Civil society flags threats to democracy, human rights and the rule of law during transition period
This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Kyrgyzstan from October 2020 to January 2021. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
During the period covered by this update, Kyrgyzstan was in transition following the political crisis that emerged after the October 2020 parliamentary elections, when peaceful mass protests against the election outcome evolved into violent clashes with the police, where protesters seized government buildings and high-ranking officials resigned (see more in our special update). Sadyr Japarov, who rose to power during the crisis, won a landslide victory in the presidential election held on 10th January 2021 amid concerns about the lack of a level playing field and the misuse of public resources in his favour. Japarov also used his campaign platform to encourage voters to support a presidential governance system during a referendum held on the same day as the presidential election.
An overwhelming majority of the referendum participants supported presidential rule and a new constitution establishing such a system is now under consideration. A first draft constitution put forward in November 2020 drew heavy criticism, with its opponents warning that it would legitimise authoritarian rule and weaken human rights protection in Kyrgyzstan. Due to the criticism, plans to put this document up for a vote during the January 2021 referendum were abandoned and work on the draft constitution continues. Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has seen numerous constitutional reforms, with the current constitution having been adopted following the 2010 revolution.
Another measure criticised as inherently undemocratic was the parliament’s adoption of a law postponing new parliamentary elections until spring 2021. As a result, the current legislature will remain in office for several more months after its term formally ends and it will consider the new constitution. Although international constitutional experts concluded that this law threatened democratic principles, the Constitutional Chamber of Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court gave it the green light by deeming it constitutional.
Several pieces of legislation threatening freedom of expression and association remained under consideration, including a draft law on “manipulation of information” previously vetoed by the president and a draft law on NGOs, stalled since summer 2020. Civil society fears that these laws, if adopted, might be used as instruments of repression against those whose positions do not please the authorities. Human rights groups and labour organisations also rallied against a draft trade union law, which passed its second reading in parliament in November 2020. They criticised this law for establishing a monopoly on trade union activity and for allowing for undue interference in the activities of individual unions.
Intimidation and harassment of journalists, bloggers and other outspoken individuals were ongoing concerns. Media watchdogs continued to call for accountability for the threats and attacks targeting journalists during the election-related events in October 2020 and drew attention especially to online threats against journalists. There were also reports of increasing scrutiny and harassment of trade union activists, and a human rights defender remained under criminal investigation because of his efforts to hold security service officials accountable for torture and other unlawful methods of detention. The head of the security services pledged to end the questionable practice of pressuring social media users to apologise on camera for allegedly disseminating “false information” – a practice that flourished during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in summer 2020. The threat of repercussions nevertheless persisted against social media users critical of the authorities, in particular as the controversial law on “manipulation of information” (mentioned above) was still pending. The struggle for justice continued in the case of Azimjan Askarov, the human rights advocate who died in prison in July 2020 after being denied access to lifesaving treatment for his COVID-19 like symptoms.
A court case on defamation was still pending against two leading independent media outlets, sued for half a million USD because of their high-profile corruption investigation which implicates a former top customs official and his family. The case against them continued, although the ex-official faced criminal charges on corruption and confessed to these charges. In addition, he was designated under a US corruptions sanctions regime.
The international change.org site was blocked in Kyrgyzstan because of a petition posted on the site by a civil society activist in July 2020 calling for impeachment of the president. An appeal was pending against a September 2020 court decision that declared the petition site “extremist’’ and formalised the blocking of it.
The authorities had yet to ensure accountability for the use of violence by state and non-state actors in connection with the mass protests against the outcome of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, where one person died and hundreds were injured. In a more encouraging development, the Supreme Court overturned a lower-level court decision that had deemed lawful the actions of police during a women’s rights march on 8th March 2020. During that event, women’s rights activists were physically attacked by aggressive individuals opposing their march, and then detained, ill-treated and taken to court by law enforcement authorities.
