Tightening the screws on free speech and civic engagement
This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from November 2022 to April 2023. It has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
During the reporting period, the government continued its attempts to tighten the screws on free speech and civic engagement, as seen in a series of developments that seriously threatened the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
A restrictive draft media law initiated by the presidential administration in autumn 2022 remained under consideration. In response to widespread criticism of the draft law, the presidential administration agreed to revise it together with independent media experts. However, officials failed to take on board key expert recommendations, as a result of which basic flaws were retained in several revised versions of the draft law put forward by the presidential administration in the first few months of 2023. Critics fear that the draft law, if adopted in the proposed format, would result in excessive state control over the activities of media and could be used to silence inconvenient outlets.
Kyrgyzstan's new media law leaves media figures “baffled" "The law emerged from nowhere and we can see that it was drafted by people who are unfamiliar with the specifics of journalism” Some suspect it was copied from Russia but goes further. @IWPR reports https://t.co/VWenHoCwsz— Joanna Lillis (@joannalillis) November 2, 2022
There were ongoing concerns about the government’s misuse of the controversial law on protection against ‘’false’’ information to stifle independent news reporting. In particular, the site of the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Azattyk, was blocked under this law throughout the reporting period because of a video report that presented the official views of both countries regarding the September 2022 hostilities at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. In addition, the government turned to court with a request to close down the media outlet because of the same video report, which it claimed featured war propaganda and hate speech, although RFE/RL insisted it was in line with its standards of balanced reporting. In a ruling issued in late April 2023, a local court ruled in favour of the government’s request to revoke Radio Azattyk’s licence, thereby dealing a serious blow to media freedoms in the country. The media outlet announced that it would appeal the ruling.
Today’s court decision to close down the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, @AzattykMedia dealt a serious blow to media freedom in Kyrgyzstan and should be reversed - IPHR statement: https://t.co/J29hqFV0Xj— IPHR (@IPHR) April 27, 2023
In another trend of concern, there were several cases in which state-controlled media outlets filed defamation lawsuits against independent media outlets, featuring excessive requests for moral damages.
The high-profile criminal case against close to 30 civil society activists, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and other critics of a government-negotiated border deal with Uzbekistan continued. Those arrested in this case in October 2022 were charged with preparing riots, although they are only known to have peacefully engaged against the draft border agreement concerning the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir. The pre-trial detention of most of them was repeatedly extended by court orders despite the apparent lack of tangible progress on the investigation and the absence of any compelling grounds for keeping them behind bars. In the first few months of 2023, several people charged in the case, including several women activists, were nevertheless transferred to house arrest due to serious health issues developed in detention.
It's welcome news that several of those charged in the Kempir Abad case in Kyrgyzstan have been transferred to house arrest pending trial - others in this case should be released from detention, too! https://t.co/ONXxZ2WNkf— IPHR (@IPHR) April 13, 2023
In an unprecedented turn of developments in the spurious criminal case initiated against him, corruption whistle-blowing journalist Bolot Temirov was deported from Kyrgyzstan in November 2022, while several bloggers went on trial because of social media posts on issues which are sensitive to the authorities.
A draft law initiated by the presidential administration in November 2022 proposed to introduce excessive state oversight and restrictions on the activities of NGOs. Following severe criticism of the draft law by both civil society representatives and international experts, a government working group involving NGO representatives was set up to revise it by June 2023. A series of unscheduled inspections of human rights NGOs, carried out by the state tax service shortly after the introduction of the draft NGO law, reinforced concerns about increasing state interference in the activities of NGOs. In a separate initiative, a Member of Parliament put forward a repressive and stigmatising draft law concerning foreign-funded NGOs in particular. This draft law, which was essentially a recycled, adapted version of an earlier draft law voted down by parliament in 2016, was also seriously criticised by both CSOs and international experts.
📢🇰🇬#Kyrgyzstan's authorities should drop ill-considered & restrictive draft NGO law which would seriously endanger the operation of civil society groups in the country! Joint statement by @IPHR and @CIVICUSalliance 👉 https://t.co/QHNxHLahJd pic.twitter.com/eJEhrmWJQA— IPHR (@IPHR) November 18, 2022
In a welcome development, the Supreme Court finally acquitted NGO leader and human rights defender Kamil Ruziev of criminal charges initiated in apparent retaliation for his efforts to ensure accountability for unlawful practices by security services. This ruling was issued in January 2023, following a protracted legal struggle by the defender.
A court-sanctioned ban on holding peaceful assemblies outside the Russian embassy, the presidential and parliament building, and in other central areas of the capital Bishkek was repeatedly prolonged during the reporting period. Law enforcement authorities have repeatedly used this ban, which was issued in violation of national and international standards safeguarding the right to freedom of assembly, to justify the detentions of peaceful protesters. For example, in January 2023, police detained around 30 people who had gathered for a peaceful march to call for the release of those held in pre-trial detention in the Kempir-Abad case. Several of those detained were subsequently fined. In another case, in November 2022, police detained veteran human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova who was observing a small peaceful protest against the government-negotiated agreement on Kempir-Abad. She had been warned by a local police chief the day before to ‘’write less’’ on social media, where she has been outspoken on this and other issues. She was fined, but her conviction was overturned on appeal.
