Lawsuits, attacks and harassment used against journalists, activists and human rights defenders

This update covers events from 1st April 2019 to 30th June 2019 and was prepared by Legal Prosperity Foundation Kyrgyzstan and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR). During this period several attacks against human rights defenders were documented and are explained in more detail bellow.

The US Department of State published a report on human rights in Kyrgyzstan in 2018, where certain improvements on human rights under the rule of President Sooronbai Jeenbekov were highlighted. The report acknowledged a "more relaxed press environment" and that the government, in general, allowed access to the internet. In addition, the report stated that the freedom of peaceful assembly is generally respected. However, the report also stated that some “some journalists reported intimidation related to coverage of sensitive topics, such as inter-ethnic relations, “religious extremism," or the rise of nationalism.”

In addition, corruption and impunity remain some of the main problems that entail a growing distrust in the current government and president Jeenbekov. Despite the fact that the government has taken steps to ensure the proper investigation, prosecution and punishment of individuals responsible for human rights abuses and corruption, the lack of convictions of public officials remains problematic in Kyrgyzstan.

President Jeenbekov periodically utters his support for the democratic development of Kyrgyzstan and claims to continually ensure the protection of human rights and freedom of speech. Recently, Jeenbekov also underlined the importance of cooperation with the European Union and stressed that a strengthening of the cooperation between EU and Kyrgyzstan should be facilitated by the new EU-Central Asia Strategy, which was signed on 06th July 2019 in Bishkek. The document envisages reinforced cooperation, focusing on politics, economy, investment, promotion of trade and economic cooperation, and sustainable development.

Association

There has been a continuation of calls for violence directed towards the LGBTI community and feminist groups in Kyrgyzstan. As reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, the march held on International Women’s Day on 08th March by feminist groups and activists, implicated renewed public discussions on the LGBT community. The march subsequently provoked lawmakers to attempt to  reinforce control over the NGO sector. At this point, however, the have been no attempts in parliament to re-examine the draft law on foreign agents. However, the harmful rhetoric on social networks and media directed towards the LGBTI and feminist groups has continued.

On 1st May 2019, representatives of the movement 8/365 (an initiative uniting feminist, women’s rights, LGBTI groups and activists) gathered to celebrate the international May holiday with a picnic in the Fuchik Park in Bishkek. However, the conservative nationalist movement Kyrk Choro, which is infamous for its intolerance to feminists and the LGBTI community, disturbed the event. Taking advantage of the passivity of the bystanding police officers, Kyrk Choro attacked the gathered activists by throwing eggs and paint at their cars. 

Consequently, the 8/365 movement filed a complaint to the police claiming that the actions of Kyrk-Choro were “hooliganism”, and the case is currently under investigation. On 27th May 2019, the 8/365 movement issued an open appeal to president Sooronbai Jeenbekov calling the president to ensure full and unbiased investigations of the rights violations and inaction of police officers, and to take systemic steps to in the future ensure the safety of all citizens – without exceptions. The president has not responded to the open appeal.

Aggressive intervention during Coalition against Torture meeting

On 23rd May 2019, unidentified individuals associated with the Kyrgyz Youth Patriotic Movement burst into the hall where a meeting between lawyers and the Kyrgyz Coalition against Torture was taking place. The group, holding cameras and recording devices, demanded the end of the meeting.The individuals reportedly stated that western countries and foreign-funded organisations are attempting to destabilise Kyrgyzstan. Lawyers from the Coalition explained that the meeting concerned discussions with international experts regarding legal practices on protection against torture, after which the individuals acknowledged "they had been misinformed.” The lawyers subsequently filed a complaint with the police regarding hooliganism and obstruction of professional activities.

Front Line Defenders raised concerns about the attempt to obstruct the work of Coalition against Torture, stating that the disruption of the meeting is part of wider attempts to prevent human rights NGOs working on torture and ill-treatment from conducting their activities. Front Line Defenders called on the Kyrgyz authorities to carry out an impartial and thorough investigation of the events, bring those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards, and guarantee that all human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan are able to carry out their work without fear of reprisals. 

Fire in NGO office

On 6th April 2019, there was a fire in the office of the organisation Spectrum in Karakol town in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Spectrum is a member of the Kyrgyz Coalition against Torture. According to the Coalition, the two-room office was set on fire by unknown individuals. Allegedly, it was clear that someone had searched the office before to the fire.

Everything was turned upside down. It is good that all valuables and equipment were outside the office. The fire destroyed valuable documents and papers belonging to the organisation, accumulated over many years,” stated Ella Matveev, a representative of Spectrum. 

