Restrictive legislation, criminal cases against the media & bans on protests on Ukraine
This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from the beginning of December 2021 to the beginning of April 2022, prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
Developments during the reporting period reinforced concerns about a worsening environment for media and civil society in Kyrgyzstan and growing restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
The government pushed ahead with the implementation of a law claimed to be aimed at countering the spread of ‘’false’’ information on the internet and put forward a draft anti-extremism law containing vague wording. Critics fear that both of these laws might be used to unduly restrict freedom of expression. Decision makers and pro-government activists made new calls for designating foreign funded NGOs and media as ‘’foreign agents’’ and proposed to renew consideration of controversial draft legislation on this topic previously rejected by parliament. The implementation of a new widely criticised reporting scheme for NGOs began with technical difficulties, as a result of which NGOs were unable to submit reports online -- as required by law -- within the first deadline. Parliament passed new legislation that media organisations have warned will result in public TV and radio channels becoming mouthpieces of the authorities, and continued its consideration of a repressive trade union law, which the president has vetoed and sent back three times.
In an alarming development, several criminal cases were opened against media outlets and journalists in apparent retaliation for their work. JournalistBolot Temirov faced a series of criminal charges after his outlet, Temirov Live, published corruption investigations implicating the relatives of a high-ranking government official. He could receive a lengthy prison term if found guilty on these charges, which include drug-related charges and charges of allegedly using false documents and unlawfully crossing the border. Next TV and its director Taalaibek Duishenbiev came under investigation on charges of inciting hatred on national grounds after reposting comments from a Ukrainian media outlet concerning Kyrgyzstan’s alleged readiness to provide military assistance to Russia during the military operation in Ukraine. Another outlet, Kaktus.media, was investigated on charges of spreading war propaganda after republishing an article by a Tajikistani news outlet concerning last year’s border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
“The Kyrgyz authorities say they protect freedom of expression, yet try to silence critical voices and clamp down on independent media through criminal investigations and bogus charges” - @hrw#Kyrgyzstan: Spate of Criminal Cases Against Journalists https://t.co/nn5TFD787W— IFEX (@IFEX) April 4, 2022
Although an expert assessment found no basis for the charges against him, human rights defender Kamil Ruziev remained on trial for forgery in a case believed to be retaliation for his efforts to fight against torture and ill-treatment. The investigation into the death of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, who died in prison in summer 2020, appeared to have stalled.
While residents continued to actively exercise their right to peacefully assemble on issues of concern to them, local authorities in the capital Bishkek imposed excessive and unlawful restrictions on protests relating to Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. Thus, in decisions sanctioned by local courts, protests were banned outside the Russian embassy and in other areas of the capital for several weeks, with protesters being instructed to gather instead in a park specifically designated for holding assemblies. With reference to the court-imposed bans, police dispersed several peaceful protests staged against the war in Ukraine and detained participants. Human rights defenders Aziza Abdirasulova, Dinara Oshurakhunova and Ondurush Toktonasyrov were fined for allegedly disobeying police orders after being detained when peacefully protesting outside the Russian embassy in mid-March 2022. However, the fines were repealed on appeal. In connection with the same protest, lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov was locked up for five days on charges of ‘’petty hooliganism’’ for severely criticising the court-imposed restrictions on assemblies.
Бишкекская милиция не позволила провести марш против войны в Украине.— Azattyk Media (@AzattykMedia) April 2, 2022
Сотрудники милиции сначала попросили участников разойтись, а спустя несколько минут начали их задерживать.
Как передает корреспондент «Азаттыка», задержанных увезли в Первомайское РОВД pic.twitter.com/6xCbNlW3Aa
While President Sadyr Japarov dismissed criticism concerning growing authoritarianism and rights restrictions in Kyrgyzstan, international surveys confirmed the negative trends with respect to the protection of fundamental freedoms in the country.
The developments summarised here are covered in more detail below.
International surveys confirm negative trends
As previously covered, following President Sadyr Japarov’s rise to power in autumn 2020, the authorities pushed through a new controversial constitution, which grants the president excessively broad powers without an effective system of checks and balances. His period in office has also seen increasing pressure on independent media, renewed attempts to restrict civil society activities, and intimidation and harassment of government critics. Human rights defenders, media and observers have raised the alarm about these trends, which continued during the current reporting period (as described in the sections below).