New draft legislation initiated in February 2023 risks resulting in censorship of film screenings. Under the proposed provisions, any film screenings – including those at film festivals and other non-commercial events – would require pre-approval from the state. Already in November 2022, there was an attempt at censorship at the annual human rights film festival organised by the Bir Duino Human Rights Movement in Bishkek, with two films being arbitrarily banned from being screened. The decision was eventually lifted but this case illustrated the threats posed by the new draft legislation.
In another development that illustrates the decreasing space for expressing critical views in Kyrgyzstan, Ombudsperson Atyr Abdrakhmatova came under fire in April 2023. In an initiative that appeared to have been prompted by her active and independent approach while in office, as well as the criticism she has voiced regarding the actions of authorities, a group of pro-government MPs proposed her early dismissal after she presented her annual report about the human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan. At the beginning of May, a majority of MPs voted in favour of Abdrakhmatova’s dismissal.
#Kyrgyzstan authorities should allow Ombudswoman #Abdrakhmatova to complete her term without interference and take further concrete steps to strengthen and protect independent human rights institutions in the country - read more in our latest @hrw: https://t.co/0FvkxWaN13— Syinat Sultanalieva (@SyinatS) April 26, 2023
Due to the recently deteriorating situation with respect to democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan, the country’s rating on international indexes measuring the level of protection in these areas has deteriorated. For example, in the annual Freedom in the World survey released by Freedom House in March 2023, Kyrgyzstan was assessed as ‘’not free’’ for the second year in a row, unlike in earlier years when it was assessed as ‘’partly free’’. Kyrgyzstan received 27 scores on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is the lowest and 100 is the highest level of freedom. In the 2023 edition of the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters without Borders, Kyrgyzstan plummeted to a new low, being ranked in place 122 out of 180 compared to place 72 in 2022
#Kyrgyzstan plummeted in the @RSF_inter World Press Freedom Index this year, losing 50 spots from its previous ranking. The country now holds the 122nd spot, compared to last year's 72nd ranking. This is further proof of the deteriorated state of media freedom in the country. pic.twitter.com/ikF3w2FfCu— Kubat Kasymbekov (@Kubat_Kasymbek) May 3, 2023
Draft media law criticised
As covered before, a new draft media law elaborated by the presidential administration was put forward for public discussion in September 2022. Media experts, lawyers and human rights defenders seriously criticised the draft law for imposing excessive restrictions on the freedom of expression and the media. Among others, critics voiced concerns regarding provisions concerning harsher new requirements for the registration and re-registration of media outlets; the designation and regulation of websites as media resources; vaguely worded obligations for media outlets; and significantly broadened grounds for imposing sanctions on media outlets, including the closure of outlets.
Following the widespread criticism, the presidential administration agreed to revise the draft media law together with independent experts. In December 2022, a working group was set up for this purpose, with its members including officials from the presidential administration and the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy (“Ministry of Culture’’), as well as 15 media representatives. The period for revising the draft law was initially set to expire in March 2023, but was later prolonged until mid-May 2023.
During the reporting period, the presidential administration presented several revised versions of the draft media law to the working group. However, each new version failed to adequately reflect recommendations made by media representatives and, thereby, to address basic shortcomings of the initial draft law. In the view of media experts and lawyers, the presidential administration did not engage in any real dialogue on the draft law, but approached the proposals voiced by media representatives in a formal manner and artificially dragged out the process of considering the draft law within the working group.
Blocking of news sites and closure of media outlet
Serious concerns remained about the controversial law on protection against ‘’false’’ information, which was adopted in summer 2021. In accordance with the law, and implementing rules endorsed by the government in spring 2022, anyone who considers an online publication to contain ‘’incorrect’’ or ‘’false’’ information about them may file a complaint with the Ministry of Culture. Based on such complaints, the Ministry of Culture may order the removal of the content in question and, if the website that posted it fails to do so, the suspension of the entire website for up to two months. No court approval for such orders is needed.
As covered in the previous update, between June and October 2022 the government used the law to initiate the blocking of several independent news sites, including the ResPublika newspaper, the news site 24.kg and the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Azattyk because of material posted by them allegedly contained ‘’false’’ information.
The case against Radio Azattyk continued during the reporting period. The Ministry of Culture first ordered the service’s site to be suspended for two months in October 2022 because of a video report it had posted about the September 2022 hostilities at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, which allegedly contained ‘’unconfirmed’’ allegations about Kyrgyzstan’s role in the hostilities and featured ‘’elements of hate speech’’. The video report, which had been produced by the Russian-language network Current Time operated by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, presented the official views on the hostilities of the authorities of both countries. When the initial period of blocking of Radio Azattyk’s site expired in December 2022, the Ministry of Culture extended it indefinitely until the service removes the report in question from its site.
