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Kyrgyz opposition leader convicted ahead of election

BISHKEK (Reuters) - A court in Kyrgyzstan sentenced opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev to eight years in prison for corruption and fraud on Wednesday, two months ahead of a presidential election in which he planned to run.

FILE PHOTO: Omurbek Tekebayev during the first session of parliament in Bishkek, November 10, 2010. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

The Central Asian republic’s pro-Russian President, Almazbek Atambayev, is barred from running in the Oct. 15 election and is backing an ally. Tekebayev is one of Atambayev most outspoken critics.

The state security service detained 58-year-old Tekebayev, who leads the Ata Meken (Fatherland) party’s parliamentary faction, in February after state prosecutors accused him of taking a $1 million bribe from a Russian businessman in 2010.

Then a senior member of an interim government, Tekebayev promised the man he would be able to take over a local telecommunications company, prosecutors alleged.

Tekebayev denied wrongdoing and described his case as politically motivated. His lawyer said he would appeal Wednesday’s verdict.

Tekebayev said in court he had been at odds with Atambayev since 2010 when they shared power in an interim cabinet after violent protests toppled the previous president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Tekebayev was the main author of a new constitution adopted after Bakiyev’s removal from office. Atambayev introduced amendments to it that boosted the power of the executive via a referendum which he won in December.

Some of his critics now accuse him of seeking to retain political power after October by taking on the role of prime minister, a switch that President Vladimir Putin engineered in Russia in 2008.

Atambayev has denied having such plans.

His Social Democratic party has nominated Kyrgyzstan’s current Prime Minister, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, as its candidate for the October election.

Surrounded by autocracies, the mostly Muslim nation of 6 million is a parliamentary republic where two previous presidents have been toppled by protests.

A former Soviet republic whose economy heavily depends on gold mining, it hosts a Russian military airbase and is a close political ally of Moscow.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by John Stonestreet