By Bruce Pannier
(RFE/RL) — On September 12, Kyrgyz journalist Zulpukar Sapanov was sentenced to four years in prison after being found guilty of inciting hatred between religious groups.
The basis for the court decision was Sapanov’s book Kydyr Sanjyrasy (Genealogy of the Forefather Kydyr), which dealt with the pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions among the Kyrgyz people.
The book proposed that the Kyrgyz people came from a respected (and likely mythical) holy person, Kydyr-Ata, and Sapanov asked if “maybe Kydyr is the true God and Allah is Satan?”
The book was published in August 2016 and several newspapers published excerpts, quickly attracting the attention of religious scholars in Kyrgyzstan.
Some of these religious scholars appealed to the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) to take action against Sapanov.
Prominent among these theologians were Kadyr Malikov — a vocal opponent of radical Islam who was attacked by alleged extremists in Bishkek on November 26, 2015, and spent time in the hospital with knife wounds to his face and neck — and Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a member of parliament who once burned an Israeli flag at a press conference.
The SCNS summoned Sapanov for questioning in February and his home was later searched.
The SCNS assembled a panel of religious experts, including Malikov and Bakir uulu, to review Sapanov’s book and these experts concluded that Sapanov’s writing did constitute incitement of religious hatred.
A case was filed with the Prosecutor-General’s Office with the prosecution initially demanding Sapanov be imprisoned for six years.
Sapanov says he has read the Koran, the Bible, the Jewish holy book the Torah, and has researched ancient Kyrgyz history. He mentions Tengri, considered by pre-Islamic Turkic cultures of Inner Asia to be a, or the, god, in his book also.
He contends his book was meant to help unite the Kyrgyz people by providing a better understanding of their common past, not to divide religions.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a statement on September 14 criticizing the verdict.
“Although Kyrgyzstan boasts of being an island of free speech in Central Asia, a court in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, passed the sentence on 12 September,” RSF said. “The judges said the book ‘downplays Islam’s role as a religion and fosters a negative attitude towards Muslims.'”
On September 18, Kyrgyzstan’s ombudsman, Kubat Otorbaev, called on the court system to “review [Sapanov’s] verdict and free him from custody.”
Otorbaev said, “One could characterize the court decision on the journalist [Sapanov] as being a return to the inquisition.”
At the Qishloq we’ve been watching the case against Sapanov with great concern.
It does seem similar in some ways to the 1925 case of the state of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes, better known in history as the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Scopes was a substitute high school teacher in Tennessee who taught Darwin’s theory of evolution in defiance of state laws at the time, which specified only the Bible’s version of creation could be taught in schools.
The trial quickly evolved into a case of religion versus science; in this instance, science lost, and Scopes was forced to pay a $100 fine, which was a sizeable amount of money in those days.
Sapanov did his research and his book is based on the conclusions he drew; it nearly goes without saying that in a free society one should be free to write books or articles with an opposing point of view, leaving detractors to simply dismiss whatever they don’t agree with.
The verdict in the Sapanov case is likely to have a chilling effect on writers, journalists, or intellectuals who plan on publishing historical research.
They now must consider their works could be reviewed by state religious experts and declared heretical, in which case they could face the same fate as Sapanov.
RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report.
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