Radio Azattyk has denied the accusations levelled against it because of the video about the border hostilities, saying the video was in line with its standards of balanced reporting and has refused to take it down. The service’s attempts to legally challenge the Ministry of Culture’s decision to block its site have been unsuccessful. On 7th March 2023, a local court in Bishkek rejected the service’s complaint against this decision, although officials admitted that the Ministry of Culture had not received any formal complaint about the video posted by the service, nor obtained any expert conclusions concerning the hate speech it allegedly contained, and that the decision to block the site had been made entirely based on negative comments on social media.
Even before Radio Azattyk’s appeal against the decision to block its site was considered, in January 2023, the Ministry of Culture filed a petition with a local court, requesting that the service be closed down on the grounds of its failure to delete the video report about the border hostilities. The Ministry argued that the video report allegedly featured elements of ‘’war propaganda’’ and ‘’hate speech’’ in violation of article 23 of the Law on Mass Media, which prohibits such language. The hearing of the petition was subsequently postponed pending a court-ordered linguistic expert assessment of the video. When the commissioned expert presented her findings in late April 2023, she did not offer any conclusive assessment, saying that she did not have the necessary expertise to determine whether the video report featured war propaganda or incitement of inter-ethnic hatred.
Despite the expert’s failure to come up with any conclusions, in a decision issued on 27th April 2023, the local court ruled in favour of the Ministry of Culture’s request to revoke Radio Azattyk’s licence and terminate its activities as a media outlet. RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly called the court ruling ‘’outrageous’’ and media and human rights groups seriously criticised it. For example, in a joint statement, more than 25 local media organisations and representatives said that the decision does not ‘’withstand scrutiny’’, noting that Radio Azattyk was being held accountable simply for providing coverage of the official positions of state bodies of the two neighbouring countries, and violated Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, national laws and international obligations with respect to freedom of expression and access to information. The signatories called on the authorities to put an end to the ‘’unprecedented pressure’’ on Radio Azattyk, stressing that the service has been a major media outlet in Kyrgyzstan for more than 30 years. In its statement, IPHR said that the ruling to close down Radio Azattyk “dealt a serious blow to media freedom’’ in Kyrgyzstan and ‘’should be reversed’’. Earlier, IPHR had joined the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and over 20 other members of the Civic Solidarity Platform in calling for an end to the attacks on Radio Azattyk.
The Kyrgyz service of @RFERL is about to celebrate its 70th anniversary. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and 26 other member organizations of the @CivicSolidarity Platform call on #Kyrgyzstan authorities to stop attacks on @Azattyk_Radiosu @AzattykMedia. https://t.co/QHfmDs6qdw— Norwegian Helsinki Committee (@nhc_no) January 11, 2023
Radio Azattyk announced that it would appeal the ruling, therefore a final decision on this case is yet to be issued.
In another development, shortly after Radio Azattyk’s site was first blocked in October 2022, the service’s bank accounts were frozen based on a decision by the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) to include the service on a list of individuals and organisations accused of money laundering. As a result, the service did not have access to its bank accounts for two months until it was removed from the list in question. A complaint filed by Radio Azattyk against the freezing of its bank accounts was rejected by a local court in December 2022, a decision that was upheld on appeal. Later, in March 2023, a separate lawsuit filed by Radio Azattyk against the SCNS because of the service’s inclusion on the money laundering list was dismissed by another local court on the grounds that the service was no longer featured on the list by that time.
During the period covered by this update, there was also an attempt to block access to the independent Kloop news site. On 1st February 2023, the Ministry of Culture requested Kloop to delete an article on its site that allegedly contained ‘’false’’ information, warning the outlet that its site would otherwise be blocked. The request was made based on a complaint filed by the state Agency for Community Development and Investment concerning an article on the costs of social housing, which referred to this institution. Kloop declined to delete the article, saying that the outlet’s editorial board was in charge of deciding what content was published on its site. Kloop also noted that it had agreed to change the title of the article in question when the state agency contacted it directly to express its misgivings before turning to the Ministry of Culture. The state agency withdrew its complaint on 2nd February 2023, as a result of which the case against Kloop was terminated.
There were also cases in which the Ministry of Culture rejected complaints received against news sites. For example, the Ministry rejected two complaints received regarding stories published by the independent PolitKlinika site, which the complainants alleged to be ‘’false’’. One of the stories mentioned a local judge in a way she considered to be defamatory when covering a controversial case of transfer of land ownership, while the second one concerned a claim made in a report published by the state TV channel ElTR on energy sector development. The Ministry explained its dismissal of these complaints by saying that the information used in the first story had been obtained from state bodies, and the information used in the other one from ‘’open, reliable sources’’. These cases demonstrate the discretion enjoyed by the Ministry of Culture when considering complaints received under the law on the protection against ‘’false’’ information.