International surveys have also confirmed the recent negative trends with respect to the state of freedom and democratic governance in Kyrgyzstan.
The annual Freedom in the World survey, published by Freedom House in February 2022, rated Kyrgyzstan as ‘’not free’’, similar to the other four Central Asian countries. This was the second year in a row that Kyrgyzstan was included in this category; previously, prior to 2021, the country was rated ‘’partly free’’. Its overall score deteriorated further by one point in comparison to 2021: from 28 to 27 on a scale from 1 to 100, where 100 represents the highest level of freedom. The survey concluded: “Major constitutional changes adopted in 2021 significantly increased presidential authority, concentrating political power in the presidency and reducing the size and role of parliament. Both the judiciary and vigilante violence are increasingly used to suppress political opponents and civil society critics.’’
In the 2021 edition of the Democracy Index, released by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)in February 2022, Kyrgyzstan was for the first time designated an ’’authoritarian regime’’, similar to the other Central Asian countries. It slipped eight places in the global rank compared to the 2020 edition, where it was still classified as a ‘’hybrid regime’’, and it was ranked 115th, one place below Qatar and one place above Iraq and Mozambique. The change in Kyrgyzstan’s rating was explained with the 2021 transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system, resulting in that ‘’the president gained greater influence over the legislature and the judiciary, effectively eliminating the separation of powers.’’
In the 2021 edition of the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which measures the level of accountability, just law, open government and accessible and impartial justice, Kyrgyzstan fell four positions compared to the previous year, ranking 99 among 139 countries and jurisdictions worldwide. The downgrade was, in particular, attributed to a deterioration in constraints on government powers and corruption.
However, President Sadyr Japarov dismissed concerns about growing authoritarianism in Kyrgyzstan and insisted that the country continues to adhere to democratic principles. In connection with the celebration of Kyrgyzstan’s 30 year independence anniversary in December 2021, the president stated that his administration is working hard to implement structural reforms and that state policies are aimed at building ‘’a new Kyrgyzstan’’ in the next few years, thereby increasing trust, unity and engagement among citizens, improving their quality of life and ensuring the protection of their rights.
However, some government officials have been less upbeat about the current situation in the country and have acknowledged the existence of serious challenges. For example, during a parliamentary hearing held prior to his appointment as head of the Supreme Court in February 2022, Zamirbek Bazarbekov stated that human rights protection is ‘’at a low level’’ in the country and that human rights, in many cases, are not protected because of the lack of independence of judges.
During the reporting period, the climate for free speech continued to deteriorate, with several criminal cases being opened against media outlets and journalists in apparent retaliation for their work, and several restrictive legislative initiatives advancing.
Journalist investigating corruption faces charges
Investigative journalist Bolot Temirov faced two sets of criminal charges believed to have been initiated in retaliation for his investigations into high-level corruption.
Police carried out a dramatic raid on the office of Temirov’s YouTube-based outlet, Temirov Live in Bishkek on 22nd January 2022, detaining the journalist after allegedly finding a package of drugs in his pockets. The journalist and his colleagues maintain that the drugs were planted on him. During the raid, police also seized computers and other equipment containing investigative journalistic materials, despite this having no connection to the drug charges. Temirov was subsequently charged under a Criminal Code provision which penalises the manufacturing, acquisition and possession of drugs (Article 283) and was released with an order not to leave the city. Just two days before the raid, Temirov Live had published an investigation which implicated relatives of the head of the State Committee for National Security (SCNS), Kamchybek Tashiev, in an alleged corruption scheme related to the export of fuel produced by a state company. For months prior to the raid, Temirov and his colleagues had reported facing surveillance, intimidation and threats in response to their investigative work.
