Mass arrests of activists, restrictive draft laws and widening campaign against ‘’false’’ information

Mass arrests of activists, restrictive draft laws and widening campaign against ‘’false’’ information
Kyrgyzstan's President Sadyr Japarov (REUTERS/Amr Alfiky via Gallo Images)

Introduction

This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from the end of April to the beginning of November 2022. 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 situation with respect to free speech and civic space continued to deteriorate in Kyrgyzstan.

Applying a controversial law on protection against ‘’false’’ information, the government initiated the blocking of several news sites. Those targeted included the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which was blocked for two months in October 2022 because of a video allegedly featuring incorrect and biased information about Kyrgyzstan’s role in hostilities at the border with Tajikistan, which broke out in September 2022 and resulted in dozens of people being killed and hundreds injured. The government described these events as ‘’a pre-meditated military aggression’’ by Tajikistan and insisted that it had only acted from a defensive point of view. The measures taken under the law on ‘’false’’ information showed that this law can be used as a government censorship tool, as feared by media and civil society actors when it was adopted last year. Police also increased efforts to track down ‘’false’’ information on social media and summoned social media users for ‘’prophylactic’’ discussions because of allegedly ‘’provocative’’ posts. 

New problematic draft laws on media and NGOs, developed by the presidential administration, were put forward. Experts, lawyers and human rights defenders warned that these laws will result in excessive state control over the activities of media and NGOs and could be used to put pressure on and silence information sources and organisations that are inconvenient to those in power. Among others, all media outlets, information sources and NGOs would be required to register or re-register with the authorities in accordance with the new laws, on the threat of otherwise being liquidated.

In an alarming development seen in October 2022, the authorities arrested close to 30 activists, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and other critics of a government-negotiated border deal, under which the territory of the Kempir-Abad water reservoir is due to become part of neighbouring Uzbekistan. Among those targeted were well-known human rights defenders Rita Karasartova and Klara Sooronkulova and several other women activists. All those arrested were charged with preparing to organise riots, although they are only known to have peacefully engaged against the draft border agreement and demanded transparency of the decision-making process on this issue. Most of them were placed in pre-trial detention during the investigation into these charges. Representatives of civil society and the international community denounced the mass arrests and called for the release of all those charged without credible reason.

Several other activists, journalists and bloggers were also subject to criminal investigation in apparent retaliation for speaking out on issues which are sensitive to the authorities. Several of them faced charges because of social media posts, which were argued to be ‘’incorrect’’ and contain ‘’incitement’’ to hatred or ‘’calls for’’ riots and disobedience of the authorities. Next TV’s director Taalaibek Duishenbiev was convicted for re-posting comments concerning Kyrgyzstan’s policy vis-à-vis Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, with the court placing him under probation for three years. Blogger-activists Yrys Zhekshenaliev, Aizhana Myrsalieva and Adilet Ali Myktybek were under investigation because of posts on issues such as the government’s plans for Jetim-Too iron ore, inter-ethnic relations, and other issues of public interest.

Journalist Bolot Temirov went on trial on charges of drug possession, illegal border crossing and document forgery, which were initiated against him earlier this year after his YouTube-based outlet published investigations implicating the family of the national security chief in corruption. In an unexpected ruling issued in late September 2022, a local court acquitted Temirov of the first two sets of charges and released him from penalty on the last set of charges, while faulting the investigation for being prejudiced against the journalist. However, the prosecution appealed the ruling, as a result of which the court case against the journalist is set to continue.

In another case, following legal proceedings dragging on for almost two years, in August 2022 a local court acquitted human rights defender Kamil Ruziev of forgery charges brought against him because of his efforts to ensure accountability for unlawful practices by security service officials. However, the prosecution appealed the ruling, and in early October 2022, a regional court overturned it and instead convicted and fined the defender. In another worrying development, Ruziev was also summoned for questioning for his social media posts.

The criminal investigation on ‘’war propaganda’’, opened against Kaktus.media earlier in 2022, was eventually closed. However, the fact that the outlet came under investigation simply for reposting a Tajikistani media article on the April 2021 clashes at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border set a troubling precedent.

Excessive restrictions on peaceful assemblies remained in force in the capital, Bishkek, where protests outside the Russian embassy and in several other central locations were banned based on court sanction. These restrictions were first introduced in March 2022 for the primary purposes of preventing protests against Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine.