Media and civil society representatives have demanded that the law on protection against ‘’false’’ information be repealed, stressing that developments to date have confirmed that it constitutes a censorship tool – which critics warned about when it was adopted. After reviewing Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in October 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee called on the authorities to revise this law and ensure effective safeguards against its misuse. During its Human Rights Dialogue with Kyrgyzstan’s government in September 2022, the EU also raised concerns about the implementation of the law on ‘’false’’ information.
In October 2022, several MPs proposed amendments to the law on ‘’false’’ information. Among others, they proposed that those who request the removal of allegedly incorrect information would have to justify their requests and provide supporting evidence, and that the implementation of decisions issued by the Ministry of Culture would be suspended while appeals against these decisions are being reviewed. Following public discussion of the proposed amendments, they were officially submitted to parliament for consideration in February 2023. As of late April 2023, the amendments were pending comments by the Cabinet of Ministers before consideration would continue at committee level in parliament.
In November 2022, the Constitutional Court accepted for consideration a petition alleging that parts of the implementing rules for the law on protection against ‘’false’’ information were inconsistent with the Constitution. It has yet to issue a decision on this petition at the time of writing.
Defamation lawsuits against independent media
During the reporting period, there were several cases in which state-controlled media outlets sued independent media outlets for defamation, requesting excessively large sums in compensation for alleged moral damages. As pointed out by representatives of the Media Action Platform of Kyrgyzstan, an independent network, the nature of the lawsuits submitted in these cases indicated that government officials were behind them and that this strategy was used to put pressure on media and stifle freedom of expression.
- On 4th February 2023, PolitKlinika posted a story concerning a report carried by the state TV channel ElTR on the development of the energy sector. The story showed that the state TV report had incorrectly claimed that no state loans had been obtained for this purpose during the presidency of Sadyr Japarov. In response, ElTR filed a defamation lawsuit against PolitKlinika, demanding that the outlet and its journalist be ordered to pay a total of 10 million som (around 100,000 EUR) in compensation for alleged moral damages. A local court rejected the lawsuit on technical grounds because the claimant had not paid the applicable state fee. ElTR then filed a new lawsuit against the media outlet with another local court. A preliminary court hearing on this lawsuit was held on 18th April 2023, with the proceedings set to continue in mid-May 2023. Prior to turning to court, ElTR had requested the Ministry of Culture to block PolitKlinika’s site under the law on the protection against ‘’false’’ information, but the Ministry rejected the request (see more above).
- The Vecherniy Bishkek (‘’Evening Bishkek’’) newspaper sued the independent Kaktus.media because of an article published on 29th December 2022, which it argued contained incorrect information about the closure of the print version of the newspaper and the dismissal of employees. Vecherniy Bishkek demanded that Kaktus.media and its founder, chief editor and journalist pay a total of 50 million som (over 500,000 EUR) in compensation for alleged moral damages, in addition to publishing a rebuttal. The trial in the case began in February 2023 and is ongoing at the time of writing. The founder of Kaktus.media, Dina Maslova, said that the article in question was based on information received from employees of Vecherniy Bishkek and that the defamation lawsuit was clearly an attempt to put pressure on Kaktus.media.
As covered before, in October 2022, police arrested close to 30 people, who had openly criticised a draft government negotiated border agreement with neighbouring Uzbekistan concerning the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir. Those arrested included civil society activists, bloggers, human rights defenders, opposition politicians and former public officials.
Most of those arrested were subsequently placed in pre-trial detention on charges of preparing to organise riots, which carry a penalty of up to ten years’ imprisonment. These charges were brought against them although they are only known to have peacefully expressed their opposition to the draft border agreement, demanded transparency of the decision-making process on this issue and peacefully associated with others to challenge the government’s plans for Kempir-Abad. Just before the mass arrests, some of those targeted had set up a public committee for the protection of Kempir-Abad. Excerpts from the conversations between some of those arrested, which were circulated on the internet, appeared to have been cut, edited and presented to make it sound as if the speakers were discussing plans to overthrow the government, although they were only talking about holding peaceful rallies.
The mass arrests were criticised by representatives of both civil society and the international community, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In a joint statement, IPHR, CIVICUS, LPF and eight other NGOs expressed concerns that the criminal cases were initiated against the critics of the draft border agreement in retaliation for their legitimate criticism and civic engagement on the Kempir-Abad issue. These concerns were reinforced by procedural violations related to the arrests and the failure of the remand court to duly justify the use of pre-trial detention as a measure of restraint against those arrested, whereas pre-trial detention should only be used as a measure of last resort when other, less harsh options are not possible. The NGOs called on the authorities to immediately release and drop the charges against all those arrested without credible reason and to safeguard open discussion on this issue.
However, in December 2022, the pre-trial detention of most of those arrested was extended by court despite the apparent lack of tangible progress on the investigation and the absence of any compelling grounds for keeping those concerned behind bars. IPHR regretted these decisions, saying they violated Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations and demonstrated a lack of humanity.
