When narcotics police raided the YouTube channel’s office in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, on 22 January, they forced all of the staff to lie on the ground and empty their pockets. It was at this moment that Bolot Temirov realised the police had just planted drugs on him in order to charge him with illegal possession – for which he could be jailed for up to five years.
Bolot Nazarov, a politically committed singer who works with Temirov Live, was also arrested and charged.
The crude police operation followed months of harassment and surveillance designed to intimidate Temirov Live, whose video reports have often targeted governmental corruption. A Temirov Live report posted two days before the raid focused on the head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), Kamchybek Tachiev, an ally of the president, and highlighted his questionable links with a state-owned oil company.
The GKNB, which links all of the country's domestic intelligence agencies, has repeatedly denied any involvement in the raid.
“What with planting evidence, arbitrary judicial proceedings, illegal surveillance, disclosure of confidential information, unjustified seizure and blackmail – the shady methods used by GKNB agents and the police to silence one of Kyrgyzstan’s few investigative media outlets are unacceptable,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We demand the withdrawal of the charges against this media outlet’s founder, Bolot Temirov, and his colleague, Bolot Nazarov, and the creation of a commission of inquiry into police misconduct during the raid.”
Illegal search and arrest
Many of the legal procedures governing searches were not respected during this operation. It was carried out at night without a warrant from an investigating judge. The legitimacy of the use of an emergency provision to conduct the search is disputed by the lawyers representing Temirov and Nazarov. Their detention was also marked by irregularities as the police did not tell them why they were arrested, and Temirov's lawyer was unable to meet his client for several hours. These procedural violations are to be examined in court on 15 February.
Released on bail the next day, Temirov and Nazarov are facing up to five years in prison on a charge of “illegal possession of drugs.” Temirov is banned from leaving the capital pending trial while Nazarov is under house arrest.
Surveillance cameras, computers and other equipment with no connection to the drug possession investigation were confiscated during the raid. In the following days, “data that came from computers belonging to the editorial staff that were seized during the search was published online,” Temirov's lawyer told RSF. He said he had filed a complaint about these leaks of confidential documents, and he reported that other information “collected by the special services during surveillance and listening operations has been disseminated on the Internet.”
Journalists spied on
According to a report published by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the premises of Temirov Live were often spied on last autumn by individuals in vehicles parked outside.
It has emerged that a woman working for Temirov Live was subjected to sex video blackmail by a GKNB agent with whom she had an intimate relationship. Threatened with seeing the video posted online, she gave a written undertaking to inform the GKNB about Temirov Live activities. The video was eventually posted on pro-government Facebook pages and, last week, Temirov filed an invasion of privacy complaint with the Bishkek prosecutor’s office.
It also emerged that Temirov’s home had been bugged for weeks when a relative discovered surveillance equipment – linked to an online server storing the recordings – in his home in December. The hacked personal data is now fuelling a cyber-harassment campaign by nationalist propaganda websites, which accuse Temirov of being a “traitor” in the service of foreign interests.
The interior minister has said the police could be sanctioned if a judicial inquiry establishes that drugs were planted on Temirov. Two police officers who posted a video of Temirov’s medical examinations on social media – after it was doctored to create the impression he had consumed drugs – have already been sanctioned, the public prosecutor said without specifying the nature of the sanctions.
Kyrgyzstan is ranked 79th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.