In an impressive show of solidarity, civil society quickly mobilised to provide assistance to victims of the renewed hostilities at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan borderin September 2022. Hundreds of people volunteered to collect, sort and pack food items, medicine and other supplies for dissemination among victims. Several peaceful rallies were held in support of arrested government critics and independent media who are under attack.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee issued important conclusions and recommendations regarding the protection of fundamental freedoms following its review of the situation in Kyrgyzstan in October 2022. Additionally, the European Union raised concerns about decliningcivic space and pressure on free speech during its annual Human Rights Dialogue with the government of Kyrgyzstan in September 2022.

General developments

International criticism of violations of fundamental rights

At its session in Geneva in October 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Committee assessed Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. The Committee’s review was based on the third periodic report on the implementation of the covenant submitted by Kyrgyzstan’s government, as well as other information, including NGO reports. In a joint report submitted for the review, IPHR, LPF and CIVICUS highlighted key concerns regarding civic space and the protection of fundamental freedoms in the country, including increasing attempts by the authorities to control the media environment; exploitation of the fight against disinformation to crack down on dissent; increasing intimidation and harassment of journalists, bloggers, civil society activists and others critical of the authorities; problematic NGO legislation; and court-sanctioned blanket bans on assemblies. 

In its conclusions the Human Rights Committee voiced concerns about these trends and issued important recommendations. Among others, it called on the authorities to refrain from using criminal prosecution as a tool to suppress criticism; to strengthen the protection of bloggers, journalists, human rights defenders and government critics against any kind of intimidationor attacks; to revise and ensure effective safeguards against misuse of the recently adopted law on the protection against false information; to ensure that national legislation does not unduly restrict media freedom or result in undue control over NGOs; and torefrain from blanket restrictions on peaceful assemblies and selective and discriminatory dispersal of peaceful assemblies.

In September 2022, during its annual Human Rights Dialogue with Kyrgyzstan’s government in Bishkek , the EU also raised concerns about declining space for civil society and increasing pressure on freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan, as IPHR, LPF and other NGOs had called for prior to the dialogue. In its press release about the dialogue, the EU stressed that

’blocking of media and targeting of journalists, bloggers and social media users engaged in investigative journalism, civic or political participation critical of government is in contravention with Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’’.

It also criticised ‘’the broad and seemingly arbitrary application’’ of criminal charges on hatred and discord and the implementation of the law on false information.

Expression

New draft media legislation

In late September 2022, a new draft media law developed by the presidential administration was put forward for public discussion. The authors argued that the new law was needed because the existing one does not adequately reflect current realities. However, the draft law was seriously criticised by media experts, lawyers and human rights defenders, who fear that it will result in excessive restrictions on the freedom of expression and media freedom and called for its withdrawal.

Among others, the draft law proposes to designate online information resources as media outlets and requires all media outlets to (re-)register with the authorities within two months of the planned entry into force of the new law in April 2023. Those outlets which fail to do so would be liquidated. Critics warned that the authorities might use this requirement to try to silence independent media and information sources, which are inconvenient to those in power, especially since some of the grounds for rejecting registration are broadly worded and could be arbitrarily interpreted. Critics also expressed concerns that the draft law contains other vague and unclear provisions regarding the obligations of media outlets, which could result in abusive implementation, and that it provides for harsh sanctions for violations of the requirements of the law. In particular, media outlets could be liquidated if they are found to have committed more than one violation in a year, irrespective of the nature of the violations. Some provisions of the draft law, which ban the distribution of certain types of information, would apply not only to media outlets and news sites proposed to be granted this status but also to other online sources such as social media sites, thus reflecting an attempt by the authorities to step up control over internet freedoms.

Critics of the draft law pointed out that it appeared to have been largely copied from existing Russian legislation, and regretted the unwillingness of its initiators to take part in public discussions about the proposed provisions.

As the draft media law was being considered, calls were also made for the closure of independent media outlets:

On 13th October 2022, about 30 people held a rally in Bishkek demanding the closure of the independent media outlets RadioAzattyk (the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, RFE/RL), Kloop and Kaktus.media. The rally participants, who gathered outside the office of Radio Azattyk, accused the media outlets of being ‘’Western propagandists’’ and of providing ‘’incorrect’’ and ‘’biased’’ coverage. They also demanded the adoption of legislation to designate these outlets as ‘’foreign agents’’. One of the rally participants threatened to burn the offices of the media outlets and to use violence against their staff members. Based on a complaint filed by Radio Azattyk, police opened an investigation into the incident which at the time of writing it is still under way.