On 19th April 2022, Temirov learned that additional charges had been filed against him of ‘’forgery of documents’’ and ‘’illegal crossing of the state border’’ (under Articles 378 and 379 of the Criminal Code). Temirov – who also holds a Russian passport — was accused ofusing falsified documents when obtaining and renewing his Kyrgyzstani passport, which he has regularly used to travel in and out of the country since 2008. Temirov dismissed these charges and his lawyer called them‘’absurd’’, stressing that the allegedly forged documents were issued by authorised state bodies and that Temirov’s passport had been regularly checked and stamped at the border during his trips abroad over the past 14 years. The lawyers also said that the statute of limitations for the alleged offences had already expired. This time, the charges were pressed the day after Temirov Live published a video which alleged that the children of the same government official, SCNS head Kamchybek Tashiev had won lucrative government tenders.
The criminal charges against Temirov have been widely criticised by media organisations in Kyrgyzstan, as well as by foreign media and human rights watchdogs. In a joint statement, IPHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Civil Rights Defenders condemned the charges against him as a serious assault on freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan in apparent retaliation for Temirov’s investigations into high-level corruption. The four NGOs called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to drop the charges against Temirov and ensure that he is able to carry out his legitimate journalistic work without intimidation and harassment.
The timing of the charges against journo Bolot Temirov in #Kyrgyzstan clearly indicates that they are meant to punish him for his courageous efforts to expose govt corruption. The international community should insist on dropping these punitive charges! https://t.co/vyaMPxvW2w pic.twitter.com/ofrhOAj74c— IPHR (@IPHR) May 3, 2022
This is not the first time that Temirov has come under pressure because of his investigative work. As covered before, in January 2020, Temirov was physically assaulted near his office in central Bishkek following the publication of corruption allegations by his then outlet, Factcheck.kg. While four people were later convicted of carrying out the attack, they were immediately granted amnesty and those who ordered the attack have never been identified.
In late April 2022, the case against Temirov was handed over to court, with the different charges against him set to be considered as part of the same proceedings, and the trial scheduled to begin in May 2022.
TV station targeted for reposts relating to Ukraine conflict
On 3rd March 2022, police raided the office of the privately owned media outlet Next TV in Bishkek, confiscating equipment, sealing the office and detaining the outlet’s director Taalaibek Duishenbiev. These actions were taken as part of an investigation concerning comments which the outlet had reposted from a Ukrainian media outlet on its social media accounts. The comments in question suggested that Kyrgyzstan had agreed to provide military assistance to Russia in the context of the conflict in Ukraine and were attributed to a former high-ranking Kazakhstani NSC official. Kyrgyzstan’s government later denied these allegations. According to the investigators, the reposts of the comments constituted disinformation, were misleading for the population of Kyrgyzstan and other countries, and served to incite hostility on national grounds.
Duishembiev was detained on March 3 over the airing of a controversial report in which an interviewee alleged the existence of an agreement between Bishkek and Moscow to send Kyrgyz troops to Ukraine to assist the Russian armed forces in their invasion.https://t.co/eIZ44kAFMU— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) March 24, 2022
On 5th March 2022, a local court sanctioned Duishenbiev’s pre-trial detention for two months on charges of inciting international hatred (under article 330 of the Criminal Code), a ruling that was upheld on appeal. Later, in April, Taalaibek Duishenbiev’s pre-trial detention was prolonged by the court until 3rd June. If found guilty, Duishenbiev could face up to seven years in prison.
The General Prosecutors Office also submitted a request to court to declare Next TV’s reposts as ‘’extremist’’, as well as to close it down and prohibit its operations. In a decision issued on 29th March 2022, a local Bishkek court ruled in favour of declaring the reposts ‘’extremist’’ but rejected the request to ban it from working.
Both national and international NGOs criticised the actions taken against Next TV and its director. The Kyrgyzstani Fund for Investigative Journalism stated that it considered the attack on Next TV a new example of ongoing attempts to suppress freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to immediately release Taalaibek Duishenbiev, drop the investigation into the outlet and allow it to work freely. Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee made similar calls.
Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsperson also expressed concerns about the actions taken against Next TV and called for upholding constitutional guarantees for the freedom of media in this case.
Media outlet targeted for repost about border conflict with Tajikistan
The independent news website Kaktus.media came under criminal investigation after reposting an article from the Tajikistani media outlet Asia Plus on 27th January 2022. The reposted article concerned clashes that took place on Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan in April 2021 and caused a public outcry. As a result, the outlet deleted the repost the following day. On 1st February 2022, the General Prosecutor’s Office announced that a criminal case had been opened against Kaktus.media under Criminal Code Article 407, which prohibits war propaganda. According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, the reposted article contained incorrect information alleging that soldiers from Kyrgyzstan had fired the first shots during the April 2021 border confrontation, thereby provoking the Tajikistani side. The director and several journalists working with Kaktus.media were summoned for interrogation.
