Some positive civic space developments, but more to be done to keep promises

This update covers events from 1st January to 31st March 2019 and was prepared by Legal Prosperity Foundation Kyrgyzstan and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR).

As reported previously on the Monitor, the Kyrgyzstani authorities committed to improve the human rights situation in the country. Despite these commitments and the desire for a more constructive cooperation with civil society made over a year ago, human rights challenges persist in Kyrgyzstan.

These challenges are believed to contribute to a decrease in public confidence in the authorities. According to National Statistical Committee data, public confidence stood at 25.2 points in the second half of 2018, falling by 2.2 points since the beginning of the year. 

Studies show that the problems are likely to be exacerbated if effective measures against corruption are not adopted soon. Despite the President declaring a ‘war on corruption’ in early 2018, 41 percent of respondents in a sociological survey commissioned by International Republican Institute, an international development democracy organisation, felt that corruption remains at the same level and 12 percent felt it had become much worse.

There are periodic outbursts of negative opinion towards human rights organisations, which began in 2016 with the (so far unsuccessful) campaign to pass a law on “foreign agents” which would involve labelling human rights groups as “foreign agents”.

Recent attempts by individual members of parliament to re-initiate the adoption of this law and to strengthen control over the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) go against President Jeenbekov’s stated desire for more constructive interaction with civil society.

On a positive note, on 14th March 2019, President Jeenbekov signed into law Kyrgyzstan’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Amnesty International welcomed this decision, stating that “the ratification of the Convention paves the road to the effective inclusion of 180,000 people living with disabilities in the social and economic life of Kyrgyzstan”. 

Association

Action for equality triggered renewed calls for tight control over non-governmental organisations

On 8th March 2019 the annual march for International Women’s Day took place in Bishkek with the participation of about 400 civic activists as well as politicians and members of the LGBT community. The march aimed at refocusing attention on the struggle for equal rights and opportunities. However, after seeing posters with slogans in support of LGBT rights, some members of parliament and citizens saw the march as a ‘gay parade’. In consequence, some members of the Jogorku Kenesh (Parliament) began to push for tighter controls over NGO activities at a subsequent parliamentary debate.

Comments from MPs included: “The 8 March event was organised by NGOs and international organisations. Kyrgyzstan was the first country in Central Asia ever to hold a gay parade. It brings shame on the country”. "They [NGOs] get a lot of money from donors, but it’s not clear what their goal is, we need to raise this issue again."

In 2016 the Kyrgyzstani authorities tried to pass a bill equating NGOs with “foreign agents” and establishing tight state control over their activities. Parliament amended the draft law, leaving only a provision requiring NGOs to publish their budgets. The bill was then frozen until it was voted down by a majority of deputies who believed that if adopted, the law would have had a negative impact on the activities of civil society and the international image of Kyrgyzstan. 

However, the initiative has resurfaced recently as the call by individual deputies for increased control over the activities of NGOs was supported by the State Committee for National Security (SCNS). Orozbek Opumbaev, the deputy head of the SCNS suggested that deputies draft a law on NGOs similar to the one adopted in Russia several years ago:

“Today we need a law like that on non-governmental organisations, adopted in Russia and in other countries. The biggest problem is that funding goes unchecked, especially for LGBT people ... If we pass a law like this, we will know which international organization is lobbying for this kind of action, which foreigners will visit and what we can do to oppose this.”

Members of the radical movement "Kyrk Choro" threatened a participant of the march live on television. The individual also held a protest demanding the resignation of the mayor of Bishkek, and that “LGBT propaganda” should be banned and that parliament should revise the law on NGO activities, saying that they were ready to take extreme actions if their demands were not met. 

Azimjan Askarov case

In 2016 the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a decision where it stated that human rights defender Azimjan Askarov had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied fair trial rights and recommended that the authorities immediately release Askarov, who is serving a life sentence. However, Kyrgyzstan did not follow this recommendation. In early April 2018, Azimjan Askarov’s wife Khadicha Askarova appealed to President Jeenbekov to send her husband’s case and the cases of the seven people convicted with him for independent examination.

A year later, Khadicha Askarova has again requested President Jeenbekov to pay attention to her husband’s case, as a victim of torture. Her appeal was supported by the lawyer of the convicted human rights activist and the head of the human rights center "Bir Duino" Tolekan Ismailova.

In a separate incident, the State Committee for National Security refused to institute criminal proceedings relating to wiretapping of human rights defenders meeting in the café “Bukhara”. As previously reported on the Monitor in September 2018 Gulnara Dzhurabaeva and other human rights activists found a voice recorder under their table in a café where they were meeting. The NGO representatives lodged a complaint with the SCNS after the incident. However, according to Gulnara Dzhurabayeva, the SCNS replied in early January 2019, saying that the complaint would only be considered if a civil case was filed with the court, which would then instruct law enforcement agencies to investigate the incident. 

