Official statements from President Sooronbay Jeenbekov asserted that his government will continue to guarantee freedom of expression and improve cooperation with civil society.
This update covers events from 30th April to 15th August 2018 and was prepared by Legal Prosperity Foundation and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR).
Official statements from President Sooronbay Jeenbekov asserted that his government will continue to guarantee freedom of expression and improve cooperation with civil society. And indeed, there have been some positive developments in this reporting period. However, criticism continues in relation to ongoing human rights violations, many but not all of which, are a legacy of former President Almazbek Atambayev.
On 19th July 2018, President Jeenbekov made a public statement, openly expressing his appreciation of civil society and civil society activists and stated his intention to "work with the civil sector, to be partners". He also reassured human rights activists of his "openness to constructive ideas and criticism".
President Jeenbekov’s meeting was organised with a wide range of representatives of civil society, not only with those who are uncritical of the government. During the meeting, President Jeenbekov said that he knows activists and human rights activists to be "people who are not indifferent to the future of the state, working in non-governmental organisations, with high intellectual potential". He also noted that "recently a strong civil society has emerged in Kyrgyzstan, and this is an achievement that we can be proud of. It is important to preserve and strengthen this potential, in the interests of the country”.
The head of state emphasised that participants at the meeting will be included in expert working groups which will study implementation of reforms and the tasks of state agencies. For example, after an individual meeting with human rights activist Nazgul Turdubekova, the President suggested she make a concrete proposal in relation to the promotion of children rights. In addition, he also suggested that Tamerlan Ibraimov, director of the Center for Political and Legal Studies, lead a working group on reform of police units to ensure road safety.
Civil society representatives commented on the positive change of direction under Jeenbekov. In addition, some believe that establishing further mechanisms of interaction and cooperation between civil society and the President will have a positive influence on societal development and democracy. A representative from civil society stated:
" Usually in the past, previous Presidents met once with representatives of civil society, made lots of promises, and that was it. This resulted in a split between the civil sector and the authorities."
However, others were more circumspect. One activist who was not invited to the meeting commented “today’s meeting was a pure formality. Why were the press not invited? What is there to hide? The meeting should have been held openly and transparently”.
Activist requested retrial and implementation of UN Human Rights Committee decision
Hadicha Askarova, wife of human rights activist Azimzhan Askarov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Kyrgyzstan, spoke at a meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. She recalled that in January 2017, the Chui Regional Court upheld the sentence on life imprisonment to Azimzhan Askarov, despite the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, which called for his immediate and unconditional release in April 2016. In addition, in April 2018, Hadicha Askarova appealed to President Jeenbekov, asking him to send her husband’s case and those of his seven co-defendants for independent review, re-investigation and retrial.
In the 2018 report "Nations in Transit", Freedom House stated that freedom of the media “suffered a major setback in 2017” due to the onerous fines imposed on media outlets as a results of defamation lawsuits and the closure of the critical TV outlet Sentyabr TV. Since President Jeenbekov took office in November 2017, the situation has improved in some respects.
In previous reports, IPHR and the Legal Prosperity Foundation noted that over the past two years, the number of claims against media outlets and journalists on issues regarding the defence of honour and dignity increased significantly in Kyrgyzstan. As the current legislation does not mandate a minimum or a maximum amount of compensation for moral damages, the courts have some discretion in the matter. According to a recent analysis, the courts previously awarded only a small percentage of the amount sought by the plaintiffs. However, in the cases related to claims for protection of the honour and dignity of former President Almazbek Atambayev, the requested amounts were awarded in full. Compensation awarded to Almazbek Atambaev's for the five claims filed on his behalf totals 40 million soms (around 576,973 USD).
The Assistant UN Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour, who visited Kyrgyzstan in May 2018, welcomed the retraction of some defamation cases against journalists, which “he hoped would be followed by the easing of restrictions”. He noted that the recent civil suits against news agencies had had the effect of "muzzling" them.
In a separate development, human rights movement, Bir Duino-Kyrgystan discovered in March 2018 that a report it had published in 2015 had been added to the list of banned materials in January 2017. The alternative report to the UN Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families prepared by the human rights movement Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan and the anti-discrimination center "Memorial" addressed the difficult conditions for Kyrgyz migrants in Russia and Kazakhstan, raising concerns about their labour and social rights. The addition of the report to the list of extremist materials is worrisome as the publication, duplication, distribution, storage, transfer, transportation and use of banned materials is a criminal offence in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstani linguistic and political science experts who examined the report concluded that it contains no information that would qualify as inciting ethnic or racial conflict. In fact, Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan’s lawyer Eric Iriskulbekov highlighted: "the expert examination only indicates that the report is one-sided but has nothing to do with extremism".