During the reporting period, citizens actively exercised their freedom to hold peaceful assemblies on issues of concern to them, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. These assemblies included a series of so-called Sunday marches in the capital Bishkek, whose participants called for lawfulness during the post-crisis transition period, in particular with respect to the new constitution under consideration and the work of the outgoing parliament.
Political developments following October 2020 crisis
New presidential elections amid concerns for lack of level playing field
As covered previously in our special Monitor update, mass protests against the outcome of the parliamentary elections held on 4th October 2020 plunged Kyrgyzstan into a political crisis. This crisis resulted in the resignation of both the government and the president and Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power – a former MP who was freed from prison by his supporters during the turbulent post-election events (he was serving a 10-year sentence for hostage taking in connection with a protest against mining operations, charges which he has denied). Japarov initially assumed the role of both prime minister and acting president but subsequently stepped down as president to be able to run in the new presidential election held on 10th January 2021. On the same day that the presidential election took place, a referendum was also held, with citizens being asked to choose between a parliamentary and presidential system of governance. The current Constitution, which dates back to 2010, provides for a parliamentary system, although the president has de facto retained wide powers.
According to the official results, Japarov won the presidential election with 79 percent of the votes cast, while 81 percent of the referendum participants supported a presidential system. However, the voter turnout was low: below 40 percent in both the presidential election and the referendum.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) deployed a limited election observation mission to monitor the conduct of the presidential election and the referendum. The monitoring mission found that although the presidential election was generally well managed, its integrity was “weakened by a major imbalance in the outreach and visibility of the candidates as well as allegations of misuse of public resources”. The mission concluded that there was no level playing field, with the campaign being dominated by Sadyr Japarov, who had far greater resources at his disposal than the other contestants. The mission also expressed concern about the lack of critical reporting because of ongoing intimidation and attacks on media and journalists. With regard to the referendum, the ODIHR mission found that it was conducted in a manner that “diminished the voters’ opportunities to make an informed choice”, with the leading presidential candidate campaigning in support of the presidential model and few opportunities for those favouring a parliamentary model to make their voices heard.
#Kyrgyzstan’s 🇰🇬presidential election well run but impaired by uneven playing field for candidates, international observers say. Read the full statement here➡️https://t.co/4USh5pm27w. pic.twitter.com/uklScojlBT— OSCE/ODIHR (@osce_odihr) January 11, 2021
The ODIHR mission did not undertake a systematic or comprehensive observation of election day proceedings. In the limited number of polling stations that the mission visited, it reported some concerns about voter secrecy being compromised and a failure to implement protective measures against the spread of COVID-19. Civil society monitors carried out more systematic monitoring on election day. Those who took part in a monitoring initiative of the Kloop news agency, involving more than 1,500 observers deployed across the country, reported primarily violations of a technical nature such as those related to the failure of automatic ballot boxes. The organisation “Common cause”, whose 500 observers monitored the proceedings in over 50 polling stations, documented 62 violations, including technical violations, violations in the work of local election committees and violations of voter rights. The Central Commission for Elections and Referenda (CEC) said it had received a total of 50 complaints, 14 of which it referred to the police for further investigation.
Draft constitution heavily criticised
Based on the election results, Sadyr Japarov was sworn in as president on 28th January 2021, while a new constitution providing for a presidential system is currently being elaborated. A first draft constitution presented in November 2020 set out provisions significantly expanding the president’s powers, while limiting the role of the parliament and eroding checks and balances between the different branches of power. This draft constitution also placed strong emphasis on moral values, but weakened provisions protecting the rule of law and human rights and introduced new provisions that could be interpreted as allowing censorship.
The draft constitution drew much criticism, with its opponents expressing concerns that it would jeopardise earlier democratic gains and legitimise authoritarian rule in Kyrgyzstan. Critics dubbed the draft constitution "khan-stitution" – a reference to the previous autocratic rulers of Central Asia.
