Ongoing surveillance of NGO workers despite Presidential assurances on human rights

This update covers events from 15th August to 15th December 2018 and was prepared by Legal Prosperity Foundation and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR).

The Kyrgyzstani authorities committed to improve the human rights situation in the country. On 10th December 2018, when speaking at a conference in the context of the 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in Bishkek, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov stated that "the protection of human rights has been and remains the main responsibility of our country".

During the conference, the UN Representative highlighted that there is a strong and dynamic civil society in Kyrgyzstan and encouraged the authorities to swiftly adopt the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and implement the National Plan on compliance with human rights, as this would show the international community that the country is adhering to international human rights standards.

However, despite these commitments, the conditions for civil society in Kyrgyzstan have not improved -as illustrated by the cases of restrictions of fundamental freedoms during the reporting period-. These cases mainly relate to what civil society representatives see as systematic surveillance by the State Committee of National Security (GKNB, Russian acronym) of civil society members. 

Association

Due to recent events, it appears that civil society continues to be closely monitored and under surveillance. On 7th September 2018, during a funeral gathering in a café organised for the husband of human rights defender Rita Karasartova, human rights defenders Gulnara Dzhurabaeva, Dinara Oshurakhunova and Burul Makenbaeva found a recording device under the table where they were sitting. The activists filed a complaint to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who stated that the complaint would be transferred to the GKNB for investigation. Dzhurabaeva expressed dissatisfaction with the decision, as she believed that the GKNB itself was responsible for placing the recording device. 

A related incident occurred in June 2018, when, during a meeting between civil society representatives and members of Parliament about the GKNB control mechanisms, unknown people posing as journalists filmed the human rights defenders attending the meeting. When the people filming were asked their identity, they ran away. Dinara Oshurakhunova wrote to the GKNB asking them to identify those who attend human rights conferences and film the attendees. However, Oshurakhunova withdrew the complaint on 11th October as "I understood that no one wants to find these guys [who were filming]. Maybe GKNB even sent them to our meetings. Therefore, I withdrew the appeal". According to member of Parliament Iskhak Masaliev, there have been no investigations on surveillance, as all materials in such cases have been transferred to GKNB, after which, nothing has happened.

In a separate development, human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of killing a policeman during the tragic events in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, has stated that he no longer has any faith in the rule of law, and will not appeal his case. It is believed that he was imprisoned on politically-motivated grounds.

On 16th November 2018, Brigitte Dufour, IPHR Director, visited Azimjan Askarov in a pre-trial detention center in Bishkek. In the room where the meeting took place, Askarov stood behind bars forming a cage. Askarov expressed his humiliation at having to meet in such conditions, as well as his frustration and deep feelings of injustice after almost nine years of imprisonment with seemingly no prospect of being reunited with his family in his old age.

On 6th December 2018 IPHR, Amnesty International, Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Watch issued a collective appeal to the EU asking them to encourage the Kyrgyzstani authorities to release Askarov immediately and unconditionally. Despite the UN Human Rights Committee calling for his immediate release in 2016, he still remains behind bars. 

In a separate development, according to the conclusions of a study under the project ”Giving Voice, Driving Change – From the Borderland to the Steppes” supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the main obstacles to the development of civil society organisations are a lack of financial resources, a reduction in public trust in the civic sector, as well as strict legal restrictions and government control relating to NGOs. Almost half of respondents (47.4%) believes that the civil society sector will grow, but 25% disagree with this statement.  

Expression

The UN Human Rights Committee accepted a complaint submitted by Cholpon Djakupova, director of the legal clinic Adilet, and Narynbek Idinov, founder of the Zanoza news outlet, in relation to the 2017 court decision issued in favour of then-President Almazbek Atambaev convicting them for “insulting the dignity and honour of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic” under Article 4 of the 2003 Law on Guarantees of the Activities of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic. Djakupova and Idinov complained about the failure of courts to adhere to the standards of rule of law. Former President Almazbek Atambaev later admitted to having made a mistake when suing Cholpon Djakupova and different journalists and media outlets in 2017.

In a positive development, on 17th October 2018 the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that Article 4 of the Law “On Guarantees of the Activities of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic” is unconstitutional. As a result, the General Prosecutor’s Office can no longer file lawsuits in court in defence of the “honour and dignity” of the head of state without the knowledge and consent of the latter. 

President Jeenbekov publicly addressed journalists on 7th November 2018, when celebrating the Day of Information and Press of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, saying: We appreciate and rely on the support of the media in carrying out the reforms aimed at the development of the country and ensuring the well-being of the Kyrgyz people and the fight against corruption in all government bodies."

According to the study mentioned in the Association section above, the study also sheds light on how the media cover civil society issues. The report states that journalists in Kyrgyzstan more often cover human rights and corruption issues, but rarely report on environmental issues and NGOs working in the environmental sector. This is because environmental NGOs prefer to disseminate information on their work through social media rather than traditional media outlets. The research further highlights that journalists in Kyrgyzstan believe, that shedding light on corruption and human rights cases will mobilise the people and in this way force the authorities to implement changes and reforms. However, there is general need for more investigative journalism in the country as editors continue to underestimate the value and impact of investigative journalism. Additionally, the research found that NGOs are not always interested in cooperating with journalists on investigative pieces, as many of them are disappointed in the traditional media coverage of NGO work which has been somewhat superficial and critical. The research also concluded that obstacles for media in the country include the lack of financial resources, insufficient journalistic training, as well as a market-based media sector.