Following the re-publication of the controversial article, Kaktus.media reported repeated attempts to hack its Instagram account, as well as the accounts of its journalists on social media and messenger apps. The day after the reposted article appeared on the Kaktus.media site, a rally was also held outside its office, with the participants demanding the outlet’s closure.
Kaktus.media stressed that it had only reposted the controversial article, saying this was done for the purpose of informing the public in Kyrgyzstan about how the border conflict is portrayed in Tajikistan, and publicly apologised for failing to make this clear when the article appeared on its site.
The founder of Kaktus.media, Dina Maslova, said that she considers the criminal case against the outlet part of a broader campaign of pressure against independent media in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyzstani Committee for the Protection of Freedom of Expression found the actions taken against Kaktus.media ‘’excessive’’, and several international human rights NGOs criticised the criminal case against the outlet as an attack on freedom of expression. For example, Amnesty International said that the case was “absurd and dangerous” and that the investigation in itself, irrespective of its outcome, undermines the right to receive and disseminate information. The organisation emphasised that citizens should have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with different views, including on issues such as state security and armed conflicts, even if a publication offends the authorities or is contested by them.
Kyrgyzstan’s @kaktus__media is being charged with 'war propaganda' for showing its audience the Tajik view of a border conflict.— IPI - The Global Network for Independent Media (@globalfreemedia) February 22, 2022
IPI urges #Kyrgyzstan to drop the charges and allow journalists to work without interference.https://t.co/zwZQYNg0ea
At a parliamentary session, member of parliament Dastan Bekleshev called for an expert investigation into the case, saying that it is not consistent with international practice to initiate criminal cases because of reposts of material from other media outlets.
General Prosecutor Kurmankul Zulushev dismissed criticism that the criminal case against Kaktus.media amounted to pressure on media. He said that a legal expert assessment of the article in question had been initiated. As of mid-April 2022, the investigation in the case was still under way.
Implementation of law on ‘’false information’’
In March 2022, the government put forward draft implementing regulations for the new law on the protection from “false” information, which was adopted last year despite widespread objections by media and civil society. The draft regulations reinforced concerns that the new law will be used to unduly restrict freedom of expression on the internet.
According to the draft regulations, any person who considers an online publication to contain incorrect or false information about them might request the owner of the website or page in question to delete this information. If the owner of the web resource fails to do so within 24 hours, the complainant might turn to a special service under the Ministry of Digital Development with a request to suspend the operation of the resource. Within 10 days from receiving such a request, the service orders the web resource to suspend its operations for up to two months, unless the request is dismissed. Access to the web resource is restored after the period of suspension if the relevant information has been deleted, or on the basis of a court decision.
Media and legal experts seriously criticised the draft regulations for undermining the right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Kyrgyzstan’s constitution and international treaties to which the country is party. The Adilet Legal Clinic criticised, in particular, the lack of any clear procedure or criteria for determining what information is considered to be false or defamatory, saying that this ‘’will undoubtedly lead to abuse’’. It warned against granting a government service discretionary powers to decide what information discredits the honour, dignity and reputation of complainants, stressing that such issues should always be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis by court in accordance with due process and fair trial standards. Adilet also concluded that independent online resources will be at heightened risk of being unlawfully blocked under the new law. Media watchdogs and civil society representatives have already previously warned that the new law might be used as a censorship tool by officials to intimidate and silence online resources critical of their actions.
Kyrgyzstan’s Association of Operators also criticised the draft regulations, stating that they contradict the Law on Electronic and Postal Communications, under which operators may only restrict access to defamatory information on the basis of court decisions. In addition, the Association pointed out that it will be technically impossible for operators to block access to individual sites or pages.
Following the period of public discussion, the government is expected to finalise the new regulations. Member of Parliament Dastan Bekeshev filed a petition with the Constitutional Court against the law on the protection against ‘’false’’ information, requesting the Court to deem the law unconstitutional and to repeal it. The Constitutional Court has admitted his petition for consideration.
