Kyrgyzstan: Pressure on critical voices mounts ahead of presidential election

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Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square, where protests were banned in the pre-election period. Photo: Ian Brown/CC BY

Ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 15th October, pressure on critical voices is mounting in Kyrgyzstan. Recent alarming developments include: excessive compensation awarded in defamation lawsuits over articles critical of the president; pressure on journalists, including a journalist charged with inciting inter-ethnic hatred; the banning of a TV-station linked to the opposition for the alleged dissemination of extremist material; continued threats of confiscation of the family home of imprisoned human rights defender Azimjan Askarov; and a court decision prohibiting protests at key locations in Bishkek in the pre-election period.

International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) prepared this update on developments between June and August 2017, for the CIVICUS Monitor.

Expression

Defamation lawsuits for criticism of the president

As reported before on the Monitor, earlier this year the General Prosecutor brought a series of large-scale defamation lawsuits against the independent Zanoza news site because of articles which were unfavourable to President Almazbek Atambayev. In four different trials, local courts ruled in favour of the prosecutor, ordering Zanoza, its co-founders and journalists Narynbek Idinov and Dina Maslova, human rights defender Cholpon Djakupova, as well as lawyers from the opposition Ata Meken party, to pay over 30 million Kyrgyz som (400,000 EUR) in compensation for alleged moral damages to the president.

At the time of writing, several of the court decisions had already been upheld on appeal by Bishkek’s City Court, while other appeals were pending. The trial on a fifth defamation lawsuit against Zanoza began in August 2017. In this case, the General Prosecutor has requested three million Kyrgyz som (40,000 EUR) in compensation for the publication of comments made by an opposition leader that allegedly defamed the president. Initially, this case also involved the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), but the General Prosecutor withdrew all claims against the RFE/RL after President Atambayev suggested doing so, saying its reporting had “improved”.

The decisions handed down against Zanoza and its co-defendants have been widely criticised. The Independent Union of Journalists of Kyrgyzstan concluded that the court-established amounts of moral compensation were disproportionate and unreasonable and “could be regarded as an attempt to close down an independent internet outlet at any cost and prevent it from providing the public with alternative information about developments in Kyrgyzstan ahead of the upcoming presidential election”. Journalist Narynbek Idinov, one of those convicted, said that the court decisions are a “warning to all remaining independent sources and journalists not to write articles that are critical of the authorities”.

The excessive amounts Zanoza was ordered to pay in compensation are threatening the survival of the internet outlet. Moreover, in a separate court ruling issued in late July 2017, the outlet was prohibited from using the trademark zanoza.kg. Following this, the Zanoza team launched a new site, kaktus.media.

Pressure on journalists

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, in June 2017 the national security services opened a criminal case against independent journalist Ulugbek Babakulov. He was charged with inciting inter-ethnic hatred after he drew attention to aggressive nationalism against ethnic Uzbeks on social media in an article he published on the regional Fergana News site. He was also subjected to a public smear campaign. Because of the risk of politically-motivated imprisonment, Babakulov fled the country. According to information received by IPHR, Babakulov’s family, who remain in Bishkek, have reported being subjected to ongoing surveillance by unknown people they believe may be from the security services. In mid-August, his family members also reported that a threatening message had been written on the gate of the house and that several unknown men attempted to get into the house by climbing the surrounding fence but were eventually scared off. Because of these developments, Babakulov fears for the safety of his family.

In addition to facing criminal charges, Babakulov has been sued for defamation over an online article he published on problems with the functioning of the law enforcement and judicial system in Kyrgyzstan. The lawsuit was initiated by a woman, who the article alleges filed a complaint to police that resulted in the wrongful imprisonment of a local resident who had lent her money. She has requested one million Kyrgyz som (12,000 EUR) in compensation from Babakulov and the removal of the article from the Fergana News website, where it first appeared, and Zanoza, where it was re-posted. Daniil Kislov, chief editor of Fergana News said that he considers the lawsuit a continuation of the smear campaign against Babakulov.

In another recent development, journalist Avtandil Dobulbekov from the Super.kg information portal reported being dismissed after attending the traditional summer press conference of President Atambayev on 24th July 2017, where he posed a question that did not please the president. He wanted to know why the president had recently expressed dissatisfaction with the people of Kyrgyzstan. In an emotionally-charged response, the president called this statement a lie.

TV station banned for alleged dissemination of extremist material

Political conflict related to the upcoming elections is impacting broadcast media. On 22nd August 2017, a court in Bishkek banned the activities of the September TV station for disseminating extremist material. September is affiliated with recently-imprisoned opposition Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev. The charges against the TV station were leveled because of an interview with the previous head of the Osh regional police department, Abdyldy Kaparov.  In the interview, Kaparov accused current ruling party presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov and his brother of appropriating government funds. In June this year, a regional court in Osh sentenced Kaparov, a supporter of Tekebayev, to four years in prison on various charges.

The September TV station said that it was not given time to familiarise itself with the charges or organise legal assistance prior to the court hearing. It also argued that the decision was handed down on erroneous grounds since the interview in question was broadcast by a similarly named and previously closed down TV station in Jalal-Abad rather than the Bishkek-based one. The General Prosecutor’s Office dismissed this argument, saying both TV stations constituted one media outlet. The September TV station announced that it would appeal the court’s decision.

