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May 6, 2012 6:30 pm
With parliamentary elections in Mongolia two months away, the capital is humming with campaign preparations.
But in a jail cell on the edge of Ulan Bator, the capital, the situation of a former president charged with corruption threatens to overshadow the vote and highlights the turbulent politics of this young, mineral-rich democracy.
The charges against Nambaryn Enkhbayar make it the highest-level corruption case that Mongolia has experienced since it split from the Soviet Union 20 years ago and are proving to be a severe test of its legal and democratic structures.
Mr Enkhbayar, who had been planning to run for a parliamentary seat in the election, began a hunger strike on Friday to protest against what he says are the denial of basic legal rights, including the right to meet regularly with his lawyers.
“I was illegally assaulted and detained by the rulers of Mongolia’s oligarchic government,” Mr Enkhbayar wrote in an open letter announcing his hunger strike. The former president believes his political opponents have targeted him because they seek “to hide the crimes they have committed in order to obtain their seats”.
Mongolia is one of a small handful of functioning Asian democracies, and its political system revolves around parliamentary elections held every four years – the next is due on June 28 – and presidential elections a year later.
A central issue in this year’s election is the management of Mongolia’s vast mineral resources, which includes the Tavan Tolgoi coking mine that is due to list in London early next year, as well as Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine.
Mongolia’s anti-corruption watchdog has charged Mr Enkhbayar with three instances of improperly using his time in office to benefit himself and his family, and arrested him in a dawn raid on April 13.
The former president’s lead defence lawyer says the case has been marred by procedural irregularities, including a failure to produce a written detention order before the arrest, and plans to ask for the case to be dismissed.
Before his arrest Mr Enkhbayar was among the top two or three most popular politicians in the country, according to independent polls. After leaving office in 2009, when he was defeated by Tsakhia Elbegdorj, the current president, Mr Enkhbayar formed an independent party, which has gained slightly in popularity since his detention.
Polls show Mongolia’s two leading political parties will be closely matched in the upcoming election, a situation that can make independent parties powerful because neither major party has enough votes to form a government.
Mongolia has struggled with corruption, and ranks 120th out of 182 countries worldwide in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Privately, many in Ulan Bator say Mr Enkhbayar, regardless of the merits of the charges against him, was not any different from other politicians in that respect.
“Mr Enkhbayar definitely did a lot for corruption in this country to blossom,” said Sumati Luvsandendev, a respected pollster and commentator in Ulan Bator. “But those who put him in prison did such a bad job that it upset everyone ... People have certain extrapolations. If an ex-president can be treated this way then how will an ordinary citizen be treated?”
Mr Enkhbayar’s treatment by authorities calls into question the strength of the country’s democratic institutions, according to Mark Minton, a former US ambassador to Mongolia who worked there while Mr Enkhbayar was president.
“This is pretty rough, even by the rough and tumble standards of young democracies,” Mr Minton said, referring to Mr Enkhbayar’s case. “Because the process has been so irregular and so dangerous to the defendant, it opens the door to entertaining some political explanations as the why this process is so severe.”
Mr Enkhbayar’s son, Batshugar Enkhbayar, said on Sunday that his father’s health was failing as he entered his fourth day of a hunger strike with no food or water.
“All the accusations against my father are false, and the process of detaining my father broke the law,” Batshugar said.
Mr Enkhbayar has engaged Debevoise and Plimpton, a law firm, to help advise on the case, and Lord Goldsmith, the former UK attorney-general, will arrive in Ulan Bator on Monday to assist.
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