Azimjan Askarov case

Human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, was sentenced to life imprisonment for organising mass disturbances in June 2010, in a case that is widely seen to be politically motivated. On 11th March 2019 the authorities issued a decision for the seizing of Askarov’s house.The decision was issued after Azimjan Askarov’s wife, Khadicha Askarova was not able to pay moral damages compensation awarded the wife of policeman Myktybek Sulaimanov killed during the events of 2010.

The decision was first issued in 2012 as part of the criminal case against Askarov. However, the Bazar-Korgon District Court in Djalal-Abad annulled the decision, "due to mistakes in the confiscation procedures." In March 2019 however, the lien was reinstated.

Tursunbek Akun, former Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan, stated:

The court is asking for excessive punishment. His wife has been left without protection, it is hard for her. In short, both sides are now suffering. In this case, they should not torment Khadicha Askarova like this, and how can they take her home away? And throw her on the street? This is not humane. At the same time, the state should support Sulaimanov’s widow and help her. If they cannot collect this money from Askarova, they should find another sponsor… to assist with the financing. It is necessary [for the state to provide funds] in order not to leave both widows on the street.

Khadicha Askarova stated:

My husband is in prison for something he has not done. First they give him a life sentence, and now they confiscate the house. I have to pay KGS 175 000 (2,233 EUR). I am a pensioner, and I only receive KGS 4000 (or 51 EUR) every month. Back then, the police took everything from me – rice, oil, jam, even bird seeds. And if they take my only home, I will be left on the street. The husband has been imprisoned, the house has been taken away… Is there any justice left in this world?

In July 2019, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) published an open letter to EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, urging her to use her position to call for the release of Azimjon Askarov during her scheduled visit to Bishkek. 

Expression

During a meeting with media representatives, the head of the Supreme Court Gulbara Kalieva was asked about the ambiguity of court decisions concerning legal claims against media outlets. In particular, the journalists wanted to direct Kalieva’s attention to the fact that courts demand that articles be deleted from news sites, referring to a decision by the Supreme Court. Kalieva noted that judges do indeed interpret the Supreme Court decision ambiguously, stating:

The resolution by the Supreme Court was only recently adopted, and it is indeed not regulated. We will raise the issue with the consultative council. It is possible that the resolution will be reviewed. When a journalist records an interview, he does not know what the interviewee will answer. As a legal professional, I personally think that journalists should not be held accountable for disseminating the words of their interviewees.

Pressure on Azattyk journalist

In the second half of April 2019, Azattyk media (the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) published a journalistic investigation about alleged business and tax evasion by police colonel Zhalil Atambaev. The investigation had been carried out by regional correspondent Ydyrys Isakov. Later, on 22nd April 2019, the State Financial Police reported that a case had been opened based on the article by Azattyk. On 29th April 2019, Zhalil Atambaev filed a lawsuit against the journalist for damages amounting to KGS 50 000 000  (USD 718,068). The Kyrgyzstani media community sees this as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. Journalists and civil society issued an appeal to President Sooronbai Jeenbekov seeking support for journalists and an end to pressure on the media. 

In early May 2019, Zhalil Atambaev withdrew the claim stating that he forgave Isakov on the occasion of the Muslim holy month Ramadan. On 8th May 2019, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Aida Kasymalieva,a former journalist, made a special announcement in support of the journalist at a plenary session:

It seems that the case is over. But the case isn’t over. Our colleagues Zhanar Akaev, Almambet Shykmamatov and Altynbek Sulaimabnov have spoken, and the businessman has withdrawn his 50 million som-lawsuit. The fact that the lawsuit was withdrawn is a victory for the journalist community, but it is not a victory of the state in the fights against corruption.”

Kasymalieva called for journalists to be protected from unscrupulous business-people and officials who are trying to limit freedom of speech through the courts, and interfering with the work of journalists and mass media. Former judge of the Constitutional Chamber Klara Soronkulov also commented on the lawsuit, saying:

The state of affairs with freedom of expression directly influences the court system. Until judicial justice is established, it will be impossible to establish a balance of power between journalists and the people they write about. Also journalism has to meet certain standards. Public people should restrain themselves and be able to accept criticism from journalists. At the same time, journalists should not become weapons for certain political forces.

Newspaper sued by MP, ordered to pay almost USD 15,000

Member of Parliament Kozhobek Ryspaev filed a lawsuit for damages to his honour, dignity and business reputation against the media outlet Achyk Sayasat Plyus. The reason for the lawsuit was the publication of an article calling Ryspaev “a chameleon”, in relation to Ryspaev’s change of allegiance of political parties. Ryspaev did not ask the newspaper to refute the article, and the newspaper staff only became aware of the lawsuit a year after the article was published.