Vaguely worded anti-extremism legislation threatens free speech
At the end of December 2021, the Ministry of Interior put forward for public discussion a new draft counter-extremism law as part of the ongoing inventory of legislation (see more about this process here). The draft law regulates actions to prevent and counter extremism, as well as responsibilities and coordination among different state bodies in this area. Lawyers and human rights defenders voiced concern about the lack of clear and precise definitions of ‘’extremism’’ and other key concepts in the draft law, warning that this would create legal uncertainty and might result in the law being used as a tool to unduly restrict freedom of expression and other fundamental rights. There were particular concerns that vague definitions could allow for targeting media outlets critical of the authorities in the name of fighting extremism. In accordance with the draft law, authorities might initiate court-ordered closures of media outlets if these fail to respond to requests to remove material deemed extremist within three days.
As of mid-April 2022, the draft legislation remained with the government.
New legislation on state control of national TV and radio broadcaster adopted
In early April 2022, parliament adopted new legislation, which changed the status of the national TV and radio broadcasting corporation (OTRK) from that of a public to a state institution. The new legislation also abolished the corporation’s previous supervisory board – one third of whose members have been made up of civil society representatives, with its director set to be appointed directly by the president in future. As covered in our previous update, national and international media organisations have protested against this legislative initiative, expressing concerns that it will undermine editorial independence, transparency and accountability of the public broadcaster and result in its TV and radio channels becoming mouthpieces of the authorities. The new law was signed by the president in May 2022.
During the reporting period, there were new developments concerning legislative initiatives which threaten to undermine freedom of association, and concerns remained about the vulnerability of NGO representatives to intimidation and harassment.
New calls for adoption of ‘’foreign agents’’ legislation
At a parliamentary session held on 10th February 2022, MP Nadira Narmatova from the pro-government parliamentary faction "Ata-Zhurt Kyrgyzstan" advocated for reconsideration of the draft ‘’foreign agents’’ legislation, which parliament passed on second reading in April 2016 but rejected on a third reading the following month. The initial draft legislation, which was put forward by Narmatova and two other MPs back in 2014, drew heavily on corresponding Russian legislation and required NGOs to adopt the stigmatising label of “foreign agents” if they receive foreign funding and engage in broadly defined “political activities”. The draft legislation was significantly revised before it came up for the final votebut nevertheless remained problematic. Narmatova now proposed a return to reviewing the draft legislation on second reading, i.e. to the version without the extensive revisions subsequently made. She argued that ‘’foreign agents’’ legislation is needed to ensure ‘’calm’’ in the country and claimed that ‘’some foreign-funded NGOs do not leave the authorities alone because they themselves want to get into power’’. According to media reports, following Narmatova’s initiative, consideration of the previous ‘’foreign agents’’ draft legislation was due to resume. However, as of mid-April 2022, there was no further information on this issue.
Two days before Narmatova’s move, a group of pro-government activists called for the adoption of ‘foreign agents’’ legislation at a press conference organised in Bishkek with support from former MP Tursunbay Bakir uulu, another of the initiators of the previous draft legislation on this issue. The activists called in particular for designating well-known independent media outlets, which receive funding from foreign sources, as ‘’foreign agents’’, claiming that their coverage is “incorrect” or “one-sided”. The following day, a group of around 15 people held a rally in the capital, demanding that the independent outlets Kaktus.media, Kloop and Radio Azattyk be designated as ‘’foreign agents’’. The rally participants also called for the criminal case against Kaktus.media to be brought ‘’to an end’’ (as covered under Expression, a criminal case was opened against this outlet in January 2022 after it reposted an article about border skirmishes with Tajikistan) and for all three outlets and other ‘’spies’’ to be closed down.
Today, a few dozen people in Kyrgyzstan have gathered in a protest, demanding some local media outlets to be declared 'foreign agents'. The latest @Majlis_Podcast assesses the current state of Kyrgyz media, with @ichbinilya @BrucePannier and #BegaimUsenova https://t.co/i9iknXML8W— Muhammad Tahir (@tahirmuh) February 9, 2022
Technical flaw prevents NGOs from meeting new reporting obligations
As covered before, legislation adopted in June 2021 introduced a new, unjustified and discriminatory financial reporting scheme for NGOs. Failure of NGOs to comply with the new reporting obligations may result in serious penalties, including the closure of organisations. For months, there has been no clarity as to how the new reporting scheme would be implemented in practice as the government was working on elaborating the details.