As a result of the criticism, the initial plans to put this draft constitution up for a vote during the January 2021 referendum were abandoned. Instead, at Japarov’s initiative, voters were asked to take a stand on their preferred system of governance, as described above. Vindicated by the overwhelming support for presidential rule expressed by voters, the work on the new constitution continued after the referendum, under the oversight of a so-called constitutional conference. The plan is to hold a referendum on the constitution at a later date, after the parliament has reviewed it.
On social media, Kyrgyzstan's new draft constitution has been dubbed a “Khanstitution” given the immense powers it shifts into the hands of the president.https://t.co/ZKRUTqGQ3d— The Diplomat (@Diplomat_APAC) November 23, 2020
In a statement issued following the January referendum, the EU called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to hold ‘’inclusive and transparent’’ discussions on the new constitution and to ensure that it provides for a presidential system that fully respects democratic principles, in line with Kyrgyzstan’s international commitments. The EU also called for ‘’maintaining dialogue with civil society’’.
Postponement of parliamentary elections raises serious concerns
After cancelling the results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, the CEC announced that new parliamentary elections would take place on 20th December 2020. However, the outgoing parliament sidestepped the CEC by promptly adopting a law [http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/112103] suspending constitutional legal provisions which regulate the timeframe for holding elections and postponed the conduct of parliamentary elections to the spring. According to this law, new elections will be held by 1st June 2021. In the meantime, the parliament formed based on the results of the 2015 elections will continue to operate and thus, also, consider the new draft constitution.
Individual lawmakers, lawyers and civil society activists questioned the legitimacy of this measure, arguing that the parliament was acting in violation of its powers as a caretaker body pending new elections. The chair of the Reform party, Klara Sooronkulova, and two lawyers challenged the controversial law adopted by the parliament by submitting an appeal to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.
#Kyrgyzstan’s caretaker parliament doesn't have the legitimacy to initiate far-reaching constitutional amendments - reforms shld be delayed until after new parliamentary elections, so there’s no doubt abt Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to #humanrights, says @hrw -https://t.co/H7x6vrPiga pic.twitter.com/7nD4FOWSZ2— Mihra Rittmann (@MihraRittmann) November 21, 2020
In response to a request from the president of the Constitutional Chamber, the Venice Commission -- an advisory body of the Council of Europe composed of independent constitutional law experts – issued an opinion (a so-called amicus curiae brief) on the controversial law. The Commission found that the law in question ‘’does not reflect genuine democratic principles, although it does not openly violate any explicit constitutional provision’’. The Commission noted that any suspension of elections “should be for the smallest time possible”, noting that the law adopted in Kyrgyzstan grants the current parliament up to eight months more in office. The Commission also stressed that the parliament only remains in office during the transition period and is onlyallowed to carry out limited functions and that a constitutional reform process such as the one now planned in Kyrgyzstan ‘’is beyond the scope of a continuing caretaker authority’’.
Despite the strong arguments presented by the Venice Commission, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court issued a ruling on 2nd December 2020, concluding that the controversial law did not contradict the constitution. The Constitutional Chamber recognised that postponing elections for “an unjustifiably long term” ‘’risks undermining voters' confidence in state institutions’’ and ‘’causes significant damage to democratic principles’’. However, it found that this was not a sufficient reason for deeming the law unconstitutional since it did not abolish regular elections altogether. The Chamber also found that there was a formal basis for adopting the contested law in an extraordinary, speedy procedure, citing that there was a “large-scale socio-political crisis” in Kyrgyzstan.
Threats and attacks against journalists
As reported in our special update on the post-election crisis in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020, journalists covering the election-related events were subjected to a series of threats and attacks. Both local and international media watchdogs called for investigations into these attacks and for perpetrators to be held accountable. However, law enforcement authorities have failed to take adequate measures in response to the attacks, resulting in impunity for the perpetrators. This inaction has reinforced concerns about the lack of protection of journalists in Kyrgyzstan.
On 2nd November 2020, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, several Kyrgyzstani media organisations issued a joint appeal, warning that impunity for attacks on journalists contributes to further violence. Media organisations called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to pay attention to cases of violence and pressure against journalists, to hold accountable those responsible for attacks and to ensure a safe and supportive working environment for journalists.
