Many in Kyrgyzstan were astonished when Aziz Batukaev was released from jail.
Batukaev, after all, was notorious -- an ethnic Chechen crime boss with a long history of drug trafficking and ties to violent crime, including the 2006 murders of a parliamentary deputy and a state prison official.
But court officials in the northern city of Naryn, where Batukaev was serving a 16-year sentence, saw it differently. They had medical documents asserting the crime boss was suffering from acute leukemia, and said he needed to be released immediately in order to seek medical care.
In early April, Batukaev walked out of Naryn prison and was escorted to a chartered plane waiting to fly him to Chechnya.
His red-carpet departure sparked an outcry among Kyrgyz lawmakers, who questioned Batukaev’s diagnosis and accused the government of facilitating his premature release.
On May 30, the Kyrgyz parliament went a step further, voting to recommend the immediate resignation of nearly a dozen high-ranking officials who they say helped usher a perfectly healthy Batukaev out of jail and out of the country, in a plan lawmakers wryly called "Operation: Free Batukaev."
The parliamentary resolution calls for the dismissal of Deputy Prime Minister Shamir Atakhanov, Interior Minister Abdylda Suranchiev, Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, and prison chief Zarylbek Rysaliev, among others.
The vote followed a day-long parliamentary debate on May 29 in which lawmakers confronted officials with evidence of Batukaev’s good health -- and a photograph of the crime boss in his Naryn prison cell, dragging on a cigarette while sitting next to a table groaning with alcohol and platters of sumptuous food.
Deputies also aired videos of Batukaev’s seamless departure from the prison in Naryn, accusing prison chief Rysaliev of personally providing Batukaev with a passport and escorting him to the airport, a claim Rysaliev denies.
A surveillance video aired during the parliamentary session shows a convoy of automobiles, including Audis and a white Toyota SUV, entering the prison grounds and departing several minutes later.
Lawmakers argued that the case had done irreparable damage to Kyrgyzstan’s credentials as Central Asia’s sole democratic standout.
DeputyKanybek Imanaliev of the Ar-Namys party accused Rysaliev and Atakhanov of "damaging the dignity of our country."
Omurbek Tekebaev, the head of the Ata-Meken faction, said, "We thought we had launched an irreversible war against organized crime. But Batukaev’s release proves we’ve been defeated."
Batukaev's release came amid a heavily publicized government anticorruption campaign led by President Almazbek Atambaev, who has made a priority of the issue since taking office in December 2011.
Atambaev has frequently accused politicians of harboring ties to Batukaev and another notorious crime boss, Kamchybek Kolbaev, both of whom were seen as close to former President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Bakiev was ousted in bloody public riots in 2010 and has since been convicted in absentia of abuse of power.
Batukaev's release has stirred fresh speculation that the pro-Bakiev camp remains a force in Kyrgyz politics. Some lawmakers have accused officials of accepting hefty bribes -- from Chechen authorities or Batukaev himself -- in exchange for his release.
Others suggest that officials may simply have been eager to rid themselves of someone who may have known more than was comfortable about ties between Kyrgyz politicians and the criminal world.
Batukaev’s release briefly coincided with another major story in the region, when it was revealed that Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his family briefly lived next door to Batukaev in Tokmok, the northern Kyrgyz city that is home to the country’s largest Chechen community.
No closer ties between Batukaev and Tsarnaev have been uncovered, however.