Kyrgyzstan: Briefing paper highlights worsening free speech and civil society climate

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Protest in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Valodja / CC BY

A new briefing paper prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) draws attention to the worsening climate for free speech and civil society engagement recently seen in Kyrgyzstan. The briefing paper, which has been prepared as a contribution to the EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue scheduled to take place in Brussels at the end of June, describes current challenges to the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly and the working conditions of human rights defenders, which are of serious concern to IPHR and the LPF.

As set out in the briefing paper, public officials have become increasingly intolerant of criticism in Kyrgyzstan, and journalists, human rights defenders and other outspoken individuals have increasingly been singled out for verbal attacks. In particular, President Atambayev has stepped up rhetoric against those critical of his policies and has accused them of seeking to destabilize the situation in the country.

The Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Radio Azattyk) and the independent Zanoza news site, journalists Narynbek Idinov and Dina Maslova, as well as human rights defender Cholpon Djakupova are currently facing financially crippling defamation lawsuits because of articles displeasing the president. Pending the outcome of the proceedings, the bank accounts of the targeted media outlets have been frozen, and Narynbek Idinov, Dina Maslova and Cholpon Djakupova have been banned from travelling abroad. Over 100 people have appealed to the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the provision on the basis of which the General Prosecutor has taken legal action in these cases.  While previously branding Radio Azattyk and Zanoza as “slanderers”, President Atambayev sounded a different tone in mid-May when suggesting that the General Prosecutor should consider withdrawing the defamation suits against the former one because its coverage has “improved”. However, so far, this is not known to have happened.

Recently security services have also taken measures to track down social media users who have published information critical of the president, with some users being summoned, questioned and warned.

The protracted discussion surrounding the Russia-inspired “foreign agents” law, which was eventually rejected last year, fuelled negative and suspicious attitudes toward foreign-funded NGOs with a long-lasting impact. The president and other public figures have repeatedly accused human rights NGOs and defenders of “working off” money received from abroad. There also concerns that new initiatives to restrict the funding and activities of NGOs may follow.

Human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, who is serving a life sentence for his alleged role in the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, continues to be denied justice. Last spring the UN Human Rights Committee called for promptly releasing him and quashing his original sentence. However, the Supreme Court merely sent the case back for reconsideration at the appeals level, resulting in a January 2017 ruling that upheld his life sentence despite the lack of any credible evidence of his guilt.

Human rights defenders Aziza Abdirasulova and Tolekan Ismailova, who have prominently defended the rights of Askarov and other victims of injustice, have been subjected to intimidation, discrediting attacks, surveillance, and the threat of criminal prosecution in the past year. This month, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal regarding a lambasting speech delivered by the president last year, in which he accused the two defenders of being part of a movement bent on toppling the government.

In connection with several recent protests against the high-profile arrests of opposition members and measures stifling free speech, authorities have curtailed the right to freedom of assembly in violation of the country’s liberally worded legislation in this area. For example, during a peaceful march in support of freedom of speech held in Bishkek in March 2017, several youth opposition activists were detained for allegedly violating public order without being given any prior warning, sentenced to five days’ arrest at a trial that violated fair trial standards, and held in inhumane and degrading conditions.

For more detailed information, see our briefing paper.