city court.

On April 16, an unusually large crowd of rights activists, foreign reporters and well-wishers had gathered outside the court in Uzbekistan’s capital to hear another day of testimony in the state’s case against a well-known journalist accused of sedition. Few gave Guzal much heed.

Both trials, however, may prove to have had equally consequential implications for the nation’s future.

The journalist, Bobomurod Abdullayev, ultimately walked out of court on a suspended sentence in what some took as a signal of the government’s willingness to ease its intransigence toward the press. The other case may provide clarity about where the state stands in its evolving relationship with fringe religious communities.

Guzal, a 31-year-old from one of Tashkent’s old quarters, was in the dock with her husband Muhammad Rashidov on suspicion of distributing propaganda materials of a proscribed Islamist group and seeking to undermine the constitution. Another two relatives, a mother and son, are also on trial.

In court, the prosecutor read out the accusation against Guzal in a monotone drone.

“She engaged in the distribution of literature and leaflets and was also gathering funds for Hizb ut-Tahrir. She was observed by police operatives handing out 14 leaflets outside a mosque in Tashkent,” he said.

Guzal rejects the specific charges, although her association with the group appears less in doubt. Almost all her immediate family have at some stage served time – or are still serving time – for their dealings with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded by a Lebanese Islamic scholar in the early 1950s and quickly took root across parts of the Middle East. Its very name, which is Arabic for Party of Liberation, strongly suggests an ethos no less political than it is religious. The party’s ideology combines a deep aversion for secular political order with often unabashedly intolerant views for anything perceived as un-Islamic. The group is banned in most of the former Soviet Union, though it operates openly in the West.

Though in the immediate aftermath of independence Uzbekistan’s authorities pressured most religious thought outside the state-sanctioned orthodoxy, Hizb ut-Tahrir and similar-minded groups flourished in the 1990s.

It was only around 1998 that the onslaught became truly ferocious.

The history of arrests for links to Hizb ut-Tahrir in Guzal’s family began in November 1999, when her father, Aziz Tokhtakhadjayev, was picked up by law enforcement officials on suspicion of being a member.

Aziz was an academic and taught economics the Tashkent State University of Economics. He obtained his doctorate degree in Soviet times at what was then called the Plekhanov Moscow Institute of the National Economy.

Initially, Aziz was sentenced to 13 years in jail. That penalty was extended by another 16 years in 2013.

“They have extended his sentence several times on various concocted grounds. The last time it was charges […] of dangerous recidivism. Now this 70-year-old, this severely ill man, is being kept in a high-security jail. He is not eligible for amnesty,” said Dildora Agzamkhadjayeva, another of his daughters.

Yet another sister, Dilnoza, 36, ended a three-year jail sentence in 2010. She spent her term in barracks holding 100 women.

“In the [prison] colony I worked in a sewing factory where they made jackets, clothes for builders, and also clothespins. The worst thing was that a representative of the National Security Service would come to visit twice a month,” Dilnoza told Eurasianet.

Rights activist Azgam Turgunov, who visited Dilnoza in prison, relayed accounts of how she had been dragged by the hair and had her head slammed against the wall while serving her sentence. Dilnoza refused to elaborate on the details of these alleged incidents, turning away when asked.

At the opening hearing of her trial, Guzal, a slim and pale woman with slight features, appeared undaunted and even defiant. Her husband, meanwhile, seemed bowed and defeated.

Speaking from a defendant’s cage guarded by five policemen with guns and batons, she told the court her life story: While at middle school, she dreamt she might be able to enter medical school. But the family was too poor and her mother fell ill, so she had to ditch her studies. When she turned 18, her parents gave her away in marriage, as is customary among traditional families in Uzbekistan. She and her husband now have three children.

Although the Tokhtakhadjayev family barely disguises its sympathies for Hizb ut-Tahrir, Guzal rejects the exact charges being leveled at her. She told the court that she was subjected to psychological pressure and intimidation while under questioning.

“Investigators said that if I did not confess to the charges, that they would strip me and send me to a male holding cell. That my children would be put in an orphanage. And that I would in any case be sent to Jashlyk,” she said, referring to a notoriously harsh penitentiary in the remote deserts of western Uzbekistan.

Surat Ikramov, a Tashkent-based rights activist following the case, said that he believes accusations on religious grounds are typically falsified and confessions extorted through maltreatment. All the accused are usually guilty of, he said, is being devout Muslims and getting together to express their devotion.