To protest against the extension of their pre-trial detention, former Constitutional Court judge and human rights advocate Klara Sooronkulova, human rights defender Rita Karasartova, civil society activist Perizat Suranova, former MP and opposition activist Orozaiym Narmatova, as well as more than a dozen others, launched a hunger strike and continued it for up to two weeks. Due to the hunger strike, the health and well-being of the detainees seriously deteriorated. At the same time, there were concerns about the lack of access to appropriate medical examinations and assistance for them.
Kyrgyzstan: Why are the 22 ‘Kempir-Abad’ protesters still in pre-trial detention almost 5 months after arrests? Such detention is for exceptional cases. This is not such a situation. Many are sick. Release them & uphold fair trial standards @HRW https://t.co/Bc8W1xuGg9 pic.twitter.com/xgmXX7tqP8— Hugh Williamson (@HughAWilliamson) March 20, 2023
Later, several of the detainees in the case were transferred to house arrest due to health concerns. Among these are Orozaiym Narmatova (released to house arrest in January 2023), Perizat Suranova (released to house arrest in February 2023), Klara Sooronkulova (released to house arrest in April 2023), and two other women activists, ex-MP Asiya Sasykbaeva and ex-member of the Central Election Committee Gulnara Dzhurabaeva (also released to house arrest in April 2023). However, others under investigation, including woman activist Rita Karasartova, remained in detention as of the end of April 2023, with the pre-trial detention having been prolonged until late June 2022.
In mid-January 2023, the Ministry of Interior classified the Kempir-Abad case, as a result of which all court hearings were to take place behind closed doors and lawyers were prohibited from sharing information about the case. This decision, which made it difficult to independently monitor developments in the case, was criticised by experts and lawyers who considered it unfounded and in violation of the rights of the defendants and their legal counsel. In response to a complaint filed by one of the lawyers working on the case, Bishkek City Court ruled in mid-March 2023 to partially lift the case classification, ordering the investigators to identify and separate case materials containing classified information from those not containing any such information.
Corruption whistle-blower deported
In a new, unprecedented turn in the criminal case initiated against him, corruption whistle blowing journalist Bolot Temirov was deported from Kyrgyzstan.
As covered before, Temirov faced multiple criminal charges in 2022 after his online outlet Temir Live published investigations implicating the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security and his family in corruption. Temirov was first charged with the possession of drugs (under Criminal Code article 283) following a dramatic police raid on Temirov Live in January 2022 during which he said police planted drugs on him. Later, Temirov, also holding a Russian passport, was additionally charged with allegedly forging documents he used to obtain and renew his Kyrgyz passport and with allegedly using this passport to illegally cross the border (under Criminal Code articles 379 and 378). In an unexpected ruling issued in September 2022, a local court in Bishkek acquitted the journalist of charges of drug possession and illegal border crossing and did not hand down any sentence on the charges of document forgery due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.
When hearing the case on appeal on 23rd November 2022, Bishkek City Court upheld the ruling of the lower-level court and, thus, did not hand down a sentence under any of the criminal code provisions under which Temirov had been prosecuted. However, on unclear legal grounds, the court nevertheless ruled that Temirov was subject to deportation as a foreign citizen, although his lawyers insisted that he is a Kyrgyz citizen and cannot be expelled from the country. Law enforcement officials detained Temirov with the use of force in the courtroom, took him to the airport and placed him on a flight to Moscow. Along with other NGOs, IPHR expressed dismay at this course of events, stating that Temirov’s deportation was ‘’the most recent development in an orchestrated campaign of retaliation against him because of his journalistic activities and his investigations into high-level corruption.’’ IPHR called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to reverse the decision and allow him to return to Kyrgyzstan and continue his journalistic work there without further persecution.
We denounce today's deportation of journalist Bolot Temirov from Kyrgyzstan to Russia as the most recent act in an orchestrated campaign of retaliation against him. It should be reversed & he should be allowed to return and continue his journalistic work! https://t.co/QF84zhHaEd pic.twitter.com/j56EfooXq4— IPHR (@IPHR) November 23, 2022
Cases against bloggers
As reported before, in recent months, security services have summoned, warned and initiated criminal cases against a number of bloggers because of social media posts on issues sensitive to the authorities which have been argued to contain ‘’false’’ information. Bloggers have been charged under broadly worded provisions of the Criminal Code, including article 330, which penalises ‘’incitement’’ to ethnic, national and other hatred without clearly defining this offence, and article 278, which prohibits calls for disobedience against authorities and for riots.
Below we provide an update on several cases previously covered:
- Facebook blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev was detained by police in August 2022 after posting an old video appeal in which a former high-ranking security service official and political rival of President Japarov spoke critically about the latter’s plans regarding the Jetim-Too iron ore field. Zhekshenaliev was accused of spreading ‘’incorrect’’ information and attempting to ‘’manipulate public information’’ regarding Jetim-Too. He was first placed in pre-trial detention but later transferred to house arrest on charges of calling for active disobedience to the lawful demands of representatives of the authorities and for riots (part 3 of article 278 of the Criminal Code). In early April 2023, at the trial against Zhekshenaliev, the prosecution requested that he be sentenced to six years in prison on these charges. The verdict was expected to be announced on 19th April 2023, but the hearing was postponed due to the illness of the judge.