The authorities failed to notify Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan about the January 2017 decision to ban the report. Instead, in March 2018 Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan found out their report has been added to the list of extremist material by looking at the Ministry of Justice’s website. The Oktyabrsky District Court in Bishkek had banned the report on a complaint lodged by the Prosecutor General's Office, the State Committee for National Security and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. On 5th July 2018, the Bishkek City Court’s Judicial Board for Civil Cases denied Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan’s appeal against the January 2017 decision on the grounds that the period for lodging an appeal had passed. An appeal has been filed with the Supreme Court.
Blogger's extradition to Kazakhstan
On 27th June 2018, Kazakhstani civil society activist Murat Tungishbaev was extradited to Kazakhstan, where he is facing politically motivated charges. A month before, on 10th May 2018, officers of the State Committee for National Security detained Tungishbayev, on suspicion of having links with "Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan", a political opposition movement, which is banned in Kazakhstan. The extradition was made on the request of Almaty City Court in Kazakhstan. Tungishbaev claims that the authorities of Kazakhstan are persecuting him in retaliation for his blogging activities, as he reported on violations of human rights, restrictions of freedom of speech and political persecution in Kazakhstan.
Human rights organisations protested the failure by Kyrgyzstani authorities to fulfil their international human rights obligations as Tungishbaev is at risk of torture upon his arrival to Kazakhstan. Human Rights Watch said:
"Extraditing an activist to risk of torture, keeping a human rights defender locked up for life, banning rights defenders and journalists from Kyrgyzstan, restricting media freedoms, bride kidnapping, domestic violence – these and other rights abuses persist in the face of Kyrgyzstan leadership’s claims to “create a state where human rights are respected, on democratic principles.”
The Ombudsman (Akyikatchy) of the Kyrgyz Republic also criticised Murat Tungishtbaev’s extradition.
According to human rights activists, the extradition of Murat Tungishbaev is a stark reminder of how much more remains to be done to ensure the protection of basic human rights in Kyrgyzstan.
On 2nd May 2018, the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the Institute of Media Policy issued a statement, welcoming the decision of President Jeenbekov to withdraw the claim for compensation against journalist Kabay Karabekov, with the hope that this step would serve as an important example for other public figures. The statement called on the President to publicly declare his intention to adhere to constitutional principles guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of the media and the right of citizens to access to information.
During the meeting with representatives of civil society described in the Association section above, President Jeenbekov promised that he would not sue journalists and explained that he can accept justified criticism. He also promised to state his position regarding Article 4 of the Law "On Guarantees of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic", which obliges the Prosecutor General to protect the honour and dignity of the head of state through the court.
In relation to the prosecution of independent journalist Elnura Alkanova, previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Prosecutor General's Office initiated a criminal case against officers of the State Service for Combating Economic Crimes (GSPNS) for "Involving a person who is known to be innocent of criminal responsibility". The Prosecutor General sent the criminal case to the State Committee for National Security for further investigation. As previously reported, journalist Elnura Alkanova was charged in relation to her journalistic investigation of the privatisation of cottages in a suburb of Bishkek. In articles published on the website of the Fergana news agency, Alkanova referred to documents from the BTA bank in describing the violations committed during the transactions and the possible participation of people close to the Prime Minister.
In another case, the Prosecutor General initiated a criminal case against three Supreme Court judges, several officials from the Supreme Court and the Bishkek investigation detention facility for illegally detaining the blind poet Temirlan Ormukov in March 2018 for 12 days. The charges included “abuse of office", "exceeding official authority", "negligence" and "Illegal imprisonment or detention”. The case against the officials is being investigated by the State Committee for National Security.
As previously reported, a criminal case was brought against Ormukov under Article 329 of the Criminal Code, which criminalises "knowingly making a false report on the commission of a crime", on the basis of a complaint by a member of Parliament, whom the poet had accused of corruption The NGO Committee for the Protection of Freedom of Speech condemned the detention as “inhuman”.