“They are all relatives and would get together to pray,” Ikramov said, referring to the Tokhtakhadjayevs. "They are all believers and recite the namaz [daily prayers].”

The specific charges of distributing leaflets is crucial in cases like these, otherwise prosecutors find themselves having to advance the argument that people are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir merely on the basis of the state’s say-so.

“There is no religious organization. If many believers get together in one place, then law enforcement immediately assumes that they are trying to create a religious group. They are violating people’s right to religious freedom,” said Ikramov.

Still, Hizb ut-Tahrir does exist, although the scale of its support and, perhaps more importantly, the extent of the threat it poses is the subject of much conjecture.

Viktor Mikhailov, director of the Tashkent-based Center for Regional Threats, told Eurasianet that the first time Hizb ut-Tahrir literature began cropping up in the Soviet Union was in the 1970s and that the movement began to make more of a headway in the 1980s.

Hizb ut-Tahrir cells tend, according to those who have studied its evolution in Central Asia, to emerge from within family groups or among close-knit acquaintances. It is notable for being particularly well represented among women.

“By some estimates, the party’s membership is around 15 percent female. They are the only [political party in Uzbekistan] with such a strong female wing,” Mikhailov said.

Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who came to power after his predecessor died in September 2016, there has been a marked change in attitude toward believers, including many once considered anathema to acceptable society. In 2017, around 16,000 out of 17,000 names were removed from a list of suspected extremists singled out for regular monitoring.

It may still be too early to understand what the significance of that gesture was, however. Some religious figures have begun to spread their wings with inflammatory outbursts. But such language has been directed on the whole against groups also disliked by the authorities.

One exemplary episode occurred in November, when well-known imam Shermurad Togai issued a fire-and-brimstone proposal that the death penalty be adopted for members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic State group. Before Mirziyoyev’s time, there was hardly an imam who would have dared offer such exotic policy recommendations, but such invective nowadays elicits little more than gentle chiding, if anything. When disapproval comes, it is from social media rather than the secret police.

The outcome of Guzal’s trial will clear away some of the ambiguity currently prevailing in religious life, by either indicating a softening or reaffirmation of erstwhile hardline positions. A guilty verdict is beyond certain, since Uzbekistan’s courts only formally acknowledge any other possibility, but the severity of the penalty will be telling.

“I really hope the court is humane toward Guzal Tokhtakhadjayeva and the other defendants,” Ikramov told Eurasianet. “After all, Bobomurod [Abdullayev] was also accused under [the criminal article for undermining the constitutional order], just the same as Guzal.”

Symposium to address China’s ‘harsh policy towards Uyghurs’

  • Written by TCA

BISHKEK (TCA) — The Uyghur Human Rights Project has announced that, together with the Uyghur American Association and the Uyghur Academy, it will be hosting a “Symposium on the Identity Crisis of Uyghurs Today”.

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Uzbekistan ups car production, to introduce new models

  • Written by TCA

TASHKENT (TCA) — The Asaka Automobile Plant of GM Uzbekistan has received the third degree of quality integration into production processes – the BIQ (Built-In Quality) III certificate, the Jahon information agency reports.

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Kazakhstan and China provinces cooperate in rail container transportation

  • Written by TCA

ASTANA (TCA) — Kanat Alpysbaev, the head of Kazakhstan’s national railways company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), has held a series of meetings in Shanghai with representatives of logistic platforms in the Chinese provinces of Zhejiang (Yiwu), Hunan (Changsha), Jiangsu (Lianyungang), Shaanxi (Xian), Sichuan (Chengdu), Henan (Zhengzhou ) and Chongqing, as well as one of the largest global container operators — COSCO Shipping Lines, to discuss future cooperation on a number of projects, KTZ’s press office reported.

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Tajik Muslim scholars accuse Iran of attempts to destabilize Tajikistan

  • Written by TCA

DUSHANBE (TCA) — The Council of Ulema (a body of Muslim scholars who are recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic law and theology) of the Islamic Center of Tajikistan has issued a statement accusing Iran of attempts to destabilize the situation in Tajikistan, Tajik Avesta news agency reported.