The lawsuit first demanded KGS 300 000 (USD 4308) in compensation but this was later raised to one million KGS (USD 14,361).On 24th May 2019, the Oktyabrsky District Court in Bishkek ordered the newspaper to pay Ryspaev compensation of KGS 300 000. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Nazgul Mamytova stated that the newspaper intends to appeal the case.

Case against Super Info newspaper reviewed

As previously reported on the Monitor, the State Service for Combating Economic Crimes (GSBEP) launched a tax audit against the newspaper Super Info, an action that was considered a tactic to “put pressure on the media.” After the Pervomaysky District Court of Bishkek annulled two GSBEP orders for tax audits, GSBEP appealed the decision. After reconsideration, the court again ruled in favour of the media outlet. 

Official refused to answer journalist with words “I don’t like your face

On 5th June 2019 in the Orok village in Chui Oblast, a fight among teenagers escalated into a village-wide conflict. The conflict then escalated into an ethnic dispute between the villagers, and led to an incident between an official and a journalist. Tuigunaaly Abdraimov, a government representative, arrived to control the escalating dispute. Abdraimov was reportedly rude to journalists present, refusing to answer a reporter’s questions because, as he reportedly stated: “I don’t like your face.” The next day, activists and journalists held a rally outside the regional administrative centre,and demanded the resignation of the governor. MP Dastan Bekeshev, supported the rally:

This is the attitude of a person who has been given power over people. This is unforgiveable. I believe that Tuigunaaly Abdraimov should be fired. Fired, so that no one will follow his example.” 

The incident caused outrage within the journalist community, and sparked an online flashmob campaign against Abdraimov under the hashtag #abdraimov_ketsin (#абдраимов_кетсин). In an interview, Abdraimov later stated that he did not consider himself guilty of any wrongdoing, and will not be forced to apologise. However, following prime ministerial order, Abraimov was removed from his post.

In a separate incident, in his address to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) media forum, president Sooronbai Jeenbekov stated that freedom of speech and the independent status of journalists is a cultural tradition in Kyrgyzstan– and the press is the voice of civil society and reflects the mood of society.

New media monitoring

The Public Journalist Association and the Media Policy Institute are starting a project to monitor freedom of expression violations in Kyrgyzstan. Observers in each region will document and inform on all violations of media and journalists’ rights, and the Media Policy Institute will provide legal comments. In addition to documenting the rights violations, the Media Policy Institute will provide legal support to the journalists and media affected. All information will monthly be summarised, systematised and distributed. A monitoring report is planned to be made at the end of 2019. 

Peaceful Assembly

The right to pre-planned and spontaneous peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the Constitution and the law On Peaceful Assembly. According to the legislation, people, who wish to alert lawmakers, state organs and local governing structures to different problems, or raise their opinion on some issues, may freely do so. In Kyrgyzstan, however, this practice is being limited. Yet, citizens are actively using their right to peaceful assembly on a range of issues concerning social and economical or societal and political questions. The following demonstrations have been carried out during the monitoring period:

  • In April 2019, a demonstration took place in support of the release of Murat Sutalinov, the former chairman of GKNB (state security services) from custody. Sutalinov was sentenced to 25 years’imprisonment for involvement in the tragic Osh incidents in 2010. Sutalinov suffers from terminal kidney cancer. 
  • On 24th  April 2019, a demonstration took place in support of Omurbek Tekebaev from Ata Meken party, Duishenkul Chotonov, former head of the Ministry of Emergencies and former MP Sadyr Zhaparov who are currently in prison. The demonstrators demanded a review of their cases and their release. 
  • In April 2019, the community of Kyzyl-Ompol village in Issyk Kul region hosted a demonstration against uranium mining at the Tash-Bulak mine in. 
  • In May 2019, a rally was held by law enforcement veterans to commemorate the victory of World War II. 
  • In addition, to commemorate the “Immortal Regiment” (bessmertnyi polk) around 50,000 people marched in Bishkek. 
  • In May 2019, a demonstration was held by doctors unsatisfied with the clinical system and their salaries.
  • demonstration by garage owners, who demanded financial compensation for demolition from the city authorities, which took place in May 2019. 

