Kyrgyzstan: President slams criticism

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This update for the CIVICUS Monitor, prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) provides information on developments affecting civic space in Kyrgyzstan since April 2017. These developments include continued verbal attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and other outspoken individuals; defamation lawsuits over articles critical of the president; the criminal prosecution of a journalist who exposed nationalism on social media; new legislation that restricts NGO monitoring of elections; and new cases of curtailing peaceful protests.

Worsening climate ahead of the presidential election

The situation for freedom of speech and civil society in Kyrgyzstan has deteriorated ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 15th October 2017. To date, a number of individuals have expressed interest in running for the position, including the current prime minister Sooronbai Jeenbekov from the Social Democratic Party who is supported by outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev. Atambayev is not allowed to run again due to a constitutional term limit.

In a briefing paper prepared for the annual EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue in Brussels on 27th June 2017, IPHR and the LPF focused on the worsening climate for free speech and civil society in Kyrgyzstan in the run-up to the elections. IPHR urged the European Union to demand an end to the disturbing pattern of stigmatisation, harassment and reprisals against those who are critical of the current situation in Kyrgyzstan. Other NGOs that presented their comments to the Dialogue in writing also drew attention to the growing harassment of human rights organisations and defenders, as well as media and journalists. According to an EU press release issued after the meeting, the discussion with the authorities of Kyrgyzstan covered a broad range of issues and the EU, among others, called on the government to “maintain and protect an open media environment as an important enabler for free, competitive and transparent presidential elections later this year”.

Expression

In the 2017 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Kyrgyzstan’s rating fell by four places on the previous year. Kyrgyzstan now ranks 89th out of 180 countries, still higher than other Central Asian countries, but reflective of a deteriorating situation for freedom of the press.

Verbal attacks on critical voices

As IPHR and the LPF have already reported on the Monitor, independent media and journalists, human rights defenders and other critical voices have increasingly been subjected to verbal attacks by public officials, pro-government media and pro-government social media users.

In the last few months, President Atambayev has repeatedly lambasted journalists, human rights defenders and other critics, accusing them of being unprofessional, discrediting him, and seeking to destabilise the situation in the country. For example, during a press conference with the UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2017, Atambayev stated that “there is a lot of sh*t” among journalists and politicians in the country”. Earlier in the same month, on the seventh anniversary of the 2010 inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, he claimed that there are people who, “under the guise of human rights defenders, experts and journalists” seek to provoke new inter-ethnic tensions. Such statements by the head of the state contribute to reinforcing negative and intolerant attitudes toward journalists and human rights defenders.

A year ago, President Atambayev publicly accused leading human rights defenders Tolekan Ismailova and Aziza Abdirasulova of participating in a movement to topple the government and of “working off” their foreign grants to this end. The two defenders went to court seeking a retraction of this statement. Following earlier rejections by lower courts, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal filed by Ismailova on 22nd May 2017. Abdirasulova plans to submit an appeal to the Supreme Court at a later date.

Defamation lawsuits

As earlier reported, from March to April 2017 the General Prosecutor’s Office initiated significant defamation lawsuits against the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Radio Azattyk), the independent Zanoza news site, and journalists Narynbek Idinov and Dina Maslova because of articles with statements unfavourable of the president. Human rights defender Cholpon Djakupova was sued for statements cited in these articles that she made at a roundtable organised by the Ombudsman. At the roundtable, she criticised the president’s recent actions, using harsh words without mentioning him by name.

The bank accounts of two media outlets were frozen and certain articles under investigation were blocked on their websites. Narynbek Idinov, Dina Maslova and Cholpon Djakupova were banned from leaving the country while the claims against them are still pending, even though national civil procedure law does not require parties to be personally present in court during civil law cases.

President Atambayev publicly called Radio Azattyk and Zanoza “slanderers” and threatened to take the former to “international courts” if needed. Changing his tone in mid-May 2017, however, he suggested withdrawing the defamation suits against Radio Azattyk, saying that its reporting had “improved”. Following this, the General Prosecutor’s Office dropped the defamation lawsuits against Radio Azattyk and a local court ruled to unfreeze the service’s bank account and unblock the relevant articles on its site.

The General Prosecutor’s Office, however, did not withdraw the defamation lawsuits against Zanoza and its co-defendants, and the proceedings in these cases have begun, although the defence lawyers argued that the trials should have been postponed until the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber examined an appeal to invalidate the provision on which the lawsuits were initiated. On 30th June 2017, a local court in Bishkek handed down its verdict in two of the cases, finding the defendants guilty of defaming the president. In the first case, the court ordered Djakupova, Zanoza, and its journalists and co-founders, Narynbek Idinov and Dina Maslova, to each pay three million som (approximately 40,000 EUR) in damages. In the second case, which dealt with an article about the president published by Zanoza back in 2015, the court ordered the media outlet and Idinov to pay a total of six million som in damages (80,000 EUR). The defendants denounced the sentences as harassment and attempts to silence criticism and said they would appeal.