Finally, on 22nd March 2022, the government adopted implementing rules. In accordance with these rules, by 1st April every year, NGOs are obliged to upload information about their sources of income, the purposes of expenditure of the funds obtained by them, as well as about their property to the website of the tax authorities, using a specifically designated form. The reporting form was only made public on 24th March 2022, leaving NGOs with only a few days to familiarise themselves with the form, complete it and upload it in order to meet the deadline of 1st April 2022. In addition, it turned out that the electronic system through which NGOs were required to submit their reports was not ready for use. As a result, a group of NGOs appealed to the government to prolong the deadline until 1st May. The government did not respond to this appeal and therefore NGOs were –through no fault of theirs – unable to meet the e-reporting deadline. However, the tax authorities eventually agreed to accept printed versions of the reporting form due to the malfunctioning of the online system, and many NGOs submitted it in this format.
Restrictive trade union law remains under consideration
As covered before, on three occasions in 2021, parliament voted to adopt a new trade union law restricting trade union activities, in violation of international standards, in particular by introducing a trade union monopoly. Trade unions, human rights NGOs and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have all seriously criticised the law. Heeding the criticism, President Japarov has vetoed the law three times, most recently in December 2021 after parliament failed to comply with his request to revise the law and agree on its wording with representatives of the government, trade unions and employers’ associations. As of mid-April 2022, the trade union law remained under consideration in parliament.
Lawyer locked up for critical remarks regarding judges
Well-known lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, founder of the legal organisation ‘’Precedent’’, was penalised for making critical remarks about the judicial system. In connection with a peaceful picket against the war in Ukraine held outside the Russian embassy in Bishkek on 17th March 2022, he criticised a controversial court-sanctioned blanket ban on holding assemblies outside the embassy and in other central areas of the capital from mid-March to mid-April 2022 (see more under Peaceful Assembly). With reference to this decision, police claimed that the peaceful protest in question was not allowed and detained three participants. In livestreamed comments, Toktakunov said that the court ruling was an unconstitutional restriction of freedom of peaceful assembly, and that it was ‘’not a decree for us’’ and that ‘’judges in our country are no one at all’’. Due to these allegedly insulting remarks, on 24th March 2022, Pervomaisky DistrictCourt of Bishkek convicted Toktakunov of ‘’petty hooliganism’’ (under Article 126 of the Code of Offences) and ruled to detain him for five days. The following morning, police apprehended Toktakunov outside his home, reportedly using disproportionate force, although the lawyer did not put up any resistance. He was placed in a police detention facility in the capital, where he reported being held in poor conditions, with his cell lacking light, a toilet and a separate place for sleeping.
In a statement issued on the case, IPHR expressed serious concerns about Toktakunov’s detention and called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him and safeguard his right to freedom of expression. The concerns about the lawyer’s detention were reinforced by the fact that his colleagues believed that the charges initiated against him might have been retaliation for his work on high-profile cases, including that of journalist Bolot Temirov (see more about his case under Expression).
🇰🇬#Kyrgyzstan: IPHR calls on country's authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, who was detained after critical remarks about the judicial system in connection with a peaceful protest against the war in #Ukraine https://t.co/yObCM6uOyI— IPHR (@IPHR) March 26, 2022
Toktakunov’s appeal against his conviction was rejected by Bishkek City Court on 28th March 2022 and he was only released after serving out his five-day sentence.
Continued court case against NGO leader
Human rights defender and head of the NGO Ventus, Kamil Ruziev, continued to face criminal charges, although an expert assessment concluded that there was no basis for the charges against him. As covered before, the criminal case against Ruziev has been pending with a local court in the city of Karakol since September 2020, with the defender accused of forging a medical certificate to extend the deadline for appealing the decision in a court case he was working on. The defender has dismissed the charges and human rights groups believe that they are in retaliation for his efforts to ensure accountability for torture and other unlawful practices of security service officials, as well as for threats he received because of his work in this area. An expert assessment conducted as part of the proceedings in the case confirmed the genuineness of Ruziev’s medical certificate.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has spoken out in support of Ruziev, calling on the authorities to ensure that he is granted a fair trial and that the allegations of threats and ill-treatment against him are effectively investigated.Ruziev has reported ongoing pressure against him and his family and said that he has appealed for protection to the offices of the President, General Prosecutor and Ombudsperson.