Appalling! #Kyrgyzstan extradited blogger #MuratTungishbaev to #Kazakhstan, where he faces politically-motivated persecution & torture.— RSF_EECA (@RSF_EECA) June 27, 2018
Despite international law, helping dictators to chase their opponents is getting trendy across the region. Mukhtarly, Huseynli... STOP! https://t.co/avUzPMqZQG
Dozens of peaceful assemblies were held peacefully in Kyrgyzstan on issues of concern. A few examples of such demonstrations are as follows:
Forced participation in assembly
On 12th March 2018, the Ministry of Education issued an order to the four higher educational institutions in the capital city of Bishkek to recruit 70 students each to attend a rally in memory of the 2002 Aksy events which took place on 17th March near the Media Forum.
On 6th April 2018, the Prosecutor's Office of the Pervomaisky District of Bishkek responded to this event, highlighting that according to Article 34 of the Constitution no one can be forced to take part in an assembly. Article 148 of the Criminal Code establishes criminal liability for coercion to participate in meetings if these acts are committed by an official using his official position, punishable by a fine of three to five hundred minimal wages or by up to three years’ detention with no right to hold certain positions or engage in certain activities.
At the time of writing, there is no information about a case brought against officials from the Ministry responsible for forcing the students to participate in the protest.
According to CIVICUS Monitor research partners, the overall situation for civil society space in Kyrgyzstan has improved slightly in the reporting period. However, partners believe it is still too early to assess whether these improvements are part of a sustainable trend.
Civil society organisations in Kyrgyzstan have the right to operate without creating a legal entity and the law imposes no costs for registration.
Civil society organisations in Kyrgyzstan have the right to operate without creating a legal entity and the law imposes no costs for registration. In 2015, a law was proposed that would ban unregistered CSOs but it was later thrown out. Inspired by a similar law passed in Russia, the Kyrgyz parliament also recently considered a Foreign Agents Law to restrict foreign funding of NGOs. The law would have identified any CSO receiving foreign grants as “foreign agents” and would also impose heavy reporting requirements on NGOs. The Bill was thrown out in its final reading after CSOs heavily lobbied Parliament and government.
The authorities sometimes harass human rights defenders, especially those speaking out on violations against Uzbek people and lawyers. LGBTI people and groups representing them are not free and face much discrimination. In April 2015, the offices of LGBTI group Labrys were bombed. Violent nationalist groups such as Kalys are well-known for the use of inflammatory language against LGBTI organisations. In March 2015, two human rights lawyers sued the intelligence authority, the State Committee on National Security, after their homes were searched and confidential material seized. The court ruled that the search was illegal. In 2013 and 2014, other civil society activists also complained of government surveillance.
The Law on Peaceful Assembly guarantees the right to gather in public to demonstrate, but in practice, this right is violated by the authorities.
The Law on Peaceful Assembly guarantees the right to gather in public to demonstrate, but in practice, this right is violated by the authorities. Tight restrictions on freedom of assembly remain in place since the era of Kyrgyzstan’s former president Bakiyev who left office in 2010, however, those restrictions are not fully enforced today. Protests are allowed to take place with regularity, even though the police are known to arrest protestors and interfere with their activities. In 2014, for example, the government’s decision to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan sparked an outcry from pro-democracy CSOs who organised rallies, petitions and public debates. The government responded by arresting participants of peaceful flash mobs and rallies and clamping down on the organisations behind the campaign. The orchestration of counter-protests to dilute legitimate causes is increasingly a problem in Kyrgyzstan. Strikes are prohibited in many sectors of the economy, though workers’ right to organise generally exists.
Kyrgyzstan has a diverse media and in 2014, digital broadcasting was introduced, leading to better access to media for rural populations.
Kyrgyzstan has a diverse media and in 2014, digital broadcasting was introduced, leading to better access to media for rural populations. Despite this vibrant scene, journalists face interference in their work and are sometimes imprisoned. Since 2010, human rights defender and journalist Azimjon Askarov has been serving a life sentence following trumped-up charges of inciting violence and alleged complicity in the murder of a policeman. Askarov is well-known for his work documenting human rights violations and allegations of torture he made against the state authorities were never investigated. He applied for a retrial in 2016 but was unsuccessful. Government officials are also known to prevent media from accessing information. American journalist Umar Farooq was arrested on allegations that he possessed “extremist” materials and he was then deported for working without a licence. A journalist was awarded financial damages in June 2015 after the prosecutor general had sued him for defamation on behalf of the President. Uzbek-language media face persecution and almost ceased to exist after ethnic violence in 2010. The internet is unrestricted.