As previously reported, current President Almazbek Atambayev is not allowed to run in the October presidential election because of constitutionally-mandated term limits but he supports his party’s candidate, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. Numerous other individuals have also filed applications to run in the election, including Omurbek Tekebayev. On 16th August 2017, however, Tekebayev was sentenced to eight years in jail, having been arrested on corruption charges earlier this year. His supporters and many observers viewed his trial as politically-motivated and an attempt to improve the chances of the ruling party’s candidate winning in the October elections.

Association

Threats of confiscation of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov’s family house

On 16th August 2017, a local court in the Jalal-Abad region in southern Kyrgyzstan was due to start hearing a complaint filed by imprisoned human rights defender Azimjan Askarov regarding a prosecutor’s decision to sanction the confiscation of his family’s home. This decision was made as part of the implementation of the 2010 court ruling against Askarov, although national legislation on the execution of court decisions prohibits confiscating property where family members of convicted individuals live. Askarov’s wife currently lives in the house. The hearing was eventually postponed on the grounds that the representative of the State Property Management Fund, a witness in the case, was not able to attend. International monitors were present to observe the hearing.

Azimjan Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek activist, continues to serve a life sentence for his alleged role in the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that he had been arbitrarily detained, tortured and denied a fair trial and called for his immediate release and quashing of his conviction. However, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court failed to release him and sent the case back for re-trial at the appeals level, where his life sentence was upheld based on the flawed 2010 investigation.

Entry ban for well-known Russian human rights activist

Vitaliy Ponomarev, Central Asia Programme Director for the Moscow-based Human Rights Center Memorial, was denied entry to Kyrgyzstan on 9th August 2017 when arriving to the country via the land border from Kazakhstan. He was not informed about the reason for the ban. Close to 40 members of the Civic Solidarity Platform, a network of human rights NGOs from across Europe, the former Soviet Union and North America, protested the decision to ban the well-known human rights defender entry, saying it “raises deep concern as to its motivation”. This was not the first time that a human rights defender has been prevented from entering Kyrgyzstan. Ponomarev was previously declared persona non-grata and deported from Kyrgyzstan in 2009.

Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered by IPHR and the LPF, national legislation sets out a simple notification procedure for organising peaceful assemblies and also safeguards the right to hold spontaneous assemblies without prior notice. According to available information, dozens of assemblies took place in different parts of the country in mid-June to mid-August 2017 on a range of social, economic and political issues. Among these were protests calling for the release of detained opposition figures, including Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev and former parliamentary deputy Sadyr Japarov, who were both arrested earlier this year and handed prison sentences in August following high-profile trials. Their supporters have criticised the cases against them as being politically motivated. Similarly to Tekebayev, Japarov had intended to run in the October presidential election; however, the Central Election Commission (CEC) denied his registration as a candidate on 10th August. Tekebayev’s candidate application had yet to be considered at the time of writing. Kyrgyzstan’s election law prohibits individuals with convictions in force from running for president.

Blanket ban on protests at key locations in the capital ahead of presidential election

Most assemblies were allowed to proceed without interference by law enforcement authorities, and in some cases representatives of authorities pledged to look into issues raised during protests. However, there were also concerns about undue restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly. Bishkek’s Pervomaisky District Court sanctioned a request from the mayor’s office to prohibit all public assemblies (with the exception of official events) at the central Ala-Too Square, as well as near the parliament building that also houses the presidential office, the Government House and the CEC’s office from 28th July to 20th October 2017. The ban also extends to the Pervomaisky District Court building. According to the court decision, the mayor’s office argued that the conduct of assemblies at these centrally-located Bishkek venues inconveniences residents, disturbs transportation, car traffic and pedestrian mobility, and potentially violates sanitary regulations. The mayor’s office also referred to the preparations for the Independence Day celebrations on 31st August and the presidential election on 15th October, as well as “recent developments in the world, including increasing manifestations of religious extremism”.

The court-issued ban on holding protests at key locations in Bishkek in the run-up to the presidential election is highly problematic, in the light of national and international standards. According to Kyrgyzstan’s Law on Assemblies, restrictions on the time and venue of assemblies may only be imposed in response to real threats to the safety of participants or other citizens, for the period these threats persist. The 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 reasons cited by the mayor’s office for temporary banning assemblies outside major government buildings do not meet these requirements.

The OSCE expert panel on the freedom of assembly and the UN Special Rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association have also stressed that blanket bans on holding protests in certain locations are generally disproportionate since no consideration is given to the specific circumstances of each case. The ban imposed by the local Bishkek court is of further concern since it only applies to non-official events, excluding those organised by authorities, which reflects a discriminatory approach.

Based on the decision issued by the Pervomaisky District Court, police detained civil society activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov on 9th August. Toktonasyrov was holding a one-person picket outside the CEC’s office in Bishkek to demand that opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev be allowed to take the Kyrgyz state language test, which is a requirement for qualifying as a candidate in the presidential election. Toktonasyrov was taken to court and given a warning for violating the ban on holding assemblies outside the CEC. Both police and the court dismissed his argument that this ban is unlawful.