Lack of progress on investigation into death of defender
There were new hurdles in the struggle for justice for human rights defender and NGO leader Azimjan Askarov, who died of COVID-19 complications in prison in July 2020 after being denied adequate medical attention and an urgent release. As covered before, the investigation into his death was re-opened in August 2021 after previously being closed prematurely, and the responsibility for it was transferred from the prison service to the SCNS.
According to the Bir Duino human rights movement, based on a complaint submitted by the lawyers working on this case, a local court in Bishkek issued a decision in January 2022 faulting the SCNS for its lack of action on the investigation into Askarov’s case. The SCNS had failed to respond to a petition filed by the lawyers requesting it to interrogate witnesses in the presence of Askarov’s widow, Khadicha Askarova. Following the court decision, the lawyers motioned for the investigation into the defender’s death to be transferred to the General Prosecutor’s Office. However, as of late April 2022, this request had not been approved.
In an open letter to President Japarov, Bir Duino expressed concern that the SCNS, the courts and other relevant authorities ‘’ignore the issue of restoring the violated rights of the human rights defender’’ and that the SCNS is not investigating allegations of torture and discrimination against him in prison prior to his death. The organisation urged the president to ensure an independent investigation into Askarov’s death, the implementation of the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision on his case, his posthumous rehabilitation and the payment of compensation to his family.
In a welcome development, Khadicha Askarova was finally recognised as the legal heir to the defender’s house in the Bazar-Korgon district in the Jalal-Abad region.
During the reporting period, people in Kyrgyzstan continued to exercise their right to assembly by holding peaceful protests on different issues. Among others, several peaceful protests against the war in Ukraine were held. However, in this context, authorities also issued controversial, temporary blanket bans on holding peaceful protests in central areas of the capital Bishkek. As covered before, these types of bans, which the authorities have repeatedly used in recent years, restrict freedom of peaceful assembly in violation of national law and international human rights standards.
On 11th March 2022, local authorities issued a month-long ban on holding any assemblies outside the Russian embassy, as well as outside the office of the presidential administration and parliament, and on the central Ala-Too Square in Bishkek. Pervomaisky District Court subsequently sanctioned this decision. According to the court documents, the ban was issued in response to a note submitted by the Russian embassy and appeals from local residents. Those wishing to hold assemblies at these venues were instructed to gather at Gorky Park instead.
The Ombudsperson criticised the decision to ban all assemblies in the affected areas as being contrary to Kyrgyzstan’s Constitution and stressed that any restrictions imposed on assemblies must be consistent with the strict requirements set out by the Law on Assemblies. For her part, lawyer Saniya Toktogazieva expressed indignation that the embassy of a foreign country was ‘’dictating to the country’s law enforcement authorities to restrict constitutional rights’’. The human rights NGO "Kylym Shamy" urged the General Prosecutor and Bishkek’s Prosecutor to ensure the annulment of the decision as unfounded and unlawful. However, Bishkek City Court and the Supreme Court upheld the district court ruling.
With reference to the court ruling, police dispersed the following peaceful assembly:
- On 17th March 2022, police detained human rights defenders Aziza Abdirasulova, Dinara Oshurakhunova and Ondurush Toktonasyrov as they were peacefully protesting against the war in Ukraine outside the Russian embassy in Bishkek. The police officers took the defenders to a local police station and held them for several hours, in the course of which police protocols were drawn up against them for the alleged offences of ‘’petty hooliganism’’ and ‘’disobeying police orders’’ (under Articles 126 and 128 of Kyrgyzstan’s Code of Offences). Police reportedly accused the defenders of using foul language and urinating in the street. When the cases against the defenders were heard in court, they were acquitted of the first charge but fined 3,000 Kyrgyz soms each (approx. EUR 30) on the second charge. However, the fines were overturned on appeal. The defenders announced plans to file a lawsuit against police on the grounds of unlawful detention. In connection with the protest on 17th March 2022, lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov was also detained and subsequently locked up for five days because of his criticism of the court ban on assemblies (see more on his case under Association).