Shortly before the rally, there were reports indicating that Member of Parliament Nadira Narmatova -- who has also called for the adoption of ‘’foreign agents’’ legislation -- was collecting signatures in support of the closure of the three independent media outlets. However, she denied this.

As covered in the next section, two weeks after the rally, the website of Radio Azattyk was blocked because if had allegedly posted ‘’incorrect’’ information.

Media sites blocked in the campaign against ‘’false’’ information

A new law on the protection against ‘’false’’ information, which was adopted in summer 2021, has been criticised by media and human rights organisations for undermining the right to freedom of expression and constituting a censorship tool. Implementing rules adopted by the government in April 2022 reinforced these concerns.

In accordance with the law, anyone who considers an online publication to contain ‘’incorrect’’ or ‘’false’’ information about them may request the owner of the web resource in question to delete this information. If the owner of the web resource fails to do so within 24 hours, the complainant may turn to the government for assistance. Based on such requests, the government might order the removal of the information in question, as well as suspension of the web resource posting it for up to two months. No clear criteria have been established for determining what information is considered ‘’inaccurate’’ or ‘’false’’ under the new law and the government can make decisions about the removal of content and suspension of web resources without court approval.

During the reporting period, there were several cases in which this law was applied to online resources:

  • On 26th October 2022, the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy (“Ministry of Culture’’) announced that it had ordered access to the website of Radio Azattyk to be suspended for two months because of a video reportallegedly containing incorrect information about the September 2022 hostilities at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. The ministry made this decision after the service refused to comply with a request to delete the video, which the former claimed made ‘’unconfirmed’’ allegations about Kyrgyzstan’s role in the hostilities and featured ‘’elements of hate speech’’. When commenting on the ministry’s decision, RFE/RL President and CEO Jamie Fly stated:
“RFE/RL takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously. We have reviewed the content in question and find no violation of our standards. We will not succumb to pressure to remove balanced reporting from our sites, be it from the Kremlin or the Kyrgyz government. Threatening journalists and trying to silence independent media are authoritarian tactics that only serve to undermine Kyrgyz democracy. We will be appealing this decision.’’ 

Soon after Radio Azattyk’s site was blocked, the authorities also moved to freeze the service’s bank accounts.

  • On 25th August 2022, independent news site 24.kg learned that the Ministry of Culture had issued a decision to suspend access to the site for two months. This decision was allegedly based on a complaint from Hotel Ambassador in Bishkek claiming that the information posted on the news site was ‘’incorrect’’. According to 24.kg, the suspension decision was made without any prior communication with its representatives, and internet providers and operators were immediately requested to implement the decision. Following inquiries by 24.kg, the Ministry of Culture eventually withdrew the decision. However, some internet providers had already proceeded to block access to the site.

In an earlier case, on 15th June 2022, the Ministry of Culture ordered the site of the ResPublika newspaper (at https://respublica.kg/) to be blocked based on a complaint from the previous president of the company managing Manas International Airport in Bishkek, who argued that two articles from 2019 concerning an alleged corruption scheme at the airport contained ‘’incorrect’’ information about him. The chief editor of the newspaper expressed indignation that the ministry had made this decision, although the ex-president was dismissed from his job and subsequently convicted on charges of complicity in corruption following the publication of the two articles, which were based on two years of journalistic research.

According to the Ministry of Culture, it has also considered additional complaints against media sites and social media users which have not resulted in decisions to block the resources in question. As of mid-October 2022, it said that it had considered a total of eight complaints under the new law.

In another example illustrating how the law on ‘’false’’ information is being used to place pressure on media outlets, the chief editor of Vesti.kg reported that a private individual had requested that the outlet remove an article from its website, threatening to otherwise file a complaint with the Ministry of Culture.

Media and civil society representatives have demanded that the law on protection against ‘’false’’ information be repealed, stressing that developments to date have confirmed the dangers of the new law which critics warned about when it was adopted. The EU and the UN Human Rights Committee have also raised concerns about the law (see more under ‘’general developments’’ above).

In mid-October 2022, several MPs proposed amendments to the law. 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.

