Kyrgyzstan: Current trends regarding freedom of association and peaceful assembly

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A special report published by CIVICUS Monitor on the basis of information from International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation surveys current trends regarding freedom of association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan. The report highlights the hostile public discourse against NGOs that persists in the country, although the stigmatizing “foreign agents” bill was eventually rejected last year, as well as intimidation and interference into the activities of NGOs that work on the rights of ethnic minorities and other sensitive issues. At a time of ongoing peaceful protests against the arrest of an opposition leader, it also discusses the legal regulation of the conduct of assemblies under liberal legislation adopted in 2012 and occasional violations of this freedom that continue to be documented.

Association

The Constitution of Kyrgyzstan protects the right to freedom of association and states that citizens may establish associations on the basis of their free will and common interests. Non-commercial organisations (NCOs), which is the term used by national legislation, rather than “non-governmental organisations,” may operate with or without legal status and the registration procedure is quick and simple. In accordance with the Law on NCOs, these organisations may register and operate as public associations, foundations and institutions.

The civil society sector in Kyrgyzstan is dynamic and several thousand CSOs are currently registered in the country. Most CSOs depend on funding from foreign and international donors. The limited availability of local funding, combined with cutbacks in foreign donor programs, has negatively affected the sustainability of civil society organisations, including those involved in human rights protection.

There have also been attempts to restrict foreign assistance to CSOs. Draft legislation introducing changes to the law governing civil society groups was first introduced by a group of MPs in September 2013 and then reintroduced in May 2014. The changes drew primarily upon the notorious Russian “foreign agents” law. It required CSOs to adopt the stigmatising label of “foreign agents” if they receive foreign funding and engage in broadly-defined “political activities.” It also gave authorities new and expanded powers to interfere in the internal affairs of CSOs. This draft legislation was widely criticised by civil society and international human rights bodies as infringing on the right to freedom of association and other fundamental rights guaranteed by national and international law. Finally, after significant revisions, parliament rejected the draft bill in May 2016. This was a victory for civil society, which had campaigned against the draft legislation since it was first introduced.

Although the draft “foreign agents” legislation was eventually rejected, the protracted public discussion surrounding it has contributed to negative and hostile attitudes toward civil society organisations, in particular, human rights NGOs. This has resulted in a more difficult operating environment for activists. During the re-trial of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, in which his life sentence was upheld by the court, there was a new surge in negative rhetoric against human rights NGOs and defenders.

Some human rights groups have also experienced intimidation and interference into their activities, such as in the two such cases below reported in the southern part of the country:

  • In late January, the State Committee on National Security (SCNS) issued a press release accusing the Bir Duino Human Rights Movement of obstructing law enforcement operations in the arrest of an individual suspected of extremism in the Osh region. Bir Duino denied this accusation, saying that no one from the organisation was present during the arrest. The group then filed a lawsuit with the court, requesting SCNS to retract the discrediting statement. Earlier in March 2015, SCNS officials had searched the organisation’s branch office and the homes of two of its lawyers in Osh, confiscating material on dozens of cases in which the organisation was providing legal assistance. These searches were subsequently proven unlawful by the Supreme Court. The head of Bir Duino, Tolekan Ismailova, has repeatedly faced threats and verbal assaults by public figures and media outlets.

  • In June 2016, representatives of the Jalal Abad-based Spravedlivost NGO were intimidated and questioned by law enforcement officials because of their efforts to defend the rights of primarily ethnic Uzbek residents facing forced eviction due to a public construction project. The NGO was, among others, accused of promoting inter-ethnic tensions in the city and state-controlled media also reported negatively on the organisation and its work.The video below by the OSCE details Spravedlivost’s important work to reconcile the country’s history of inter-ethnic conflict and tension:

Peaceful Assembly

The 2012 Law on Peaceful Assemblies protects the right to organise and hold assemblies without permission as embodied in international guidelines on peaceful assembly. The law requires state authorities to facilitate and protect both planned and spontaneous peaceful assemblies.

According to the 2012 law, the organisers of assemblies should submit a written notification to authorities at least two days in advance. However, according to the constitution, it is the right rather than the obligation of the organisers to notify authorities in advance; the conduct of peaceful assemblies may not be prohibited or restricted because no notification has been submitted. Assemblies may only be banned if they are aimed at promoting certain unlawful objectives, such as propaganda of war and violence, and the time of place of assemblies may only be restricted in order to ensure the safety of the participants or other citizens. Authorities must request a court review of the lawfulness of any decisions to ban or restrict assemblies within 24 hours.

There have been cases when authorities have curtailed peaceful protests simply because of the lack of advance notification or imposed restrictions on the time and place of assemblies in violation of the requirements of the law, including the requirement for a prompt court review. Moreover, sometimes law enforcement authorities unduly interfere with the conduct of peaceful assemblies by confiscating materials used by protesters to communicate their messages. There has also been a growing number of cases in which the organisers and participants have been detained on different pretexts to prevent them from holding peaceful protests. Those responsible for violations of the right to freedom of assembly are typically not held to account before the courts.

The Law on Assemblies states that peaceful assemblies may be held anywhere, except for in the immediate vicinity of certain institutions and buildings, including penitentiary, public health and educational facilities. Amendments to the Code of Administrative Responsibility adopted in 2013 introduced liability for unlawfully blocking or restricting the movement of pedestrians, cars and other means of transport, a provision that could be applied to participants in peaceful assemblies that take place in the street or other areas used for transportation.

Update 27 February 2017: In the last two days, several hundred people have gathered in the capital Bishkek to peacefully protest against the detention of opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev, who was apprehended early on 26 February 2017 and is being investigated on fraud and corruption charges. The Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has reported that law enforcement authorities are considering the issue of whether to initiate fines against the organizers of today’s peaceful protest on Ala-Too Square. The grounds for this are not clear. According to the organizers, they informed local authorities in advance about the protest and the constitution prohibits holding peaceful assembly organizers and participants liable for failing to provide advance notice or for failing to comply with the technical requirements for doing so (article 34).