Kyrgyzstan: Journalists and media face threats, attacks as ex-president is arrested

This update covers developments concerning freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Kyrgyzstan from the beginning of July to the beginning of October 2019. The International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) have prepared the update within the framework of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor. 

The most high-profile event during the period covered by this update was the arrest of former President Almazbek Atambayev on 8th August 2019 following a massive law enforcement operation. The ex-president is facing a range of criminal charges, including corruption charges. Legal experts representing civil society expressed concern about the “politicisation” of the campaign to prosecute and arrest Atambayev, although they supported the efforts to bring him to justice for offences he committed during his time in office, including serious human rights violations.

Some measures taken by the authorities following the arrest of the ex-president also raised concerns in the light of fundamental freedoms. In the evening of the day of Atambayev’s arrest, police forcibly dispersed a rally held in his support in the centre of the capital, Bishkek. Some of the rally participants behaved aggressively, but it is open to question whether the measures taken by the police were entirely proportionate to the threat these individuals represented. Based on a court decision sanctioning the seizure of Atambayev’s assets, law enforcement authorities sealed off the premises of the Aprel TV channel (one of whose co-founders is the ex-president), thereby suspending the operations of the channel. Media watchdogs and representatives criticised this measure as an attack on media freedom and pluralism.

During the period covered by the current update, there were also several instances where journalists were at risk when carrying out their professional activities. One journalist was injured by a rubber bullet when covering the arrest of the ex-president and several journalists experienced hostility from participants in the rally held in Atambayev’s support in the centre of Bishkek on the day of his arrest. A journalist working with the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Aibek Kulchumanov was assaulted on 28th September 2019 when shooting material for an investigative report on corruption allegations in the city of Osh.

A regional court reviewed the case of imprisoned human rights defender Azimjan Askarov on 30th July 2019 following a request by the defender to reconsider his sentence under the new Criminal Code, which came into force earlier this year. However, following a brief session, the court upheld the defender’s life sentence. Askarov was convicted in 2010 and has remained in prison ever since, although the Human Rights Committee ruled in 2016 that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied a fair trial and should be immediately released and his conviction quashed. In view of the fact that Askarov’s health has deteriorated seriously in prison, a group of foreign and international human rights NGOs – including IPHR – appealed to the EU to advocate for his immediate release and transfer to a safe country for medical treatment.

While investigations continued into several attacks on human rights groups and activists, as covered in the previous update, police failed to identity those responsible for the attacks and bring them to justice. These attacks included an aggressive intervention during a meeting of the NGO Coalition against Torture, a fire in the office of the human rights NGO Spektr believed to have been started deliberately, and intimidation and harassment of picnicking members of the 8/365 movement, which defends women’s and LGBTI rights.

During the period covered by this report, dozens of peaceful assemblies took place without interference by the authorities. However, there were new court decisions imposing blanket bans on holding assemblies in the centre of Bishkek. This problematic practice is contrary to national and international standards protecting freedom of peaceful assembly.

Arrest of ex-president

On 27th June 2019, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted to strip Almazbek Atambayev of his immunity from prosecution. Following this, the General Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal investigation against Atambayev on corruption and other charges, and the ex-president was subsequently arrested following a special law enforcement operation.

The first attempt to arrest Atambayev was made on 7th August 2019, when special forces stormed his residence in the village of Koy-Tash. However, Atambayev’s supporters put up a violent resistance, and the operation succeeded only the following day, when a high number of special force and police officers were deployed. According to information from the General Prosecutor’s Office, more than 170 people required medical assistance due to injuries sustained in the operation to capture the ex-president and one special force officer died. At the beginning of October 2019, Atambayev remained in pre-trial detention as the investigation against him continued.

Atambayev served as Kyrgyzstan’s president from December 2011 to November 2017. As previously covered, his period in office was characterised by growing intolerance of criticism, attacks on the media and civil society, and restrictions on fundamental rights. While forced to step down due to constitutional term limits, Atambayev supported the presidential bid of his successor Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who was elected president in November 2017. During his campaign, Jeenbekov also pledged to continue Atambayev’s policies. However, after Jeenbekov came to power, the relationship between the two soon deteriorated and Atambayev began to openly attack Jeenbekov, as high-placed allies of the former lost their jobs and faced arrest on corruption and related charges. Eventually, Atambayev himself was prosecuted.