There have also been reports about renewed efforts by law enforcement authorities to monitor and identify allegedly ‘’false’’ information on social media, further strengthening concerns about violations of the right to freedom of expression under the pretext of fighting disinformation. At a press conference held in July 2022, Minister of Interior Ulan Niyazbekov stated that police had investigated ‘’provocative’’ material posted on social media and summoned social media users for ‘’prophylactic’’ discussions. In recent months, security services have summoned and warned several bloggers who have published posts critical of the authorities. As detailed below, some bloggers have also faced criminal charges because of social media posts argued to contain ‘’incorrect’’ information.

Mass arrests of critics of draft border agreement

In an alarming development, on 23rd October 2022 and in the following days, police arrested close to 30 people who criticised a proposal to hand over the territory of the Kempir-Abad water reservoirto Uzbekistan as part of a draft border demarcation agreement between the two neighbouring countries. Those arrested include civil society activists, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders, in addition to opposition politicians and former public officials. Well-known human rights defenders Rita Karasartova and Klara Sooronkulova and activists Asiya Sasykbaeva,Gulnara Dzhurabaevaand Perizat Suranovawere among those arrested.

Most of those arrested were subsequently placed in pre-trial detention for up to two months on charges of preparing to organise riots (under articles 36 and 278 of the Criminal Code) and risk up to ten years’ imprisonment if found guilty.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.

Both NGOs and the Ombudsperson’s office documented procedural violations related to the arrests and remand hearings of those arrested, which reinforced concerns about their cases. Among others, the court failed to properly justify the use of pre-trial detention as a measure of restraint in relation to most of them.

The mass arrests began shortly after some of those detained set up a public committee for the protection of Kempir-Abad on 22nd October 2022. That same day President Japarov lashed out against those opposing the border deal on Kempir-Abad, calling them ‘’provocateurs’’ and accusing them of misrepresenting facts and seeking to ‘’cause an uprising’’ for their own political interests. He said ‘’we will not permit that’’.

The mass arrests were widely condemned by civil society actors.In a joint statement, IPHR, LPF, CIVICUS and eight other NGOs expressed concerns that the criminal cases initiated against the critics of the draft border agreement constitute retaliation for their legitimate criticism and civic engagement on the Kempir-Abad issue. They 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 and other matters of public concern.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the EU’s Special Representative on Human Rights also voiced concerns about the mass arrests.

Journalists and bloggers charged for social media posts

In several recent cases, journalists and bloggers have come under criminal investigation because of social media posts on issues sensitive to the authorities. They have been accused of disseminating ‘’incorrect’’ information and charged under broadly worded provisions of the Criminal Code, including in particular article 330, which penalises ‘’incitement’’ to ethnic, national and other hatred without clearly defining this offence, and more recently also article 278, which prohibits calls for disobedience of authorities and for riots. In several cases, the charges have been primarily based on expert assessments which found that the social media posts in question contained unlawful material, while independent expert assessments reached different conclusions that have not been taken into account.

The following cases are part of this trend:

  • As described in our previous update, the director of Next TV, Taalaibek Duishenbiev was detained during a police raid of the office of his outlet in Bishkek in March 2022. He was subsequently charged with inciting inter-national hatred (under Criminal Code article 330) because of comments which Next TV had reposted from a Ukrainian media outlet on its social media accounts. The comments in question suggested that Kyrgyzstan had agreed to provide military assistance to Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine and were attributed to a former high-ranking Kazakhstani security official. Next TV’s reposts of these comments were declared ‘’extremist’’ by a court.
  • Both national and international NGOs criticised the actions taken against Next TV and its director as an attempt to suppress freedom of expression and called for Duishenbiev’s release. Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsperson also expressed concerns and called for constitutional guarantees of media freedom to be upheld in this case.
  • After Duishenbiev had been held in pre-trial detention for more than six months, Bishkek’s Pervomaisky District Court issued its ruling on his case on 21st September 2022. The court found the journalist guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison. However, it also ruled to commute his prison sentence to threeyears’ probation, during which time he will be required to regularly report to authorities and refrain from travelling. Thus, Duishenbiev was released from detention, but his lawyer stated that the defence was not satisfied with the ruling and would appeal it. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on the authorities to overturn Duishenbiev’s conviction and withdraw the probation conditions to which he was subjected.
“We strongly condemn this unjust sentence against Next TV director Taalaibek Duishenbiev. Republishing newsworthy statements by well-known public figures is part of the job of a news outlet, and the absurdity of charging Duishenbiev with incitement for this makes it clear that authorities aim to disrupt the broadcaster’s coverage.” 
  • On 14th August 2022, police in Bishkek summoned and detained civil society activist and blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev, who administers a Facebook page called PolitUznik (“political prisoner’’). This came after the publication on his site of 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.The police accused Zhekshenaliev of spreading ‘’incorrect’’ information and attempting to ‘’manipulate public information’’ regarding Jetim-Too. These accusations echoed statements made in a Facebook post published by President Japarov on the same day, in which he called on those who present themselves as defenders of Jetim-Too to stop spreading ‘’lies’’ about the situation regarding the iron ore field and encouraged law enforcement authorities to ‘’bring order’’ among these false ‘’patriots’’.
  • At a closed hearing held on 16th August 2022, a local court sanctioned Zhekshenaliev’s pre-trial detention for two months on charges of calling for active disobedience of the lawful demands of representatives of the authorities and for riots (part 3 of article 278 of the Criminal Code), which carry a penalty of up to eight years in prison. Three days later, police raided his home. Zhekshenaliev stated that he considers the charges to be politically motivated and independent lawyers denounced the case against him as an attack on freedom of expression and an attempt to prevent public discussion on an issue of public concern. In September 2022, he was briefly hospitalised with heart problems. In late October 2022, he was transferred to house arrest pending trial.
  • On 23rd July 2022, police in Bishkek announced that a criminal case had been opened against blogger and civil society activist Aizhana Myrsalieva (also known as Aizhan Myrsan) because of video posted on TikTok in March 2022, which contained excerpts from her live stream on Facebook in the same month. In the video, Myrsalieva could be seen making critical statements about the lack of achievements of ethnic Kyrgyz during Kyrgyzstan’s 30 years of independence and their approach to other nationalities in the country. Police argued that an expert assessment had found that the video was aimed at inciting international hatred (under Criminal Code article 300). Myrsalieva denied the charges, saying that statements she made during her livestream had been placed out of context in the short TikTok video, which was posted by another social media user. She believed the case to have been fabricated in retaliation for her criticism of the current authorities. As concluded by Factcheck.kg, the basis for the charges against Myrsalieva appeared thin as she herself is an ethnic Kyrgyz. The trial in Myrsalieva’s case started in mid-August 2022.
  • On 30th June 2022, blogger Adilet Ali Myktybek was detained, with a local Bishkek court thereafter sanctioning his arrest on charges of calling for disobedience of the lawful demands of authorities and for riots (under Criminal Code article 278). The charges were based on an expert assessment commissioned by the investigators, which found that a series of Facebook posts published by Myktybek constituted calls for riots. He dismissed the charges as absurd and unfounded and linked them to his criticism of the authorities. In his social media posts, Myktybek spoke out on different issues in the country, among others a government initiative to legalise casinos, the extraction of natural resources, and plans for the construction of a new presidential residence. He has also worked as a freelance correspondent for Next TV – the TV company whose director was recently convicted for allegedly inciting national hatred (see more above). In September 2022, Myktybek’s case was submitted to court, while he remained in pre-trial detention. 

Information from the General Prosecutor’s Office obtained by human rights defenders indicates that a total of 23 criminal cases were opened under Criminal Code articles 330 and 278 because of social media posts from the beginning of 2022 through mid-October 2022. Human rights groups have criticised the increasing application of broadly worded criminal law provisions in this context and have called on the authorities to stop using criminal prosecution as a means to crack down against dissent on social media. The Ombudsperson’s office has voiced concerns that criminal cases against journalists, bloggers and activists are frequently characterised by procedural violations, which undermine the comprehensiveness and impartiality of the investigations, deprive suspects of opportunities to prove their innocence, and result in non-observance of constitutional rights and freedoms.

