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Kyrgyzstan: Civic space deteriorates further as “foreign agent”-style NGO law is adopted and media crackdown widens

Kyrgyzstan: Civic space deteriorates further as “foreign agent”-style NGO law is adopted and media crackdown widens
Bishkek view/Photo by whereisemil/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED
Kyrgyzstan: Civic space deteriorates further as “foreign agent”-style NGO law is adopted and media crackdown widens
Bishkek view/Photo by whereisemil/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

This update covers the protection of freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from January to April 2024. It has been prepared by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) in collaboration with the CIVICUS Monitor.

During the reporting period, the civic space situation in Kyrgyzstan continued to deteriorate. As a result, in March 2024, it was included on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms. Previously, in December 2023, the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded Kyrgyzstan’s civic space rating from “obstructed” to “repressed”, placing it in the same category as Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament passed a controversial “foreign agent’’-style NGO law in mid-March 2024, swiftly followed by President Sadyr Japarov’s signature, despite widespread criticism from civil society, international human rights bodies, and representatives of the international community. President Japarov defended his decision to sign the law with incorrect and misleading arguments, alleging that NGOs operated without oversight and used grants arbitrarily. While purportedly aimed at ensuring transparency and accountability of foreign-funded groups, the law’s true intent appears to be stifling scrutiny, discussion, and criticism of those in power.

In accordance with the new law, foreign-funded organisations are mandated to register under the stigmatising label of “foreign representatives” and operate under strict state supervision if they engage in “political activities.” This term is so broadly defined that it can be interpreted to encompass virtually any NGO activity. Failure to register exposes groups to the risk of suspension or complete shutdown. Thus, the implementation of the law may result in the closure of many NGOs – either at their own initiative to avoid the stigmatising designation of “foreign representatives” or as a result of government-forced liquidation. The manner in which the law will be enforced will depend significantly on the implementing regulations, which were under development by the Ministry of Justice as of mid-April 2024.

In addition to the law on “foreign representatives,” another NGO law is also currently in the pipeline. This draft law, initially set in motion by the presidential administration in autumn 2022, remains under review within a government-led working group as of mid-April 2024. Members of civil society participating in the working group have raised concerns that their recommendations have not been adequately taken into account in the revision process and there are concerns that the draft law may soon be re-introduced for public discussion, featuring highly restrictive provisions governing the registration, operations and oversight of NGOs.

In December 2023, the presidential administration presented a third draft law to Parliament, proposing the imposition of extensive state regulation on media and online platforms. This proposed law also drew significant criticism from human rights groups, the media community and international experts due to its failure to comply with international human rights standards. In this case, President Japarov responded to the criticism and instructed the withdrawal of the draft law from Parliament in March 2024 for further revision. To facilitate this process, a working group including media representatives was established. This was, however, not the first time the draft law was sent for revision. An earlier round of revisions, initiated shortly after the law’s introduction in autumn 2022, overlooked major recommendations put forth by media representatives.

During the reporting period, there was a widening crackdown on independent media and journalists in Kyrgyzstan. In mid-January 2024, law enforcement authorities conducted raids on the offices of the 24.KG news agency and the Temirov Live investigative group and detained journalists associated with these outlets. While the journalists from 24.KG were eventually released after questioning, the agency’s office remained sealed for over two months due to allegations of “war propaganda” related to its coverage of Russia’s war against Ukraine. It was not until early April 2024, following a change in leadership at 24.KG, that the criminal case against the agency was suspended.

Eleven current and former Temirov Live journalists, who were arrested during the January raids, were placed in custody on charges of calling for “disobedience” and riots. These charges concerned video reports published by the group, known for its exposés of high-level corruption. While six of those arrested were later placed under house arrest and one released with a travel ban, four remained in pre-trial detention as of mid-April 2024. Among them was Makhabat Tajibek kyzy, the director of Temirov Live and wife of the group’s chief editor, Bolot Temirov, who was expelled from the country in 2022. In a worrying incident, she reported being subjected to ill-treatment by a prison officer on 5th April 2024.

An increasing number of blogger-activists faced criminal charges due to their social media posts and civic engagement. The charges against them were frequently brought under the same vaguely worded provisions of the Criminal Code as those in the Temirov Live case. These provisions prohibit calls for “disobedience” and riots. One such case involved blogger Zarina Torokulova, who received a five-year prison sentence for “systematically” sharing “provocative” content on social media. Other cases were ongoing as of mid-April 2024, such as that of blogger-activist Aftandil Jorobekov, who was arrested for publicly opposing the government’s controversial flag change initiative. The arrest of well-known musician and poet Askat Zhetigen, following his harsh criticism of the president on social media, also exemplified the expanding campaign against government critics online. The government’s decision to completely block access to TikTok, ostensibly to protect children, raised further concerns regarding undue restrictions on free speech on social media platforms.

