No Comment — December 3, 2007, 10:17 am

Who Killed Alisher Saipov?

In a rite common both to the Slavic and Muslim cultures of Central Asia, the family and friends of a departed gather on the fortieth day following his death. A meal is eaten, prayers are said, the departed is remembered. A sense of recognition of the finality of death settles in—it becomes somehow more an accepted reality than at the time of the funeral itself. Tomorrow marks the fortieth day following the death of the journalist Alisher Saipov, who was assassinated in the Central Asian city of Osh in the evening of October 24. Saipov’s name will be intoned, his work and life will be remembered, and one question with hover over this process: Who killed Alisher Saipov?

Saipov left behind a wife and a 3-month-old daughter, but there’s little doubt at this point that he was killed because of his professional insights. Saipov was a journalist. In a period of a few years he had established himself as one of the world’s best reporters covering the murky world of Uzbekistani politics. He is known to have provoked the ire of Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov, repeatedly. And Saipov’s departure has left a huge hole in coverage of internal affairs in Uzbekistan. The white noise generated by Uzbekistan’s state media is still there. But the courageous, independent voice that patiently parsed it and told readers around the world what was really happening has gone silent.

Today David Stern reports on the Saipov case in the New York Times.

The shooting was apparently the first contract killing of a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, a country known for its relative media freedom compared with its authoritarian neighbors, and it sent shock waves through the region and beyond. The American Embassy in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, joined by the European Union and the British government, called for a thorough investigation of the “outrageous crime.” The Kyrgyz president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, announced that he was taking personal responsibility for the inquiry.

Among many international observers and the country’s news media, primary suspicion has fallen on the Uzbek security services. Mr. Saipov, who was a Kyrgyz citizen and an ethnic Uzbek, was a well-known opponent of the government of the Uzbek president, Islam A. Karimov. His shooting, they maintain, is evidence of the long reach of the National Security Service of Uzbekistan, or S.N.B., using its Russian initials. Uzbekistan strives to suppress all opposition voices, even those outside the country. Although no proof has emerged of any Uzbek link, proponents of this theory say that they believe the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman for human rights, Tursunbai Bakiruulu, says he believes firmly that the S.N.B., Uzbek’s successor to the K.G.B., ordered Mr. Saipov’s death. “Logically there is only one scenario,” he said, though he conceded that he had no evidence. The Kyrgyz-Uzbek border is porous, and Uzbek agents operate freely in Kyrgyzstan’s section of the Ferghana Valley, numerous specialists and diplomats interviewed for this article said.

A month ago I sat across the table of a Lebanese restaurant in downtown Bishkek discussing the Saipov case with Stern. We shared notes. The fact that Kyrgyz President Bakiev personally was assuming responsibility for the investigation was quite significant, I thought. An officer of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry who was involved in the investigation had stressed to me that Uzbek officials were extremely concerned about the investigation and where it might lead, he said. They were explicit and quite adamant: “This investigation must show that Saipov was deeply involved with Islamic extremist organizations, and that one of them is responsible for his death.” “Why do you think they’re so frantically peddling this story?” he asked, “Perhaps because they’re concerned about where a fair investigation might lead?” The officer, like all the others with whom I spoke, strongly suspected that Uzbek officials were behind the murder, but he had no evidence. He also had no doubt that his president would be extremely accommodating of Uzbek concerns. Kyrgyzstan is, after all, a small country. Uzbekistan is the traditional regional hegemon.

He was, however, completely dismissive of the analysis offered by the Uzbeks. “The idea that an Islamic extremist organization would contract for $10,000 or more with a professional hit team is very far-fetched. They’d do the job themselves.”

As the fortieth day commemoration approaches, there is very little hard evidence about Saipov’s murderers. But Stern’s report nails the current status perfectly. Everyone who’s seriously studied the case harbors exactly the same suspicions.

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