When conducting a legal assessment of the events related to Atambayev’s arrest on 7-8 August 2019, experts from the Adilet Legal Clinic - a leading Kyrgyzstani human rights NGO – concluded that there is still “a high level of politicisation of the judiciary and law enforcement agencies” in the country and that these institutions “continue to be used to achieve political objectives”. Adilet stated that it supported the efforts to bring Atambayev to justice, noting that the organisation itself had reported serious rights violations committed by the former president during his time in office. However, Adilet emphasised that the authorities must fully comply with the requirements of the law in the investigation and prosecution of the ex-president, thereby ensuring that he receives “a fair sentence” and “proportionate punishment” and that citizens will not have “the slightest doubt” about his guilt of the crimes of which he is convicted.

New EU-Kyrgyzstan cooperation agreement

On 6th July 2019, the European Union and Kyrgyzstan initiated an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which upgrades their relations. The new agreement was signed when EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini was present in Bishkek for the annual EU-Central Asia Ministerial Meeting. At a press conference held on this occasion, Mogherini stated that the new agreement would strengthen EU-Kyrgyzstan relations “in many different fields” and will “contribute to implementing the political, rule of law and economic reforms of the Kyrgyz Republic”. According to Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Minister Chingiz Aidarbekov, the agreement will “lay the foundation for cooperation in all areas in which both parties are interested in developing their cooperation.”

Mogherini also said that the EU has “seen the willingness and the ambitions of the citizens” of Kyrgyzstan to work toward building “a well-rooted system of democratic governance and open society”, noting that this “is an ambition that takes years, even generations sometimes, to be built, and the work is never really finished”. She told her Kyrgyzstani counterparts that “you can count on” the EU, “without any hidden agenda” and in a “transparent and reliable manner”, to “accompany you in promoting and strengthening the democratic principles, the rule of law and respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

In practice, the political will of the authorities of Kyrgyzstan and the efforts made by them will determine the extent to which reforms will progress in Kyrgyzstan and closer political and economic ties with the EU realised under the new agreement.

Expression

Seizure of TV-channel associated with former president

On 9th August 2019, special police forces burst into the headquarters of the Aprel (April) TV channel in Bishkek, demanding that all employees leave the office and sealing it off, thereby de-facto forcing the TV channel to stop broadcasting. According to the authorities, the measure was carried out based on a court decision sanctioning the seizure of former President Atambayev’s assets following his arrest on 8th August. The ex-president is one of the co-founders of Aprel TV and its premises are located in the Media Forum building belonging to him. On 15th August 2019, a local court rejected a complaint filed by the TV channel against the action to seal off its premises.

The Department of Information and Mass Communication at the Ministry of Culture insisted that Aprel TV was seized as property belonging to an individual suspected of serious crimes and had nothing to do with the nature of the channel’s journalistic activities or its criticism of the current government.

However, in a joint statement more than a dozen media associations, outlets and experts protested against the measure taken against Aprel TV, saying that it was ”excessive and unjustified” given that the TV channel had not been charged with any crimes. They further, called the suspension of the channel’s broadcasting a ”fatal mistake”, stressing that it undermined achievements with respect to media freedom and pluralism in Kyrgyzstan, as a result of which the country has been ranked higher in international surveys than the other Central Asian countries. The signatories stated that “in particular at this time,” residents need different media, presenting different views on developments in the country. They called on the relevant authorities to end the seizure of Aprel TV and allow the channel to resume  broadcasting.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also criticised the measure taken against Aprel TV as a press freedom violation. According to the organisation: 

“The investigation into Almazbek Atambayev’s assets cannot be used to justify a violation of press freedom of this kind, especially as Aprel TV is not accused of breaking the law”.