- Blogger Adilet Ali Myktybek (also known as Adilet Baltabay) was detained in summer 2022 and charged with calling for disobedience to the lawful demands of authorities and for riots (under Criminal Code article 278) because of a series of Facebook posts. In his posts Mykytbek has spoken out on different issues, among others a government initiative to legalise casinos, the extraction of natural resources, and plans for the construction of a new presidential residence. On 11th November 2023, a local court in Bishkek found Myktybek guilty on the charges initiated against him and sentenced him to five years in prison but also ruled that he should be released subject to probation for three years. When hearing the case on appeal in January 2023, Bishkek City Court overturned the lower-level court’s decision with respect to probation, as a result of which the blogger was sent to prison to serve his sentence. However, in April 2023, the Supreme Court ruled to re-instate the probation ordered by the local court, whereby the blogger was released again.
- In summer 2022, a criminal case was opened against blogger Aizhana Myrsalieva (also known as Aizhan Myrsan) because of video posted on TikTok in March 2022, which contained excerpts from an earlier Facebook livestream in which the blogger criticised the lack of achievements of ethnic Kyrgyz during Kyrgyzstan’s 30 years of independence and their approach to other nationalities in the country. Although herself an ethnic Kyrgyz, she was charged with inciting inter-national hatred (under Criminal Code article 300). In a decision handed down in March 2023, a local court in Bishkek convicted Myrsalieva of the charges brought against her and fined her 100,000 som (around 1000 EUR). The blogger announced that she was appealing the decision.
Draft legislation put forward by the Ministry of Culture in February 2023 threatens to result in censorship of film screenings in Kyrgyzstan. The proposed legislation would require that anyone who disseminates or screens films in the country, including at festivals, seminars and other non-commercial events obtain pre-approval from the state, unlike currently when only cinema operators and official film distributors are required to obtain permission. At the same time, no clear criteria have been set out for making decisions on the issuance of the required distribution certificates. Critics fear that the draft legislation, if adopted, could result in films on sensitive issues being arbitrarily banned from being shown, in violation of Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations with respect to freedom of expression. This could also have a chilling impact on creative freedom in film-making.
Draft legislation in Kyrgyzstan threatens to result in censorship by requiring pre-state approval for any film screenings, including at film festivals & other noncommercial events - statement by IPHR, @SorosKyrgyzstan, @MediaKg, @adilet_lc, @birduinokr: https://t.co/a21uEmzLaj— IPHR (@IPHR) April 24, 2023
Already before the introduction of the new draft legislation, a case of undue state interference with the programme at a non-commercial film screening was reported. The Bir Duino Human Rights Movement organised its annual human rights documentary film festival in Bishkek in November 2022. When the festival was already under way, the commercial director of the movie theatre where it was held informed the organisers that two of the films on the programme had been banned from being shown because they allegedly contained war propaganda. Bir Duino dismissed these allegations, saying that there was no such propaganda in the two films which, like the others featured on the programme, had been selected by a special festival committee. The organisation considered the ban to be in violation of freedom of expression standards set out by the constitution and international law. One of the banned films, ‘’Mara’’, captures the changing emotions of ordinary people after the 2020 elections in Belarus, when mass protests broke out. The other film, "This Rain Will Never Stop’’ tells the story of a young man who fled from the war in Syria to Ukraine, which also turns into a conflict zone. The prohibition on the screening of the two films was eventually lifted.
Pressure against Ombudsperson
In another development that illustrates the shrinking space for expressing criticism of official policies in Kyrgyzstan, Ombudsperson Atyr Abdrakhmatova came under fire in April 2023. After she presented her annual report, a group of pro-government MPs proposed her dismissal in an initiative that appeared to have been prompted by discontent with the active and independent approach she has assumed since taking office in 2022. Abdrakhmatova has publicly challenged the lawfulness of actions taken by state bodies in a number of cases, including in the Kempir-Abad case.
Representatives of civil society and the international community came out in Abdrakhmatova’s support. In a joint appeal, more than 60 local CSO leaders called for Abdrakhmatova to be allowed to continue her work without being subjected to pressure, stressing that her mandate involves speaking out about problems and shortcomings in human rights protection. They also pointed out that the current rules under which parliament has powers to prematurely terminate the period in office of the ombudsperson are not in line with the so-called Paris Principles, which set out that members of national human rights institutions should be allowed to enjoy a stable mandate for a specific duration to be determined when they are appointed in order to ensure their independence.
The Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF) and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) stated that they were ‘’deeply concerned’’ that Abdrakhmatova was facing the threat of early termination of her appointment ‘’as a direct response to legitimate actions taken in an official capacity in fulfilling her mandate to promote and protect human rights”.