Attempts by the Mayor of Bishkek to limit the right to peaceful assembly

The Mayor of Bishkek Aziz Surakmatov has called on citizens to refrain from demonstrating in the capital city. In a statement, he said that since the beginning of 2019, the Bishkek authorities have received 19 notifications to hold demonstrations, marches and assemblies. According to the mayor, such events disturb residents’ lives, tourism and business in Bishkek. The statement was a response to a debate about preparations for a large demonstration in support of Omurbek Babanov, who was forced to leave the country after running during the presidential elections in 2017.

The mayor stated that expressing one’s opinion in a demonstration “entails turmoil and disturbances in the regular lives of residents of the city, wastes significant resources from the city budget, which were intended for developing the city (…) The municipality of Bishkek calls on all political and societal associations to listen to the voice of reason and implement a moratorium on holding political demonstrations in the capital until 2020.” Such a statement by an official constitutes a violation of international standards and Article 34 of the Constitution, which provides for the right to peaceful assembly.

The statement and introduction of a moratorium on demonstrations has outraged human rights defenders. One of them, Rita Jarasartova, stated: 

The mayor has taken a common path, but it isn’t legal… If people cannot find justice in courts, then they have no choice but to go and demonstrate. It is not up to Surakmatov to prohibit such things.” 

Another human rights defender, Kalicha Umuralieva, stated that she was outraged by the municipal proposal: 

We have a constitutional right to peacefully assemble, and if the municipality or the government give us cause to, we will demonstrate. If the authorities want to take this right away from us, then let’s change the Constitution. Then we should write: "We don’t have the rule of law, we are a dictatorship. Shut your mouths.” Only then we will be quiet.” 

Asiya Sasykbaeva, former MP and member of the Ata Meken party believes that the Mayor of Bishkek does not have the right to propose a moratorium on peaceful assembly: “... there is the Constitution, with which the mayor and municipality should become familiar.” 

Rights to peaceful assembly limited because of SCO summit

The practice of restricting peaceful assemblies at a specific time or in a specific place continues, and a selective approach is adopted by the authorities in terms of which demonstrations are prohibited. For instance, the police department of Pervomaisky District limited demonstrations between 25th March and 6th April 2019 around the Parliament, Government buildings and Ala-Too Square. On 26th March 2019, the Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek ruled that the decision of the police department to limit the conduct of demonstrations was legal and reasonable. Instead, the planned events were moved to the Gorky Square or Isanova street. 

The decision was made after citizen M.B.A. and others notified the authorities of their intention to hold a rally with a poster stating “Stop the lawlessness of MP S.A.” and “Stop the lawlessness of the Chui Regional Court” near the Government building , Parliament and the Ala-Too Square. Further, Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek banned demonstrations on the central streets of Bishkek from 1st to 20th June 2019, due to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Bishkek which took place on 13-16 June. The activists decided to demonstrate after an investigation published by Atattyk, which stated that the powerful Matraimov family is associated with corruption schemes resulting in some 700 million USD leaving Kyrgyzstan. A peaceful assembly against corruption was scheduled by human rights defender Rita Karasatova and others for 3rd June 2019. The meeting, however, was banned due to the SCO meeting several weeks later, as mentioned above. 

Police passivity allowed violent nationalists to attack LGBT picnic

On 1st May 2019, members of the 8/365 movement were planning to celebrate the May holiday with a picnic in Fuchik Park in Bishkek. They had published a statement online about the event. When the eight participants arrived at the agreed spot, they were met by dozens of young men in tracksuits. Close by were several senior police officers under the command of Colonel Amankadyrov. Later, a car arrived with around ten young men in tracksuits, who stated that “they were looking for gays to beat up”. Among these men were known members of the Kyrk Choro conservative nationalist movement – A.B., who has previously stated to the media that he would “blow up himself together with gay people”. Due to the escalating threats, the organisers of the picnic appealed to Colonel Imankadyrov for protection. Imankadyrov responded that he had not seen anything, and would not take any measures to ensure the security of the activists. 

The organisers decided to move to a safer place. A.B. from Kyrk Choro attempted to prevent the organisers’ car leaving, and police officers did nothing to prevent this. The harassment of the activists continued in Victory Park, where the activists relocated to carry out their picnic. The activists were followed by groups of men, who photographed and filmed them without their consent, and were also threatened and insulted. Again, although police officers were present, they did not intervene to prevent the harassment. The activists again appealed to Colonel Imankadyrov, who said the activists could “walk in peace”, but no action was taken, and no instructions were given to other police officers. The activists and bystanders, including children, were attacked with eggs and paint by the young men. At the time of the attack, Colonel Imankadyrov was on the phone and ignored requests from the victims to intervene.