The RSF statement noted that Aprel TV had reported problems with its broadcasting already before its premises were sealed off, during its coverage of the operation to arrest the ex-president. The organisation urged the authorities to “rescind this disproportionate measure and to protect media pluralism.”

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, similarly expressed concern over the de-facto closure of the Aprel TV channel and called for respect for diversity in the media in Kyrgyzstan. He stated: 

“While I am fully aware of the exceptional circumstances under which this decision was taken, I call on the relevant authorities to review this decision. Freedom of the media and media diversity should be preserved even in difficult situations.”

Journalists at risk when covering events related to arrest of ex-president

During the rally of Atambayev supporters held in central Bishkek on the evening of 8th August 2019 some participants behaved aggressively towards journalists, including pushing them away, throwing stones at them and demanding that they stop filming. Among others, the news agency Kloop.kg reported that unknown perpetrators attacked its journalists who were covering the rally.

On 7th August 2019, during the special operation to arrest the former president in the Koy-Tash village, 24.kg journalist Aida Dzhumasheva was injured as a rubber bullet hit her leg. Later the same day, she wrote on Facebook that she was fine.

In response to the cases mentioned above, the OSCE Media Freedom Representative said  that “the safety of journalists who cover political events must be respected by all actors”.

Attack on RFE/RL journalist

On 28th September 2019, Aibek Kulchumanov, a correspondent for the Kyrgyz RFE/RL service was assaulted in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan when working on a report for the service. According to Kulchumanov, several well-built young men approached him, hit him and took his recording equipment, the remote control for his drone, his mobile phone, as well as his personal documents and car keys. He said that his attackers asked him who ordered investigative reports into the former deputy head of the Customs Service, Raiymbek Matraimov. The Kyrgyz RFE/RL service had published a story on corruption allegations involving Matraimov in May 2019 and according to the service, Kulchumanov was filming material as part of a continued investigation into this case, with the help of a drone, when he was assaulted. A medical examination of the journalist following the attack found that he had suffered injuries to his back and was in need of treatment.

In response to a complaint filed by the journalist, the police opened an investigation into the incident under a Criminal Code provision on robbery. However, the police also told the journalists that two complaints had been filed against him: one of them alleged that he had intruded on personal property, while the other was submitted by a local resident who claimed that Kulchumanov's drone had fallen on him and injured him.

The Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL stated that it “resolutely condemns” the assault on its journalist, which it called an “attack on freedom of expression”. The service also demanded that the law enforcement authorities carry out a thorough investigation into the incident.

The Media Development Centre, a Kyrgyzstani NGO, also issued an appeal on the attack on the RFE/RL journalist, saying that it regards the incident as “pressure on free speech” and “obstruction of the activities of media”. It similarly called for a thorough investigation into the attack.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir tweeted “Such an attack and intimidation against a media worker is unacceptable.”

Investigation into the killing of journalist reopened

On 29th August 2019, the authorities reopened the investigation into the killing of independent journalist Alisher Saipov in Osh in October 2007. Those guilty of killing him have never been found. Saipov worked with a number of media outlets, including Fergana News, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWRP), the Voice of America and RFE/RL, covering issues relating to politics, religion, security and human rights in the Fergana valley. He also founded the Uzbek-language newspaper Siyosat (“politics”).

The brother of Alisher Saipov, Shohruh Saipov said that the family was pleased with the decision to reopen the case and that they were hoping for a “qualitative investigation” and a “fair decision”. Shohruh Saipov also said that the family expected that the current authorities would “provide an assessment” of the killing of Alisher Saipov, noting that the authorities had lacked “political will” to do so under the three presidents who led the country prior to current President Jeenbekov.

Association

Lack of effective investigations into attacks on human rights groups and activists

As covered previously in the CIVICUS Monitor, several attacks on human rights groups and activists were reported. While police opened investigations into these incidents, there are concerns that the investigations have not been effective:

Aggressive intervention during Coalition against Torture meeting

On 23rd May 2019, a group of unidentified individuals who introduced themselves as members of the Youth Patriotic Movement burst into an event organised in Bishkek by Kyrgyzstan’s Coalition against Torture, which unites NGOs and activists working on the prevention and eradication of torture and ill-treatment. These individuals, holding cameras and voice recorders, aggressively demanded an end to the event, which was a working meeting for lawyers and attorneys with the participation of international experts.