The Media Policy Institute and other organisations further sounded the alarm about increasing online attacks on journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders, stressing that such attacks also bring further risk of physical violence against those affected. The organisation noted that women journalists have been particularly frequent victims of online attacks.
❗️Онлайн-атаки на журналистов и активистов Кыргызстана подрывают демократию в нашей стране⤵️ pic.twitter.com/CipwCpl8aY— MediaPolicyInstitute (@MediaKg) December 1, 2020
A group of media organisations also expressed concern about comments that Sadyr Japarov made in a TV interview on 3rd November 2020. In this interview, the then acting president faulted Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for “strongly criticising him” and ‘’distorting his words’’. Following this interview, Radio Azattyk’s journalists faced increasing threats on social media, leading the media organisations to conclude that his comments had served as ‘’a signal’’ to his supporters. Media organisations called on Japarov to refrain from discrediting journalists and to “recognise and affirm” the important role of free media. Japarov’s press secretary subsequently stated that the acting president ‘’does not accept pressure against journalists” and that he “does not divide media into ‘convenient’ and ‘inconvenient’ ones”. At the same time, she said that, “along with freedom of expression, there should always be responsibility” and that media should report “impartially’’ and ‘’objectively’’ on “any topic’’.
Free speech violations in the name of combating “disinformation”
As covered before, parliament adopted new legislation on “manipulation of information” in June 2020, despite widespread criticism. This legislation requires the owners of internet resources to ensure that these resources are not used for the dissemination of information that is “false” or “not credible” - without defining these key concepts - and grants supervisory authorities power to block access to such information without a court decision. Media organisations fear that the law would be selectively enforced against those who publish information unfavourable to those in power. Following a campaign calling for a veto of the law, then President Sooronbay Jeenbekov sent it back to parliament for revision in August 2020. The parliamentary committee on social issues, education, culture and health care was due to begin reconsidering the draft law in mid-December 2020 but postponed its consideration following a request from the office of the then acting president. This office said that the working group set up to review the draft law needed more time.
В профильном комитете обсудят скандальный законопроект о манипулировании информацией. https://t.co/FCMlGqp4PC pic.twitter.com/o1cEaXfDjT— Kaktus Media (@kaktus__media) December 11, 2020
Although the law on “manipulation of information” did not come into effect, law enforcement authorities stepped up their campaign against outspoken social media users in summer 2020. Bloggers reported having their social media sites hacked and being summoned for questioning, warned and threatened with criminal responsibility due tosocial media posts which were critical of those in power, including in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic (for examples of such cases, see the following report.
An IT expert working for the security services, who spoke to Radio Azattyk on condition of anonymity, said that he and his colleagues use specialised technology to obtain the passwords of social media users and to delete posts critical of the authorities or individual officials. He also said that the security services are able to read the WhatsApp messages of any citizen.
At a press conference held in mid-October 2020, the head of the State Committee for National Security (SCNS), Kamchybek Tashiev – who was re-appointed following the post-election change of government – promised to put an end to the practice of video-filmed apologies of bloggers. He said that if someone has made statements in violation of the law, this person should “be held accountable”, and otherwise “there is no need to record any apologies”. He also promised that the security services were “ready to punish’’ any officials who put pressure on journalists. He told journalists: ‘’Work calmly, but write and communicate only reliable information, taking care not to distribute provocative messages. And then, no one will put pressure on you."
High profile media defamation case continues
The high-profile defamation case against leading independent media outlets was still pending in court. As covered previously on the Monitor, a former top customs official and his family members filed defamation lawsuits involving unprecedentedly large claims for damages against Radio Azattyk and Kloop following the publication in November 2019 of a corruption investigation carried out by them together with the global OCCPR network. The claimants have requested moral damages totalling 45 million Som (over 500,000 USD). The trial on the merits of this defamation lawsuit has been repeatedly postponed on technical grounds. Most recently, at the beginning of February 2021, the trial was suspended pending the consideration of an appeal filed by the plaintiff’s lawyer against the court’s refusal to prohibit media outlets from quoting certain phrases from the media’s corruption investigation. Kloop’s lawyer described this move as a deliberate attempt to protract the legal proceedings in the case.
