Kyrgyzstan's former president pledged to "stand to the end" Wednesday as parliament prepared to lift his immunity, paving the way for prosecution and possible instability in the fragile Central Asian state.
The state prosecutor has charged 62-year-old Almazbek Atambayev with corruption on the basis of accusations levelled against him by a parliament loyal to successor Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a former ally turned foe.
If the legislature strips him of his immunity in a vote that could happen as early as this week, Atambayev can be prosecuted, raising the stakes in a drawn-out power struggle with Jeenbekov.
"I am not afraid of anything in this world. I've been in jail, had attacks on my life, I was poisoned," Atambayev, who served as president from 2011 to 2017, told reporters at his residence in the village of Koi-Tash near the capital Bishkek.
"If I submit to this mafia clan then maybe half the population of Kyrgyzstan will fall," he said in a reference to the Jeenbekov administration.
Atambayev said he was ready to "stand to the end" to defend his honour.
Several hundred supporters have gathered at Atambayev's residence in the foothils of Kyrgyzstan's lush Tien Shan mountains, where a nomadic yurt has been converted into a press centre and a venue for political gatherings.
One solidly built sportsman Rinat Djancharov said he had arrived from Talas, a city 300 kilometres (186 miles) west of the capital by mountainous roads, in order to show "moral and physical support" for Atambayev.
"I couldn't sit at home and watch this threat (to Atambayev) from the government," the 36-year-old said.
"We will fight if they attack us," Djancharov added.
Atambayev's spokeswoman knocked back suggestions that a pile of large, concrete blocks spotted at the residence were part of preparations to resist arrest.
- 'Only needed power' -
Long in opposition, Atambayev became Russia-allied Kyrgyzstan's first elected president to hand over power peacefully in 2017, following revolutions in 2005 and 2010.
But he is also a symbol of the impoverished Central Asian nation's rough and tumble politics that has stymied development and allowed corruption to flourish.
He was active in securing Jeenbekov's election victory in 2017 during a feisty campaign that saw a criminal case opened against the main opposition candidate, who Atambayev smeared repeatedly in public.
Atambayev acknowledged on Wednesday that Jeenbekov had been a personal friend before the public fallout, roiling the country's jittery political elite.
He said Jeenbekov should have been "an older brother to the government" as president, but instead moved to dismiss and jail the former leader's ally, 41-year-old prime minister Sapar Isakov, on corruption charges.
Other Atambayev allies have also been arrested.
Like Atambayev before him, Jeenbekov has been accused of using the investigative bodies to get rid of political opponents.
"Now I understand that this person only needed power," Atambayev said.
Jeenbekov, who hails from the south of the country, has accused Atambayev of seeking to dominate him.
Atambayev, a northerner, said that he feared Jeenbekov's presidency had widened a long-standing rift between the north and south that "wasn't a problem" during the last few years of his presidency.
Atambayev's critics say that he is actively exploiting these regional divisions as he seeks to bolster his weakened public standing.
The conflict between the two men is likely to be watched with apprehension in Russia and China, whose political and economic interests in the country deepened during Atambayev's rule.
But Atambayev said he was not concerned about the geopolitical implications of the struggle.
"Of course I have the best feelings and relations towards the Russian leadership, but we need to focus on the situation inside the country," Atambayev said.
"Innocent people are simply being thrown in jail."