Case against corruption whistle-blower ends with unexpected acquittals

Journalists who cover corruption in Kyrgyzstan are at particular risk of persecution. A recent example of this trend is the case of journalist Bolot Temirov, who faced multiple criminal charges in apparent retaliation for his investigations into high-level corruption:

  • As covered before, in January 2022, Temirov was charged with the possession of drugs (under Criminal Code article 283)following a dramatic police raid on Temirov Live -- his YouTube-based outlet in Bishkek -- during which police are believed to have planted drugs on him. Three months later, Temirov, who also holds 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). On both occasions, the charges against the journalist came shortly after Temirov Live had published material implicating the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS) Kamchybek Tashiev and his family in corruption. Previously, Temirov and his colleagues had reported being subjected to surveillance, intimidation and threats because of their corruption investigations.
  • The criminal charges against Temirov were widely condemned by media and human rights watchdogs. In a joint statement issued in May 2022, IPHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Civil Rights Defenders described the case against him as a serious assault on freedom of expression and called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to drop the charges and enable him to carry out his legitimate journalistic work without intimidation and harassment.
  • The trial in Temirov’s case began at Sverdlov District Court in Bishkek in June 2022 and ended in September 2022. While Temirov’s defence denied all charges and emphasised the lack of basis and evidence for them, the prosecutor requested a five-year prison sentence. Finally, in a ruling issued on 28th September 2022, the judge acquitted the journalist of the charges of drug possession, concluding that the investigation had been prejudiced against him and that case materials proved his innocence. Similarly, the judge cleared the journalist of the charges of illegal border crossing, saying that the investigation had failed to prove them. Moreover, while finding Temirov guilty of document forgery, the judge did not hand down any sentence on these charges due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. As a result, the journalist was released from the courtroom to the cheers of a large group of his supporters who were present.
  • When commenting on the ruling, Temirov stated that he had not expected this outcome, expressed overall satisfaction with it and thanked all supporters for helping to ensure it. However, he also said he would seek accountability by the security and law enforcement officers involved in the criminal case against him. The prosecution subsequently appealed the journalist’s acquittal, meaning that the court case against him will continue. 

Case closed against media outlet targeted for repost about border conflict with Tajikistan

As reported before, in January 2022, the independent news website Kaktus.media came under criminal investigation after reposting an article from a Tajikistani media outlet about clashes that took place on Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan in April 2021. The General Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case on ‘’war propaganda’’ against the outlet (under Criminal Code article 407), saying that the reposted article contained incorrect information alleging that Kyrgyzstani soldiers had fired the first shots during the border confrontation, thereby provoking the Tajikistani side. The director and several journalists working with Kaktus.media were summoned for interrogation.

Kaktus.media stressed that it had only reposted the controversial article, saying this was done for the purpose of informing the public in Kyrgyzstan about how the border conflict is portrayed in Tajikistan, and the outlet’s founder said that she considers the criminal case part of a broader campaign of pressure against independent media in Kyrgyzstan. Human rights NGOs also criticised the criminal case against the outlet.

In May 2022, Kaktus.media said that the General Prosecutor’s office had confirmed that the case against the outlet had been closed. This was a welcome decision, although the mere fact that the outlet came under investigation for ‘’war propaganda’’ because it reposted an article is troubling.

Following the new clashes at the border with Tajikistan in September 2022, the Ministry of Interior stated that investigations had been opened against 20 social media users accused of ‘’provoking inter-ethnic hostility’’ and that they had been summoned for questioning. According to the Ministry, decisions on whether to open criminal cases against these social media users would be taken following expert assessments of their posts. As mentioned above, human rights groups are concerned that the Criminal Code provision that penalises ‘’incitement’’ to inter-ethnic and other hatred is vaguely worded and might be used to stifle protected free speech. 

Association

Problematic draft NGO law

Following the adoption of a new unjustified and discriminatory financial reporting scheme for NGOs last year, there are concerns that additional restrictions on NGO activities might follow. A new draft law on NGOs, which was put forward by the presidential administration for public discussion in early November 2022, contains problematic provisions.

Unlike previously, the draft law requires NGOs, including branches of foreign NGOs, to obtain compulsory state registration in order to operate lawfully in the country. NGOs that have obtained registration prior to the law entering into force will have to re-register in accordance with the new requirements, or else face liquidation. This gives rise to concerns that organisations working on issues that are sensitive to those in power might be denied registration on arbitrary grounds, especially as some of the grounds on which registration might be denied are broadly and ambiguously worded. For example, an application for registration might be rejected if the name of the organisation is considered to ‘’offend morality, national and religious feelings of citizens’’.