In October 2020, the SCNS opened a criminal investigation on corruption charges against Raymbek Matraimov, the former top customs official implicated in the media corruption investigation. He was briefly detained but released after stating his readiness to cooperate with the investigation and reimburse to the state the damage he had inflicted. In late December 2020, the SCNS announced that Matraimov had paid back two billion Som (around 24 million USD) to the state treasury – an amount believed to constitute only a small share of the funds he had illegally acquired. A local court subsequently handed Matraimov a mitigated punishment, fining him just over 3,000USD, although he pleaded guilty to the corruption charges. Transparency International called the ruling “a mockery of justice”, stressing that the punishment was neither proportional to the crime nor a deterrent to others.
The United States government recently imposed sanctions against Matraimov under its 2012 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act because of the ex-official’s involvement in corruption and money laundering, as documented in the investigation that Radio Azattyk and Kloop conducted together with the international Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCPR).
@USTreasury hits powerful Kyrgyz political figure Raimbek Matraimov under Global Magnitsky sanctions. He’s been the focus of a series of major investigative reports by @RFERL @OCCRP @Kloop pic.twitter.com/EY4xJEEt4L— Mike Eckel (@Mike_Eckel) December 9, 2020
International petition site blocked
In mid-July 2020, the international change.org site became inaccessible in Kyrgyzstan when most of the country’s telecom operators blocked access to it. This happened the day after civil society activist Raushan Aytkulova published a petition on the site, asking for signatures in support of a call for impeachment of then President Sooronbay Jeenbekov. The petition argued, among others, that Kyrgyzstan was ‘’on the verge of collapse’’ under Jeenbekov’s rule and that the patience of citizens had been ‘’stretched to the limit’’.
The development in this case continued in court: on 3rd September 2020, a local Bishkek court declared the change.org site “extremist” and officially ordered its access blocked in Kyrgyzstan, arguing that materials published on the site contained “calls to violence’’ and “incitements to discord”. At the time of the ruling, the site had already been de-facto blocked in Kyrgyzstan for a month and a half – without any court decision. Lawyers from the Media Policy Institute, who defend the interests of the global petition site, appealed the September court decision. The appeal hearing was initially scheduled for the end of January 2021 but was postponed. At the time of writing, the new date of the appeal hearing was not known.
А вы знаете, что сайт https://t.co/fNGC63pk11 был заблокирован как экстремистский? А ещё вы знаете что сбор подписей в отставку президента в Кыргызстане считается экстремизмом? https://t.co/OAPmvT0sBz— Бегаим (@Begaim) December 15, 2020
In January 2021, human rights NGO the Voice of Freedom also filed a complaint with the General Prosecutor’s Office, requesting that access to the change.org site be restored, arguing that this measure violates the constitutionally-protected rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Opposition TV channel regains right to broadcast
As reported before, the Aprel TV channel was forced off air in August 2019 in connection with the arrest of ex-President Almazbek Atambayev, who is one of the co-founders of the channel. Both local and international media watchdogs criticised this measure as an attack on freedom of expression, noting that the TV channel was not accused of violating any law. Later the Aprel TV channel attempted to resume its operations but was unable to do so due to various obstacles. Following a court case, which lasted for more than a year, a local Bishkek court issued a ruling on 15th December 2020, officially granting the TV channel the right to resume broadcasting.
New government concept proposes improving protection of free speech
A new government concept on information policy, which the Ministry of Culture, Information and Tourism presented in November 2020, proposes the introduction of a moratorium on laws undermining freedom of expression. The concept also proposes the elaboration of new mechanisms for the protection of journalists, including by reinstating a previously abolished Criminal Code provision penalising the obstruction of the activities of journalists. According to Minister of Culture Nurzhigit Kadyrbekov, this provision will ‘’act as a barrier’’ for officials who are trying to abuse their powers in dealing with journalists.