The NHC is concerned about detention of several human rights defenders in Bishkek who protested #Ukraine war near the Russian Embassy. Court hearing against @DinaraOM today must observe Constitution, which clearly defines citizens' right to assembly. #Kyrgyzstan is not #Russia. pic.twitter.com/61k0a6gr0r— Norwegian Helsinki Committee (@nhc_no) March 18, 2022
Despite the criticism of the previous blanket ban on assemblies , a new one was issued ahead of a planned peaceful protest march in the capital on 2nd April 2022 against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. In a press release published on 1st April 2022, the Bishkek Department of the Ministry of Interior announced that the Pervomaisky, Leninsky, Sverdlovksy and Oktyabyarsky district courtsof Bishkek had confirmed a decision by local authorities to ban all assemblies relating to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the capital until 1st July 2022, with the exception of official state and municipal events to be held at Ala-Too Square. A few hours after the publication of the press release, President Sadyr Japarov posted comments on social media saying that peaceful assemblies should be allowed to take place and that the capital’s Gorky Park had been designated for this purpose. According to him, ’’If you want, you can hold rallies there 24/7 [and] say what you want. No one is against this. We only have one request: leave embassies alone’’.
Nevertheless, the following day, people gathering for the planned march on Gorky Park were detained:
- With refence to the court sanctioned bans on assemblies, police apprehended around 30 people shortly after they arrived at Gorky Park for the planned event. Police claimed that the detainees had ‘’made a provocative attempt to march to the Russian embassy’’ and accused them of ‘’disobeying police orders’’. However, as seen on video recordings from the event, the detainees did not resist police and did not leave the park – to which the ban on assemblies did not extend, as pointed out by the president – until they were detained and taken to a local police station. When the cases were heard in court on 2nd April 2022, Pervomaisky District Court dismissed the charges against the detainees for lack of any evidence of offences. Another peaceful rally held in Gorky Park on 2nd April 2022, in support of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, took place without interference by law enforcement authorities.
Initiatives to improve implementation of recommendations and decisions of international human rights bodies
Despite the overall negative trends seen during the reporting period, as described above, there were also some positive developments concerning rights protection. In particular, there were several new government initiatives to improve the implementation of recommendations and decisions issued by international human rights bodies on human rights in Kyrgyzstan.
Thus, in March 2022, the Ministry of Justice put forward for public discussion a draft Action Plan on Human Rights for 2022-2024, developed on the basis of recommendations made by UN human rights treaty bodies examining the situation in Kyrgyzstan, as well as in the context of the UN Universal Periodic Review of the country. The draft action plan set out tasks in several different areas of human rights protection. Key tasks relating to the freedoms of expression, assembly and association included: revising the broadly worded Criminal Code article 113 on ‘’inciting racial, ethnic, national, religious or inter-regional hatred’’ to limit its application (point 124); protecting human rights defenders and journalists from unjustified defamation lawsuits relating to their professional activities (point 125); raising awareness among law enforcement officials about the rights of peaceful protesters and ways to ensure public order during such assemblies (point 125); ensuring that no legislation restricting the freedom of operation of NGOs is adopted, including by ensuring that draft laws undergo expert reviews on this issue (point 130); and expanding cooperation with civil society on all aspects of state operations (point 131). Based on the feedback received, including from NGOs, the Ministry of Justice is currently revising the draft Action Plan before the government approves it.
In another positive step, in December 2021, the Coordination Council on Human Rights -- a consultative government body made up of representatives of different state authorities and national human rights institutions -- initiated a process of improving the implementation of the decisions of international human rights bodies in individual cases where such bodies have found Kyrgyzstan to be in violation of its obligations under international human rights treaties. An interdepartmental working group was established to develop new draft regulations on this issue, which were presented in late March 2022. They will be subject to public discussion before being finalised. Civil society organisations, including Legal Prosperity, have long called for improving the implementation of the decisions of international human rights institutions and welcome the current initiative.
Civic Space Developments