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Kyrgyzstan: ethnic minorities need equal treatment, says senior UN official

  • Written by TCA

BISHKEK (TCA) — “Fair and equal treatment of ethnic minorities is a prerequisite for a just society; helps prevent violent extremism,” said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, at the end of a three-day visit to Kyrgyzstan last week. He said this was a lesson learned from UN experience in many countries confronting violent extremism. Human rights violations committed by governments, including discrimination among targeted groups, lead to a strong sense of alienation and often violence and terrorism.

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US and Iran trade accusations over Tehran’s alleged support of Taliban in Afghanistan

  • Written by TCA

KABUL (TCA) — The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 21 said that Iran’s support to the Taliban in Afghanistan in the form of weapons and funding is leading to further violence and hinders peace and stability of the Afghan people, Afghan broadcaster TOLOnews reported.

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Uzbekistan: Amnesty International visits country for first time in 14 years

  • Written by TCA

TASHKENT (TCA) — An Amnesty International delegation will be in Uzbekistan this week in what the human rights watchdog describes as the first such visit to the country in 14 years, RFE/RL reports.

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Kyrgyzstan: Supreme Court upholds ex-prosecutor-general’s sentence

  • Written by TCA

BISHKEK (TCA) — Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court has upheld a suspended prison sentence against opposition politician and the country’s former Prosecutor-General Aida Salyanova, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

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Afghanistan: poppy cultivation continues to increase fueling insurgency

  • Written by TCA

KABUL (TCA) — Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics on May 21 raised concerns over the increase in poppy cultivation in the country, saying that this year the trend has increased by 11 percent against last year, Afghan broadcaster TOLOnews reported.

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Chinese company to build factory producing pulp and paper from reeds in Kazakhstan

  • Written by TCA

ASTANA (TCA) — On May 21, in Astana, the Chairman of Kazakh Invest National Company for Investment Support and Promotion, Saparbek Tuyakbaev met with the head of the Chinese company Qifeng New Material, Li Hufeng, to discuss implementation of a project for the production of pulp and paper from reeds in Kazakhstan.

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China’s group considers creating investment fund in Kazakhstan

  • Written by TCA

ASTANA (TCA) — Chairman of Kazakh Invest National Company for Investment Support and Promotion, Saparbek Tuyakbayev and Vice President of China’s Winta Investment Group Tan Zhiyuan met in Astana on May 21 to discuss the possibility of creating an investment fund in Kazakhstan. This issue was previously considered during preliminary talks with the Kazakh Invest representative office in Beijing.

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Tajikistan: people protest outside Iranian embassy against alleged support for banned Islamic party

  • Written by TCA

DUSHANBE (TCA) — Some 50 people gathered outside the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe on May 21 to protest Tehran's alleged support for the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.

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US report says 'few signs of progress' in Afghanistan war under Trump plan

  • Written by TCA

KABUL (TCA) — The Trump administration's new Afghanistan strategy has made little progress against the Taliban insurgency since August, and the country remains a "dangerous and volatile" place after 17 years of war, a U.S. government watchdog report says, RFE/RL reported.

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Kyrgyzstan: former top Atambayev official faces corruption charges

  • Written by Nurjamal Djanibekova

BISHKEK (TCA) — Another loyalist of the former president has come under fire in Kyrgyzstan, which only proves the widening rift between the incumbent president and his predecessor. We are republishing this article on the issue, written by Nurjamal Djanibekova, originally published by Eurasianet:

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Afghanistan resurrecting the country’s largest hydropower plant

  • Written by TCA

KABUL (TCA) — Naghlu Hydropower Plant (NHPP), Afghanistan’s largest hydropower plant, has restarted operations of one of its four turbines after being nonfunctional since 2012, providing electricity for thousands in the three provinces of Kabul, Kapisa, and Nangarhar. The rehabilitation of the NHPP is considered a great achievement in the development of Afghanistan’s hydropower infrastructure, the World Bank reported on its website.

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US sanctions may affect trade along India-Iran-Afghanistan corridor

  • Written by TCA

KABUL (TCA) — Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) says the trade volume between Afghanistan and Iran is increasing but US sanctions on Tehran may affect trade relations between the two neighboring countries, Afghan broadcaster TOLOnews reported.

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Kazakhstan makes agreements with foreign companies at Astana Economic Forum

  • Written by TCA

ASTANA (TCA) — Within the framework of the Astana Economic Forum last week, Saparbek Tuyakbaev, the chairman of Kazakh Invest national company for investment support and promotion, signed memorandums of cooperation with the investment fund Da Vinci Capital, companies ReEN Partners Joint Venture and As Asia, and an agreement with the Kazakh-Slovenian Business Club, the official website of the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan reported.