Criticised NGO law still on the table
As covered before, parliament adopted a new widely criticised draft law on NGOs on the second out of three required readings in June 2020. Civil society representatives fear that this draft law, which would increase an already heavy reporting burden for NGOs, may be used as an instrument to put pressure on NGOs that work on issues that do not please the authorities. At the same time, those critical of the law have had few opportunities to make their voice heard, in particular as a parliamentary hearing held in May 2020 was restricted to selected participants due to COVID-19 related restrictions. Officials from the EU delegation and the UN office in Kyrgyzstan, who were present at this briefing, spoke out against the adoption of the draft law. During the reporting period, the consideration of the draft law on NGOs did not progress but remains on the table.
Restrictive trade union law advances
In November 2020, the outgoing parliament passed a restrictive draft trade union law on second reading after stalling its consideration for a year. The draft law requires industry and regional trade unions to affiliate with a higher-tier national confederation, the only government-recognised union that would have the authority to approve charters and other activities of lower-tier unions. Labour organisations and human rights groups have seriously criticised the draft law for undermining independent trade union activity in violation of international standards. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has similarly expressed concern that the draft law establishes “a monopoly” on trade union activity and allows for interference in the internal affairs of unions. In addition, trade union representatives regretted that they were not invited to participate in the examination of the draft law, although it would directly affect them.
Draft amendments to #Kyrgyzstan trade union law would cripple independent trade unions, which are key to defending workers’ rights and interests in the workplace.https://t.co/MHO3T5G13B pic.twitter.com/m86irZJsgi— Wietske Nijman (@WietskeNijman) October 31, 2019
Human Rights Watch also raised the alarm about increasing scrutiny and harassment of trade union activists, including criminal investigations against the backdrop of efforts to push through the restrictive draft law.
In order to come into effect, the draft law on trade unions would need to pass a third reading in the parliament and be signed by the president.
Ongoing investigation against HRD
Human rights defender Kamil Ruziev, who heads the NGO “Ventus”, remained subject to criminal investigation. As previously covered, he has been charged with forgery – a criminal offence which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison – in apparent retaliation for his efforts to hold security service officials accountable for torture and for threats that he has faced because of these efforts. He was detained by security services in May 2020, held under house arrest for three weeks and thereafter ordered to report regularly to the police while the investigation continues. Initially Ruziev was not allowed to leave his home city Karakol during the investigation, but in late October 2020 a local court allowed him to do so, thus enabling him to travel to Bishkek for the purposes of the investigation and for medical treatment.
Всем привет! Я Камиль Рузиев, правозащитник из Каракола.— Kloop (@kloopnews) January 23, 2021
Вот уже 20 лет я рассказываю общественности о милицейском произволе и пытках людей.
Из-за моих расследований из госструктур был уволены сотрудники, которые нарушали права людей. pic.twitter.com/A5RfBTYdzR
Continued struggle for justice for deceased defender
As reported before, human rights defender Azimjan Askarov tragically died in prison in July 2020 after the authorities failed to grant him adequate medical attention and release him, despite his seriously deteriorating health condition. He died due to pneumonia, known to be a serious complication of COVID-19, although he was never diagnosed with COVID-19. The authorities have to date failed to ensure an independent and impartial investigation into the circumstances of the defender’s death, as called for by human rights defenders and representatives of the international community. Askarov was serving a life sentence for his alleged role in the inter-ethnic violence that took place in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, having been convicted following an investigation and trial marred by due process and fair trial violations. He was repeatedly denied justice and the authorities failed to comply with a 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision on his case, which found multiple violations of his rights under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and called for his immediate release and the quashing of his conviction.
