Ex-Leader’s Detention Tests Mongolia’s Budding Democracy
Mongolia’s previous president has spent more than a week on a hunger strike, protesting a detention that he says is aimed at preventing him from running in the country’s coming parliamentary election.
With the health of Nambaryn Enkhbayar, the former president, deteriorating rapidly, the government is holding firm, throwing Mongolia’s young democracy into turmoil in a crisis freighted by dueling accusations of corruption and human rights abuses.
“This is likely to open a Pandora’s box,” said Mark C. Minton, a former American ambassador to Mongolia. “It will do no good for Mongolia’s reputation and due process or rule of law, which is already shallowly rooted.”
In an eerie echo of a political protest in Ukraine, Mr. Enkhbayar, who served as prime minister before leading the country as president for four years until 2009, has refused to cooperate with his interrogators, who barred his lawyers during the questioning. The confrontation intensified when Mr. Enkhbayar, 53, stopped eating and drinking after a local court extended his detention until the eve of the June 28 parliamentary election.
The drama began one evening last month when men from Mongolia’s anticorruption agency dragged Mr. Enkhbayar from his car in front of his parents’ home in the capital, Ulan Bator, and tried to arrest him. After his bodyguard intervened and the attempt failed, hundreds of police officers raided the house at dawn the next morning, witnesses say, and hauled the former president, shoeless and with a bag over his head, to jail. All of it was captured on live television.
Mongolia, a country with just three million people but abundant natural resources wedged between China and Russia, has been widely lauded by American officials as a bastion of democracy in a region where the rule of law and due process are rare.
That reputation is now being called into question. The government and its supporters see the jailing of Mr. Enkhbayar on corruption allegations as long-overdue justice for a man they say enriched himself and his family at the country’s expense. Mr. Enkhbayar’s allies say his detention is a naked attempt by the government to vanquish a political foe and a dangerous regression to practices honed during the Soviet era, which ended two decades ago.
“This is a purge,” his son Batshugar Enkhbayar, 25, an American-educated investment banker, said in a telephone interview. “The true motivation is purely to keep him away from the election and remove him from politics.”
The government, headed by Mr. Enkhbayar’s rival, President Tsakhia Elbegdorj, has remained largely silent on the matter.
Much is at stake in the parliamentary election, whose outcome will guide the exploitation of Mongolia’s vast deposits of coal, copper, uranium and gold. The country’s economy is booming as global demand soars.
But most Mongolians have yet to benefit from this wealth. In the capital, thousands of herders who left the countryside in recent years live in slums, while the elite drive sports utility vehicles along its crumbling streets and shop at Louis Vuitton and Armani stores.
Mining is a major source of contention for Mongolians, many of whom bristle at deals giving multinational corporations much of the spoils. Ivanhoe Mines of Canada, for example, owns a 66 percent stake in the Oyu Tolgoi mine, one of the world’s largest deposits of copper and gold. Mr. Enkhbayar was campaigning in opposition that deal.
Public frustration over corruption and poverty has a history of turning violent in Mongolia. Hundreds rioted during the last parliamentary elections four years ago when the leader of the Democratic Party, Mr. Elbegdorj, accused Mr. Enkhbayar’s government of voter fraud.
Mr. Elbegdorj was swept into power the next year, and the mutual enmity has only grown. After his defeat, Mr. Enkhbayar founded the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which is expected to play kingmaker after the parliamentary election.
So when Mongolia’s Independent Agency Against Corruption showed up last month forcefully demanding to question Mr. Enkhbayar, his supporters cried foul. The allegations, which relate to his time in office, include the purchase of a hotel and an accusation that he misdirected donations intended for a Buddhist monastery. Some complaints appear to be rather picayune, including suggestions that he used his authority to decrease a customs duty on the shipment to South Korea of eight copies of a book he had written.
To fight the allegations, Mr. Enkhbayar’s family has used its connections and media savvy to raise global attention, staging candlelight vigils at the prison gates and hiring a powerful legal team. One of Mr. Enkhbayar’s lawyers is Peter Goldsmith, a former British attorney general and a member of the House of Lords, who visited Mongolia but was not allowed to see his client. He called the accusations “insubstantial, stale and petty.”
Just as troubling, Mr. Goldsmith said, are Mr. Enkhbayar’s detention without formal charge and the mistreatment of his supporters. Mr. Enkhbayar’s party secretary was harassed after being called into a police station, and another party member was detained for collecting petition signatures, Mr. Goldsmith said.
“Everyone had hoped Mongolia had broken away from the Soviet chain,” he said in a phone interview. “But this is Soviet stuff.”
The saga surrounding Mr. Enkhbayar is similar, in the accusations and the protest, to the recent controversy in another erstwhile Soviet dominion, Ukraine. Last year, former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to prison in a case that critics say was driven by the political motives of her main rival, Ukraine’s president. To protest her imprisonment, which has drawn widespread international criticism, Ms. Tymoshenko began a hunger strike in April, agreeing to end her 20-day fast only after being transferred to a hospital.
Mr. Enkhbayar’s supporters have used his fast to highlight what they perceive to be evidence of government malfeasance. They are particularly suspicious of Bat Khurts, whom President Elbegdorj appointed deputy director of the anticorruption agency last year. A former director of Mongolia’s top spy agency, Mr. Khurts was arrested in Britain in 2010 in connection with the drugging and kidnapping of a Mongolian dissident seven years earlier.
According to the European arrest warrant, Mr. Khurts drove the kidnapped dissident from France to Berlin, where the man was trundled onto a Mongolian Airlines flight to Ulan Bator and forcibly repatriated. A British court extradited Mr. Khurts to Germany, where he was imprisoned. He was released last year.
After he began his hunger strike, Mr. Enkhbayar was moved to a hospital, but his family has been allowed to see him only briefly. “He’s very weak,” his son Batshugar said. The last time he saw his father, he said, a pair of interrogators sat in the room, one videotaping and the other writing down the conversation. The visit lasted 20 minutes.
Still, Mr. Enkhbayar’s hunger strike, said Mr. Minton, the former American ambassador, has left Mongolia’s government looking confused and uncoordinated. “They got a lot more than they bargained for,” he said.
By DAN LEVIN
Published: May 13, 2012