The draft law also grants broad powers to authorities to oversee NGOs’ compliance not only with national law but also with their own statutes. As part of their oversight functions, state bodies will have powers, among others, to send representatives to attend any events organised by NGOs, request access to a range of documents and carry out inspections of their activities. In addition, the draft law provides for additional reporting obligations for NGOs. NGOs found to have ‘’systematically’’ violated their obligations under the law might be liquidated by court.

Civil society representatives and lawyers have criticised the draft NGO law for imposing excessive restrictions on the freedom of association of NGOs, undue state control and interference in their internal affairs, as well as discriminatory treatment of NGOs compared to other legal subjects. There are fears that the draft law, if adopted, might in particular be used to put pressure on human rights NGOs. They have therefore called for the withdrawal of the law.

NGO leader first acquitted, then convicted

During the reporting period, an NGO leader facing criminal charges because of his work was first acquitted, then convicted on spurious charges:

As covered before, a criminal case was opened against human rights defender and head of the NGO Ventus, Kamil Ruziev, in summer 2020 in apparent retaliation for his efforts to ensure accountability for torture and other unlawful actions of security service officials. He 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 Ruziev’s 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.

Following legal proceedings lasting for almost two years, on 12th August 2022 the Karakol City Court issued a decision acquitting Ruziev of the charges against him. However, the prosecution subsequently appealed the decision to a higher-level court. On 11th October 2022, Ruziev reported that Issyk-Kul Regional Court had overturned his earlier acquittal, instead convicting him of forgery and fining him 80,000 Som (about 1,000 EUR). While Ruziev escaped imprisonment, this decision was a great disappointment. He said that he would appeal it to the Supreme Court.

Ruziev also remained subject to travel restrictions, leaving him unable to travel abroad to undergo treatment for his health problems. Moreover, in late September 2022, Ruziev reported being summoned by police in the city of Karakol for a ‘’prophylactic discussion’’ concerning his social media posts about the alleged abuse of power by local law enforcement officials. According to him, police warned him that he might face new criminal charges in this context.

Ruziev has been working on documenting allegations of torture and other human rights violations by law enforcement and security officials. He has submitted several complaints to courts in such cases and 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. 

Peaceful Assembly

During the reporting period, residents continued to hold peaceful assemblies on different issues. For example, in October 2022, dozens of people gathered in the capital Bishkek to express support for independent media following a rally demanding the closure of such outlets and later to demand the release of activists detained during the mass arrests of critics of a draft border deal with Uzbekistan (see more on these developments under Expression).

Most peaceful protests took place without interference, but threats to the freedom of peaceful assembly remained.

As described in our previous update, in March-April 2022, local courts issued several controversial, weeks-long bans on holding peaceful protests outside the Russian embassy and in other central locations in the capital Bishkek. These bans, which were based on requests from local authorities, were primarily aimed at preventing protests against Russia’s war in Ukraine in the affected locations, with police subsequently dispersing several protests on this issue and detaining participants. Both civil society representatives and the Ombudsperson criticised the court bans as violating national and international guarantees for the freedom of peaceful assembly. The fact that the first ban was issued in response to an official note submitted by the Russian embassy also drew criticism.

During the reporting period, court bans on peaceful protests in central areas of Bishkek continued. In particular, in accordance with a ruling issued by the Pervomaisky District Court, 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 from 12th April to 1st September 2022. Only official events organised at Ala-Too Square were exempted from the ban, which the court later prolonged until 1st December 2022. Protesters were instructed to gather instead in a park specifically designated for holding assemblies, namely Gorky Park. President Japarov has stated that protesters are allowed to hold rallies in this park ‘’24/7’’ and ‘’say what they want’’, but that they should ‘’leave embassies alone’’.

In several cases, police have detained peaceful protesters based on the court-sanctioned bans on assemblies, such as in the following case:

  • On 7th October 2022, police detained three persons who were peacefully protesting against the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian embassy in Bishkek. They were all holding individual pickets. Police took the three protesters, including civil society activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov, to a local police station. Toktonasyrov and one of the other protesters were subsequently released without charge, while the third protester – a Russian citizen – was fined 2000 som (around 25 EUR) by a court for disobeying the orders of the police. Earlier the same week, on 3rd October 2022, Toktonasyrov also initiated a peaceful protest against Russia’s war in Ukraine outside the Russian embassy; however, after being warned by police that they might be detained if they went ahead with the protest, the activist and his co-protesters moved it to Gorky Park.