Prior to Askarov’s passing, he filed a lawsuit against Kyrgyzstan’s government for its failure to implement the 2016 UN Human Rights Committee decision on his case. A local court ruled to terminate the proceedings in this case and Bishkek City Court upheld that decision. In November 2020, the Supreme Court failed to recognise Askarov’s wife as his legal successor with respect to the claims against the government on this matter.
No accountability for violence used during election protests
As reported earlier, human rights groups called for independent investigations into the use of violence by law enforcement authorities and non-state actors in connection with the mass protests against the outcome of the October 2020 parliamentary elections. During these events, one person died and hundreds were injured, including protesters, police and ambulance staff. Law enforcement authorities opened an investigation into ‘’mass riots” which took place during the October events, butconcerns have been raised about the comprehensiveness, impartiality, fairness and promptness of this investigation.
Sunday marches for lawfulness and other peaceful protests
As covered before, COVID-19 related restrictions on the freedom of assembly introduced in response to thepandemic have been selectively enforced in Kyrgyzstan, with law enforcement authorities allowing some peaceful protests to take place, while dispersing others. During the reporting period, citizens were allowed to hold peaceful protests on different issues of concern to them, despite the continued COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic-related emergency situation that remained in force in the country (this emergency regime was declared in March 2020; see more information here).
As of the beginning of November 2020, civil society representatives and political activists started holding peaceful so-called marches for lawfulness in the centre of Bishkek every Sunday. The participants in these marches protested against the proposed changes to the constitution (see more about this above) and what they considered to be the unlawful adoption of laws by the current parliament, whose term of office formally ended in October 2020. Marches attracted up to several hundred participants. For example, on 22nd November 2020, over 500 people marched against the plan to hold a referendum on the controversial new draft constitution published on the parliament’s site a few days earlier. The Sunday marches continued in January 2021.
В Бишкеке прошел очередной марш «За законность!» https://t.co/t65oPAgwUA— Bruce Pannier (@BrucePannier) January 10, 2021
The reporting period also saw a series of other peaceful assemblies, which include:
- citizens rallied to call for an announcement of a credit amnesty in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic;
- trade union members gathered to call for the rejection of the criticised draft trade union law (see more about this under Association);
- women’s rights activists marched against gender-based violence as part of a global, UN-led campaign on this issue; and
- civil society activists staged an assembly to draw attention to the problem of air pollution in Kyrgyzstan, calling for “clean air”.
Supreme Court overturns lower-level court decision on women’s rights rally
As previously covered those who gathered for a women’s rights march in Bishkek on 8th March 2020 – celebrated as International Women’s Day -- were attacked by unknown perpetrators, who threweggs at them, destroyed their banners and physically assaulted them. When arriving, police failed to seek out the attackers but instead detained several dozen march participants and ill-treated some of them. Most of those detained were released without charge, but some of the activists were fined for allegedly disobeying the lawful orders of police. The police called the women’s rights march “an unsanctioned rally”, although national law does not require pre-approval of assemblies, and claimed that the police operation was aimed at “preventing the escalation of a brawl” between the rally participants and their attackers. Human rights groups condemned the actions of the police and a number of the targeted activists filed legal complaints about the violations perpetrated by police.
In June 2020, a Bishkek district court ruled that the actions of the police during the 8th March event were lawful, a decision which the Bishkek City Court declined to review. However, in November 2020, the Supreme Court overturned the lower-level court’s decision. The Supreme Court did not take a stand on the legality of the police actions as such but it ruled to terminate the proceedings in the case, thereby repealing the earlier court order that had sanctioned the police response. The Supreme Court’s decision is final.
11 ноября Верховный суд отменил решение Свердловского и Бишкекского городского судов о законности мер, предпринятых сотрудниками милиции 8 марта 2020.— Bishkek Feminists (@bish_feminists) November 13, 2020
Отмена решения Верховным судом не означает признание действий милиции незаконными, это говорит о том, что дело будет прекращено. pic.twitter.com/YGMdT4GNx4
Civic Space Developments