At the time of writing, the trials initiated by the General Prosecutor’s Office against Zanoza on additional defamation charges are still under way.

Criminal case against journalist

Independent journalist Ulugbek Babakulov has become the target of a public smear campaign, labelled an “enemy of the people” and threatened with being deprived of his citizenship by MPs following the his article published on the independent, regional Fergana news site on 23rd May 2017. His article drew attention to the aggressive nationalism against ethnic Uzbeks on social media in Kyrgyzstan. On 27th May 2017, a programme aired on Kyrgyzstan’s major TV channel accused Babakulov of inciting inter-ethnic hatred and called for the Fergana site to be blocked. Less than two weeks later, on 9th June 2017 a local court in Bishkek ruled the site should be blocked and national security services opened a criminal case against Babakulov on charges of inciting inter-ethnic hatred, an offense that carries a lengthy prison sentence. The security services accused Babakulov of publishing a series of articles “aimed at inciting inter-ethnic hostility and hatred and creating conditions for the aggravation of inter-ethnic relations”. Because of the risk of politically-motivated imprisonment and fears for his safety, Babakulov subsequently fled Kyrgyzstan, saying that he had been warned of plans to initiate a “show trial” against him similar to the case of ethnic Uzbek human rights defender, Azimjan Askarov, who remains imprisoned for his alleged role in the inter-ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. After fleeing the country, the smear campaign against Babakulov has continued in pro-government media and on social media, and his family in Kyrgyzstan has reported being subjected to surveillance.

Association

Ahead of the presidential elections, authorities introduced new restrictions on civil society’s role in monitoring of elections. A series of amendments to national election legislation, adopted by parliament at the end of May 2017 and which the president signed into law on 5th June, contain provisions that deny NGO monitors the right to move freely and be present at polling stations, as well as to appeal against decisions taken by the election commissions in cases of reported electoral fraud.

According to the new provisions, the number of monitors will also be limited to one per polling station. MPs sought to justify these restrictions claiming that NGO monitors lack objectivity and that as a result, such monitors may disrupt the conduct of elections by showing favour to certain candidates. Civil society actors have criticised the new provisions, with a representative of the Legal Clinic “Adilet” saying that the new protocol makes it “meaningless” to monitor elections, since NGO observers will not be allowed to take any measures if they document violations. The lack of opportunities for effective NGO monitoring threatens to undermine the transparency and credibility of the elections.

Peaceful Assembly

While peaceful protests on economic, social and political issues regularly take place in Kyrgyzstan, unjustified restrictions on assemblies and violations of the rights of demonstrators have been documented in a growing number of cases in recent months.

Two recent cases of concern to IPHR and the LPF are as follows:

  • On 31st May 2017, civil society activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov held a one-person picket outside the parliament building in Bishkek to protest against amendments to election legislation, which restrict the rights of NGO monitors (see more in the section on Association). In spite of the peaceful nature of his protest, police detained Toktonasyrov and took him to a local police station, where they “lectured” him on the supposed unlawfulness of his protest before finally releasing him. Toktonasyrov filed a complaint against the actions of police. In accordance with international standards, Kyrgyzstan’s legislation does not require those organising protests to obtain permission and obliges state authorities to facilitate and safeguard all peaceful assemblies.
  • On 2nd June 2017, a group of civil society activists organised a peaceful protest against the felling of trees on Toktonalieva Street in central Bishkek, an act which the activists consider to be illegal. Protesters who were trying to protect the trees by holding onto the trunks were dragged away by police. According to an eyewitness, police and tree cutters also laughed at the protesters and mocked them. A total of ten people were detained on accusations of disobeying police orders and unlawfully blocking the street. A local court issued a warning to the ten who were detained, though they denied any wrongdoing, saying that their actions were entirely peaceful and that they did not resist police nor block the street, which was already closed for reconstruction and blocked by police to control the process of felling the trees. The protesters have appealed the court decisions.

Civil society representatives have criticised the fact that authorities demonstrate a selective approach to allowing peaceful assemblies depending on who the organisers are. Assemblies initiated or endorsed by the authorities are typically allowed to proceed without interference and measures are also taken to facilitate them, e.g. streets are closed off, traffic stopped and different government agencies accompany the event. For example, such measures were taken during the so-called Immortal Regiment march held in Bishkek on Victory Day 9th May 2017 with 30,000 commemorating the memory of those who fought and died in the Soviet Army during World War II.

Этот умирающий птенец по улице Душанбинской для меня сегодня стал олицетворением того, что происходит с Бишкеком. Жители…

Posted by Юрий Копытин on Friday, 2 June 2017

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Image featured with post: Screenshot from state TV programme denigrating journalist Ulugbek Babakulov