Front Line Defenders expressed concern about the attack, saying that it believed the attack was “solely motivated by the peaceful and legitimate human rights work of the Coalition, and aimed at intimidating and harassing human rights organisations working on torture and ill-treatment”.

Meeting participants filmed the incident and the organisers filed a complaint with the police. However, as of early October 2019, the investigation was still under way and the perpetrators had yet to be found and brought to justice.

Fire in the office of human rights NGO

On 6th April 2019, there was a fire in the office of the organisation Spektr – a member of the NGO Coalition against Torture - in the city of Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan. According to representatives of the organisation, the office appeared to have been searched prior to the fire and they and their colleagues believed that the office had been deliberately set on fire. While no one was injured in the fire, it destroyed valuable documents belonging to Spektr. As of early October 2019, the investigation into the fire continued, but police had yet to determine the cause of it.

Attack on picnic organised by group defending women’s and LGBTI rights

As described in detail in the previous update, on 1st May 2019, a large group of young men intimidated and harassed activists from the 8/365 movement (an initiative uniting feminist, women’s rights, LGBTI groups and activists) who had gathered for a picnic in Bishkek to celebrate the May holiday.

The young men included known members of the Kyrk Choro movement, which is infamous for its intolerance of feminists and the LGBTI community. They threatened, followed and insulted the 8/365 activists and threw eggs and paint at them and bystanders, including children. Police officers present failed to intervene to protect the 8/365 activists, despite repeated appeals to them. The 8/365 activists subsequently filed a complaint with the police about the incident, requesting that it be investigated as hooliganism. The activists also appealed to President Jeenbekov to ensure a full and impartial investigation into the rights violations, as well as the inaction of police during the incident on 1st May.

While police opened an investigation based on the complaint from the 8/365 activists, as of early October 2019, the individuals who intimidated and harassed the activists had not been identified and held to account. The 8/365 activists were informed, however, that the Ethics Commission of the Bishkek City Police Department made a decision on 7th June to reprove the police colonel, who was in charge of the police officers present during the 1st May incident. According to the Committee’s decision, the colonel violated the police rules of conduct, which set out that it is unacceptable for police officers to show indifference, inaction and passivity with respect to preventing and curtailing violations of the law. The Ethics Commission also stated that similar violations of the police rules must not be allowed to take place again. No further action was taken against the police colonel or other police officers present during the incident.

New appeal in support of imprisoned human rights defender, his sentence upheld again

Human rights defender Azimjan Askarov continues to serve a life sentence for his alleged role in the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Ahead of the July 2019 visit to Kyrgyzstan by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, IPHR and seven other foreign and international human rights NGOs wrote to her to express their “utmost and urgent” concern about the ongoing wrongful imprisonment of Askarov and the deterioration of his health in prison. The NGOs urged Mogherini to advocate for his immediate release and transfer to a safe country for medical treatment. During her visit, the High Representative told journalists that she had had an “open and frank discussion”, among others, on Askarov’s case with Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Minister Chingiz Aidarbekov.

On 30th July 2019, the Chui Regional Court reviewed Askarov’s case based on a request by the defender to reconsider his sentence following the entry into force of Kyrgyzstan’s new Criminal Code, which has been described as being aimed at the “humanisation” of criminal justice and the mitigation of sentences. Askarov’s defence urged the court to release him under the new Criminal Code, thereby correcting the earlier mistakes in the case but also taking into account his old age and deteriorating health. According to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, persons with health conditions, “for whom staying in prison would mean an exacerbation of their condition, shall not be detained in prisons”. However, following a brief session, the court ruled in favour of the prosecutor’s request to uphold Askarov’ sentence unchanged. The defender himself was not allowed to attend the trial. His defence announced that they would appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court.