The activists however stated:

“But the details of the procedure are not clear. We don’t know the body responsible against whom we should initiate a civil case. Who should we lodge a complaint against? The owner of the café? The waiter? Logically, the person or body who installed the recording device should be held accountable.” 

Expression

On 19th March 2019, Shaista Shatmanova, editor of the publication “Super Info” stated at a press conference that the State Service for Combating Economic Crimes (GSBEP) is seeking to close the newspaper on what she claimed are false charges. Shatmanova reported that T. Nasykulov appealed to GSBEP raising doubts about the circulation and the print runs declared by newspapers “Shambala” and “Pyramid Plus”. She claimed that although her newspaper “Super Info” was not included in the complaint, the GSBEP nevertheless decided to begin extensive checks and started pre-trial proceedings. “Finpol [a nickname for GSBEP] accuses us of violations under an article, [ Article 113 of the Unified Register of Crimes and Offences] which provides for punishment in the form of termination of activity. In other words, they want to close our newspaper down.”

According to Kylychbek Sultan, the founder of “Super Info”, the GSBEP is following orders from presidential staff to put pressure on the newspaper: “The charges are fabricated. This kind of pressure has always been used against opposition media. I believe that the presidential apparatus has issued an order to close us down. This is their response to my allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” 

Zhanarbek Akaev, independent deputy to the Jogorku Kenesh and former journalist said that the incident showed the authorities putting pressure on free media. “Official bodies should not put pressure on independent media. They apparently think ‘if we keep a tight hold on them, and call them for interrogations, they will stop writing the truth about corruption’. But I think this is short sighted. The authorities should not be afraid of free media, but rather enlist their support to fight against corruption.”

On the same day as the press conference, Pervomaysky District Court of Bishkek granted the application of lawyers for the “Super-info” newspaper, and annulled two GSBEP orders for tax audits. Editor Shaista Shatmanova welcomed the court decision as protecting freedom of speech:

“The court satisfied our complaint that the rulings issued by the inspector of the financial police were illegal. We think that we thus made an invaluable contribution to the future of freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan. We hope that after this the state bodies will not unreasonably interfere in the work of the media.”

Peaceful Assembly

Peaceful assemblies, continue to be an integral part of life in modern Kyrgyzstan. People who want to attract the attention of state bodies and local self-government to certain problems, or express an opinion on an issue, can plan in advance or spontaneously decide to gather in any public place, as guaranteed by the Constitution and the law “On Peaceful Assemblies”.

Citizens participate in public events to express their opinion on a wide range of issues, including political, social and economic problems.In the period under review demonstrations were held which demanded equal rights and opportunities, voiced support for the newspaper “Super Info”, or protested against what protesters termed “Chinese expansion”.

All demonstrations were peaceful and held without interference from the authorities, with the exception of the protest against the “Chinese expansion”. On 17th January 2019, an anti-Chinese rally was held on the main square of the capital “Ala-Too” with about 200 participants who demanded restrictions on the issuance of visas to Chinese citizens, the return of the “nationality” column to passports, as well as a moratorium on issuing Kyrgyzstani citizenship. The meeting organisers had agreed on the time and place of the meeting with the city authorities — it was supposed to end at 13:00. But at the agreed time, protesters refused to leave Ala-Too Square, and decided to continue the rally at the Houses of Parliament.Despite requests from law enforcement officials and the organiser of the rally to disperse, meeting participants refused to leave Ala-Too Square. Some participants tried to instigate disturbances of public order by trying to block roads or shouting aggressive slogans. The police then began to disperse the protesters. 

As a result, 21 people were detained for disobedience of the lawful demand of a police officer, and each was fined three thousand soms (around USD 45). 

One participant was detained in relation to allegations of calling for inter-ethnic hostility, and an investigation into her actions is underway.

On 8th March 2019, a large group of people gathered in Bishkek to draw attention to the rights of women and refocus attention on the struggle for equal rights and opportunities. The organisers had given prior notice of the march to the local authorities, who initially refused permission but then allowed it and ensured the safety of the organisers and participants throughout the event.

Although the Mayor of Bishkek declared that the march was completely legal, as citizens have the constitutional right to hold rallies, MP Jyldyz Musabekova proposed that the law on rallies is amended to ensure that “organizers say what will be written on posters.”

On 27th March 2019, activist Nurlan Karymshakov and his wife Gulnaz Imaeva were detained near the Russian Embassy in Bishkek, where they were holding a picket in protest against the policies of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who was due to visit Kyrgyzstan the next day. The picketers held posters saying: “Putin is an aggressor”, "Occupant”,“ Murderer”, and also “ We do not need a military base”.

The police stated the grounds for their detention as calling for ethnic hatred and opened a criminal investigation under Article 313 of the Kyrgyzstani Criminal Code ("Incitement of racial, ethnic, national, religious or inter-regional hostility / discord"). The investigation is ongoing.