Human Rights Watch warned that Abdrakhmatova’s dismissal ‘’would be another troubling signal to the international community that Kyrgyzstan does not take its human rights obligations seriously” and called on the authorities to ensure that the Ombudsperson's Office ‘’remains independent and is able to carry out its mandate to protect human rights in Kyrgyzstan without interference.”
However, despite the criticism, a majority of MPs voted in favour of terminating Abdrakhmatova’s term in office at a parliamentary session held on 3rd May 2023. In its comment on this decision, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Abdrakhmatova’s early dismissal was ‘’a step back for the national human rights protection system’’. The EU stated that her early dismissal came in a context of ‘’negative developments related to human rights in Kyrgyzstan’’ and ‘’cast a shadow over its overall human rights record’’.
Draft NGO laws
A new draft law on NGOs, which was put forward for public discussion by the presidential administration in November 2022, proposed to significantly increase state control over NGOs and provided for excessive restrictions on the operations of such organisations. Among others, in accordance with the draft law, all NGOs would have to register with the authorities in order to operate lawfully in the country, and pre-registered NGOs would have to re-register or else face liquidation. At the same time, some of the grounds for denying registration were vaguely and ambiguously worded, giving rise to concerns that they could be used to silence groups which are inconvenient to those in power. The draft law also granted broad powers to authorities to oversee NGOs’ compliance not only with national law but also with their statutes, thus affording state bodies the role of controlling whether NGOs ‘’correctly’’ implement their own mandates.
The draft law drew strong criticism from civil society. For example, in a joint statement, IPHR and CIVICUS called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to withdraw the draft law, saying it ‘’mirrors NGO legislation seen in more repressive countries in the post-Soviet region’’ and that going ahead with it ‘’would seriously endanger the operating freedom of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan and undermine hard-won gains in terms of civil society participation in the country.’’ Based on a request from Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsperson, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued an urgent interim opinion on the draft law in December 2022. The ODIHR seriously criticised the draft law, saying that its provisions were incompatible with international human rights standards and were ‘’overly and unduly restrictive to the right to establish associations and to carry out their activities free from state interference’’, and called on the authorities to refrain from pursuing its adoption.
📢🇰🇬#Kyrgyzstan's authorities should drop ill-considered & restrictive draft NGO law which would seriously endanger the operation of civil society groups in the country! Joint statement by @IPHR and @CIVICUSalliance 👉 https://t.co/QHNxHLahJd pic.twitter.com/eJEhrmWJQA— IPHR (@IPHR) November 18, 2022
In response to the criticism, the presidential administration pledged to revise the draft law. In February 2023, the president signed a decree on the establishment of a working group composed of government officials and 15 NGO representatives which was charged with revising the draft law by 1st June 2023.
In another separate, alarming initiative, Member of Parliament Nadira Narmatova put forward a repressive and stigmatising draft law, which would in particular endanger foreign-funded CSOs if adopted. Narmatova is a well-known advocate of tighter restrictions on NGOs and was one of the initiators of a previous Russia-inspired draft ‘’foreign agents’’ law, which parliament eventually voted down in 2016 following heavy criticism by civil society and the international community. Narmatova’s new draft law features similar provisions to the previous initiative and provides for excessive, unjustified and discriminatory restrictions on the right to freedom of association in violation of international standards. Among others, in accordance with the draft law, CSOs which receive financial assistance from foreign sources and engage in broadly defined ‘’political activities’’ would be required to register as organisations ‘’performing the function of a foreign representative’’ – a highly stigmatising label. The failure to do so could result in their activities being suspended for up to six months without a court decision.
In a joint appeal disseminated in November 2022, more than 30 representatives of Kyrgyzstani human rights NGOs called on members of parliament to reject the draft law initiated by Narmatova. IPHR supported the calls of local CSOs, stressing that the draft law falls seriously short of Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations. The ODIHR also critically assessed this draft legislation, noting that it is highly similar to the draft ‘’foreign agents’’ law it previously reviewed and provides for restrictions that ‘’are not prescribed by law nor necessary in a democratic society, and therefore not compliant with the right to freedom of association’’.
📢🇰🇬We support calls by local NGOs for the rejection of a repressive & stigmatising ''foreign agents'' style draft law in Kyrgyzstan. We urge international actors to speak out against this & another recent dangerous draft NGO law in the country https://t.co/pFqFBkiolV pic.twitter.com/zD8uE7BeQ1— IPHR (@IPHR) November 24, 2022
The period of public discussion of the draft law initiated by Narmatova was extended until 21st June 2023, after which it will go to parliament for consideration unless she withdraws it. During the reporting period, the MP avoided public exchanges about her initiative despite attempts at dialogue from the side of civil society.
Following the introduction of the draft NGO law elaborated by the presidential administration in November 2022, human rights defenders reported about a series of unscheduled inspections of human rights NGOs by the state tax service. The tax service claimed that the inspections were aimed at assessing the organisations’ compliance with national tax legislation and that its inspectors were only requesting information to this end. However, human rights defenders questioned the nature, purpose and legal basis of the inspections. According to Gulshaiyr Abdirasulova, when inspecting the Kylym Shamy NGO which she heads, inspectors were requesting information about lawyers the organisation had engaged to defend victims of human rights violations and about the cases the lawyers had worked on. She also said that the organisation had been told that the inspection was based on a ‘’official note’’ addressed to the tax service ‘’from above’’ and concluded that the service clearly was not interested in tax issues.