The Chui Regional Court previously reviewed Askarov’s case and upheld his life sentence in January 2017. This retrial took place after the UN Human Rights Committee issued its decision on Askarov’s case in March 2016, concluding that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied fair trial rights and that he should be immediately released, his conviction quashed and, if necessary, that a new trial should be held in compliance with relevant international safeguards. However, the authorities failed to comply with the first two requirements and his retrial did not meet international fair trial standards. When the retrial ended in January 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the court decision was “deeply troubling” and “clearly did not take into account the views of the UN Human Rights Committee”.

Peaceful Assembly

Many new peaceful assemblies

The residents of Kyrgyzstan actively exercise their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. During the period covered by this update, dozens of peaceful assemblies were held across the country, addressing a range of social, economic and political issues. These included, among others, a protest against police abuse in the city of Tomok, a parents’ rally against school mismanagement in the Voyenno-Antonovka village, a protest by market traders in Bishkek who demanded electric supply to their trading stalls and several demonstrations in support of political actors who have been criminally prosecuted by the current authorities.

Protest by supporters of ex-president dispersed

Most assemblies during the reporting period were entirely peaceful in character and took place without interference by the law enforcement authorities. An exception to this was a rally by supporters of former President Atambayev, who gathered at Bishkek’s central Ala-Too Square in the evening of 8th July 2019 to protest against Atambayev’s arrest earlier the same day. According to available information, some of the several hundred people who gathered for the rally were armed with sticks and stones and behaved aggressively, including by attacking journalists covering the event. Several hundred police officers forcibly dispersed the rally, using tear gas and stun grenades. After this, according to media reports, some of the ex-president’s supporters continued to protest in the central streets of Bishkek, also committing acts of vandalism.

Human rights NGOs did not deploy observers to monitor the rally due to safety concerns. For this reason it is difficult to determine the extent to which participants committed violent acts before police dispersed the assembly and, to assess whether the measures of the police were fully proportionate to the threat the aggressively participants represented.

According to a press release issued by the Ministry of Interior on 9th August 2019, police dispersed Atambayev supporters who “violated public order, blocked roads and harassed civilians and threatened media representatives” and used “special means” when doing so to “prevent hooliganism and looting”. The press release also stated that “necessary measures” were being taken to “identify and detain the organisers and individuals who tried to destabilise the situation” in the capital. The media later reported about the detention of two individuals suspected of damaging police cars and destroying video surveillance cameras.

New court decisions imposing blanket bans on assemblies

During the period covered by this update, there were new court decisions that imposed blanket bans on holding assemblies in centrally located areas of the capital. As covered before, the practice of issuing such bans, on the basis of vague arguments, is highly problematic in the light of national and international standards protecting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

The Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek prohibited the holding of assemblies in the centre of the capital from 17th to 30th September 2019. The court issued its decision in response to a request by the corresponding district department of the Bishkek city administration, which argued that the ban was needed due to “increasing expressions of religious extremism”, “the concerns of citizens who do not participate in assemblies” and “traffic congestions caused by assemblies that involve large crowds of people”.

In another decision, the same district court prohibited the holding of assemblies in front of the Parliament (Jogorku Kenesh) and Government House, as well as on the Ala-Too Square in the capital from 1st to 15th October 2019. This time the decision was issued in response to a request from the Pervomaisky District Police Department, which argued that the residents of nearby houses had complained that protesters “disturb their peace and quiet” and violate public order by “shouting and making noise”. The police department also argued that the ban was needed because “provocations” and “spontaneous fights” may occur in connection with assemblies and the organisers of assemblies are incapable of “ensuring security”. In accordance with the court decision, assemblies planned in the places affected by the ban were instead to be held at Gorky Square, which is located far from the parliament building and other state institutions and, thus, out of the sound and sight of these institutions.

Kyrgyzstan’s Constitution sets out that peaceful assemblies may only be restricted on legitimate grounds permitted by international law, including for reasons of protecting national security, public order, health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others, and any restrictions must be necessary and proportionate to these objectives. The vaguely worded grounds on which the bans above were issued do not meet these requirements.