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Kazakhstan: media watchdogs urge government to revise 'false information' law

  • Written by TCA

ASTANA (TCA) — A coalition of 26 international press freedom organizations has called on Kazakhstan authorities to review recent civil and criminal actions taken against two popular independent media outlets and revise legislation used to silence the media, RFE/RL reported.

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Kyrgyzstan: power plant blame game threatens political showdown

  • Written by Nurjamal Djanibekova

BISHKEK (TCA) — The modernization of Bishkek’s heat and power plant by a Chinese company has led to a scandal and a corruption case in Kyrgyzstan, which has involved several high-ranking officials. We are republishing this article on the issue, written by Nurjamal Djanibekova, originally published by Eurasianet:

What should a pair of pliers cost?

Questions like these are at the heart of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry in Kyrgyzstan on the recent contentious modernization of a power plant in the capital.

The hearings, which were occasioned by a cataclysmic breakdown at the plant in January, have revived a political scandal that is threatening to engulf a raft of top officials from a previous ruling administration and are raising questions about the nation’s relations with China.

Bishkek thermal power plants, or TETs, as it is known universally in its Russian-language acronym, keeps the city habitable. As well as providing electricity, it also pumps heated water into apartments. The Soviet-built facility dating to the 1960s had long been in need of a spruce-up, however.

It was only in recent years that there was any firm progress on the renovation. China’s government would lend large sums of cash to fund it, but with one catch. Beijing would get to choose who would do the work.

A precedent for this model was set by a project to build the Datka-Kemin high-voltage power line, which joined power grids in the north and south of Kyrgyzstan in 2015. The state-run Exim Bank of China lent $389 million — at 2 percent annual interest to be paid back within 20 years — and the work was done by a company called Tebian Electric Apparatus (TBEA).

When the line was completed, TBEA began to look around for other contracts in Kyrgyzstan’s energy sector, which is how the TETs deal happened.

Lobbying for China?

The parliamentary inquiry on TETs that began on May 10 has a few broad goals. One is to understand specifically how the modernization contract was doled out. Another is whether shortcomings in the work are what caused the breakdown in January that left around 200,000 homes heatless for about five days just as temperatures outside had dropped to almost -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit).

Among the people summoned to give testimony in parliament were the recently fired prime minister, Sapar Isakov, and two former occupants of that office, Jantoro Satybaldiyev and Temir Sariyev. All were somehow involved the TETs reconstruction initiative.

Much of the indignation has centered on the fact that the government not only appears never to have considered alternative contractors to TBEA, but that it even rejected other options out of hand. The contract was not put out for tender. Lawmakers have heard how another Chinese company, China Machinery Engineering Company, or CMEC, had offered to do the same work for $30 million cheaper.

Blame for this is being placed at the feet of Isakov, a 40-year-old whose rapid rise through the ranks ended with an even-more rapid fall last month, when he was fired as premier by lawmakers. In one of his jobs before being appointed prime minister in August 2017, Isakov was the presidential administration’s point-man on foreign investments.

Speaking in parliament, Isakov said it was the Chinese government that had demanded TBEA be exclusively granted the TETs contract and that no credit would be forthcoming otherwise.

“There is a lot of inaccurate information around about [supposed] lobbying for this agreement. The choice of TBEA was the official position from China and we could not change this. They sent three notes to our department informing us of this. My task was to forward this position to the president,” Isakov said.

MPs are not entirely convinced by this explanation and point to other related issues, such as the fact that the loan deal does not designate Kyrgyzstan as a sovereign entity but a private party. Should any legal dispute arise, it will not be resolved at a diplomatic level or in an international tribunal but in a Hong Kong court.

And then there is the matter of Kyrgyzstan’s mounting debt pile, which the TETs loan has done little to resolve. The loan came to $386 million. Within 20 years, Bishkek will have to pay back $480 million, accounting for interest.

“I simply do not want to believe that you could have acted in this way,” said Almaz Toktorov, a member of the Kyrgyzstan party. “Every year, we run a deficit of 20 billion som ($293 million). How are we to pay for this credit?”