NGO leader finally acquitted in protracted case
Following a protracted legal struggle, in January 2023, the Supreme Court finally acquitted human rights defender and head of the NGO Ventus, Kamil Ruziev of charges initiated in retaliation for efforts to ensure accountability for unlawful practices by security services. Thereby, the Supreme Court overturned an October 2022 decision issued by the Issyk-Kul Regional Court, which convicted him of forgery and fined him 80,000 Som (about 1,000 EUR). Prior to the issuance of that decision, in August 2022, Karakol City Court had found Ruziev not guilty of these charges.
The criminal case against Ruziev was opened in summer 2020 after he had been working for years to document torture and other human rights violations committed by security service and law enforcement officials and submitted complaints to courts in such cases. He also took legal action against a former high-ranking security service official who had threatened to kill him, including at gunpoint, because of his accountability work. Ruziev was charged with allegedly forging a medical certificate to extend the deadline for appealing the decision in a court case he was working on. He denied these charges and an expert assessment conducted as part of the proceedings confirmed the genuineness of his medical certificate. Both human rights groups and representatives of the international community, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, spoke out in support of Ruziev.
In a development that followed his acquittal, Ruziev reported in February 2023 that a bank in his home city Karakol had declined to open a new checking account for his organisation Ventus on unclear grounds. Previously the same bank had closed the organisation’s foreign currency account.
During the reporting period, people in Kyrgyzstan continued to hold peaceful assemblies on different issues of concern to them. While most protests took place without interference, threats to the freedom of peaceful assembly remained. In particular, the problematic practice of court-sanctioned, extended blanket bans on protests in central areas of the capital Bishkek continued.
As covered before, in accordance with a ruling issued by the Pervomaisky District Court in April 2022, peaceful assemblies were prohibited outside the Russian embassy, the presidential administration, the parliament building and the headquarters of the State Committee for National Security, as well as on the central Ala-Too Square until September 2022. Only official events organised at Ala-Too Square were exempted from the ban. The court ban was subsequently prolonged several times, most recently until 1 July 2023. Protesters were instructed to instead gather in a park specifically designated for holding assemblies, namely Gorky Park.
With reference to the court-sanctioned restrictions, police have repeatedly carried out detentions, including in the following cases documented during the reporting period:
- On 15th November 2022, police detained well-known human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova outside parliament, where a group of women had gathered to peacefully and quietly protest against the government-negotiated agreement with Uzbekistan concerning the Kempir-Abad water reservoir. According to Abdirasulova, she was present to monitor the protest, not take part in it. Prior to her detention, one of the police officers reportedly accused her of being drunk and using foul language. She was released later the same day but a local court subsequently fined her 3000 som (around 30 EUR) for allegedly failing to comply with the lawful demands of a law enforcement officer (under article 128 of the Code of Offences). When hearing the case on appeal, Bishkek City Court overturned her conviction. Abdirasulova linked her detention to her human rights activities and, in particular, her engagement in support of those detained in the Kempir-Abad case (see Association). The day before her detention, the head of a local police department summoned her for a ‘’discussion’’, warning her to ‘’write less’’ on social media. On her Facebook page, Abdirasulova has actively taken a stand on different issues, including the Kempir-Abad case.
- On 10th January 2023, some 30 people gathered in central Bishkek for a peaceful march to express support for those held in pre-trial detention in the Kempir-Abad case and call for their release. Police detained a total of 27 people, including elderly women who were relatives, acquaintances and supporters of those held behind bars in the Kempir-Abad case. According to media reports, several journalists who covered the rally were also detained together with the protesters. While most of those detained were subsequently released without charge, several of them were charged and penalised for allegedly violating the procedure for holding peaceful protests and failing to comply with the lawful demands of law enforcement officers (articles 139 and 128 of the Code of Offences). Among them were civil society activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov, who was fined 3000 som (around 30 EUR), with his conviction being upheld on appeal by Bishkek City Court. As covered before, Ondurush Toktonasyrov has also previously been detained and fined when taking part in peaceful protests held in parts of Bishkek subject to the court-imposed ban on protests.
The practice of blanket bans on protests in central areas of Bishkek has been criticised not only by CSOs, but also international human rights experts. After reviewing Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in October 2022, the Human Rights Committee called on the authorities of the country to refrain from blanket restrictions on peaceful assemblies and from selective and discriminatory dispersal of peaceful assemblies.
Кемпир-Абад боюнча камалгандарды бошотуу талабы менен чыккандарды кармап кетишти pic.twitter.com/n3oeGXdI1p— Aibek Turdaaly (@Aibek_Turdaliev) January 10, 2023