Proponents of the modernization are exasperated by such arguments, reasoning that the loan was offered at highly preferential terms and that the government would not otherwise have been able to afford urgently needed work. Satybaldiyev, the former prime minister who signed the modernization deal with TBEA in 2013, said that his government actually managed to negotiate $10 million off the initial estimate.

Inefficiencies

Nurlan Omurkul uulu, who headed the TETs from January 2017 until his dismissal following the plant breakdown this year, takes issue with irregularities in the preparation for the renovation and with how money was spent.

“There was no project design as such before the modernization. The design was developed in parallel [with the modernization work], which is something that the Chinese company got permission to do from the government. The personnel that was responsible for overseeing the work could not do it to absolute satisfaction, because they had no documents to use as reference,” Omurkul uulu told Eurasianet.

Omurkul uulu has emerged as perhaps the most persistent gadfly of the modernization’s defenders. Immediately after he was fired, he caused considerable outcry by going public with documents showing the exact amounts TBEA paid for various items and services. There were pliers bought for more than $600 and fire extinguishers costing $1,600.

“We only learned about the prices after the TETs was inaugurated on December 27, 2017,” he said. “We told the management at Electrical Stations that the prices were high, and they told us not to worry about the financial side of things and to stick to the technical work.”

Electrical Stations is a company one notch higher up from TETs in the hierarchy managing Kyrgyzstan’s power-generating facilities and runs several similar plants across the country. When Omurkul uulu first raised the outcry about the budget breakdown, the company was sanguine, saying the final cost was justified by all the high-tech specifications.

“For $386 million, we get video cameras for use at high temperatures in the power plants’ boiler rooms. For $386 million, we get pliers suitable for industrial use. The entire project cost $386 million,” Electrical Stations said in a statement.

Human error

So why did the plant break down?

Officials at the time insisted it had nothing to do with the renovation. That project consisted in part of replacing eight old boilers with two new ones. Another eight old aging boilers remained in place, however. When the malfunction occurred, six old boilers and one of the new boilers were knocked offline, dramatically limiting operational capacity. Water pumped out of the facility dropped from its normal 80 degrees Celsius to around half that temperature.

Omurkul uulu said that TBEA failed to build an additional chemical unit for pre-processing water to be pumped through the boilers, as required. The absence of that unit meant water was not coursing through the system at the required levels and that this may have been the cause of the malfunction, he said.

“I have kept seven or eight letters and meeting memorandums where it is specifically stated that we need to build a chemical unit. But they only began to build it in the summer before the accident happened, and now, for some unknown reason, they have halted construction,” Omurkul uulu said.

Omurkul uulu’s replacement, Alexei Voropayev, quickly toed the government line, insisting that the whole episode was down to “human error.”

Firings, detentions and blame

A number of people, including several top officials at Electrical Stations, were detained in the wake of the plant breakdown. They face charges of embezzling funds allocated for the 2017-18 heating season. But MPs are demanding that prosecutors, the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, and the Audit Chamber investigate further.

And this is where the whole affair is becoming intensely political. Many of the former members of the elite seemingly in the potential crosshairs are individuals that have at one time or another served under former president Almazbek Atambayev, who ended his only permitted term in November. The former president and his successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, are long-time associates and ostensibly allies, although a decided chill has descended between the pair in recent weeks. This disaccord stems in large part from Jeenbekov’s relentless efforts to root out Atambayev’s stay-behind cronies, whom the incumbent appears to see as a check on his authority.

Isakov, the point-man on foreign investments under Atambayev, has twice been summoned by the GKNB for questioning over the TETs affair. He has not been charged with any offense. After his second session of questioning, on May 14, he told reporters cryptically that he had while in office “shielded” Jeenbekov, who was himself prime minister until August, when he declared his run for the presidency.

“If we are to be entirely fair, they should question everybody who signed agreement documents. And that includes everybody who approved the ratification immediately in three readings. And those who were not scrupulously vetting the implementation process, putting proper controls in place,” Isakov said.

According to former MP Omurbek Abdyrakhmanov, who was one of only seven legislators to oppose the TBEA deal in 2013, it is his former colleagues who are the biggest culprits.

“This was a scam from the get-go. This company worked the MPs, brought them over to China. Our MPs went there, toured Hong Kong, stayed in five-star hotels, received presents,” Abdyrakhmanov said. “Anywhere else in the world you would call this bribery. So criminal cases should be filed against the deputies. But now these MPs are making themselves out to be clean and pure. So why did they go and ratify this deal?”

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