In February 2024, a local court ordered the dissolution of the organisation behind the Kloop news portal, clearly in retaliation for the portal’s investigative and independent reporting. During the trial, state-appointed experts claimed that Kloop’s critical coverage of current events purportedly contributed to mental illness, sexual depravity and drug addiction among the population. Prior to this ruling, Kloop’s website had already been blocked under a vaguely-worded law aimed at preventing the spread of “false” information online. This law has been repeatedly used by the Ministry of Culture and Information to block independent news sites without the need for court approval. In March 2024, the government introduced new draft legislation that would grant the same Ministry discretionary powers to fine those accused of disseminating slander and insults through media or online channels.

Throughout the reporting period, legal proceedings continued in the case involving over two dozen activists, bloggers and political figures who were arrested in October 2022 after opposing a government-negotiated border deal with neighbouring Uzbekistan concerning the Kempir-Abad water reservoir. These individuals face charges of plotting mass unrest and attempting to seize power by force, believed to be retribution for their peaceful civic engagement on the Kempir-Abad issue. The trial is being conducted behind closed doors, hindering independent monitoring and reinforcing concerns about fair trial standards. While most defendants have been moved to house arrest after spending months in poor detention conditions, nine individuals remained incarcerated as of mid-April 2024.

A court-sanctioned ban on holding peaceful protests outside the Russian embassy, near the presidential and Parliament buildings, and in other central areas of the capital, Bishkek, persisted during the reporting period. First introduced in spring 2022, this blanket ban has been repeatedly extended in violation of Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations to uphold the right to peaceful assembly.

These issues are covered in more detail below.

ASSOCIATION

FOREIGN AGENT-STYLE NGO LAW ADOPTED

During the reporting period, a “foreign agent”-style NGO law was adopted in Kyrgyzstan. Both national and international experts have concluded that this law falls seriously short of Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations, and the initiative has faced widespread criticism from civil society and the international community.

The new law on “foreign representatives” draws heavily on similar, notorious Russian legislation. Under the law, NGOs that receive any support from foreign sources and engage in “political activities” are required to register as organisations “performing the function of a foreign representative” – a highly stigmatising label. The term “political activities” is broadly defined as activities aimed at influencing public decision-making, policies or public opinion, e.g., through the organisation of public debates, peaceful protests or other events; the publication of appeals, legal opinions or comments on state policies; or the conduct of sociological research, opinion polls or public awareness raising. NGOs registered as “foreign representatives” will be included in a public registry and forced to use this negative label in all materials they disseminate. Groups that fail to register risk harsh sanctions: the Ministry of Justice can suspend their activities for up to six months without court approval and subsequently petition a court to shut them down. The law also grants authorities broad powers to oversee NGO activities, including by accessing their internal documents, attending any of their events, and conducting intrusive inspections.

An earlier version of the draft law also featured provisions introducing criminal liability for NGO representatives for vaguely-worded offences of harming citizens’ rights, society, or the state, or inducing citizens to refuse to perform duties. However, in a limited victory for civil society advocacy, these provisions were removed from the draft law before it passed its second reading in Parliament in February 2024. Under the initially proposed provisions, those found guilty could have faced up to five years in prison.

While the initiators of the law on “foreign representatives” claimed that it was aimed at ensuring the transparency of NGOs, it is clear that this is not its true objective, as NGOs were already subject to extensive state oversight. Instead, the law appears to have been designed as a tool of pressure against groups that scrutinise, criticise, and advocate for improvements in state policies and legislation. At the same time, given the broad definition of the term “political activities,” the law can be applied to basically any NGOs, irrespective of the activities they carry out. It is also highly worrying that proponents of the law used negative and hostile language toward NGOs, baselessly accusing them of undermining national security and promoting values that are allegedly foreign to the national mentality and traditions of Kyrgyzstan.

The contentious law on “foreign representatives” was first initiated by an MP in November 2022 and re-submitted to Parliament in May 2023. After passing two earlier readings in October 2023 and February 2024, respectively, the law was adopted by Parliament on the third and final reading on 14th March 2024. A total of 66 MPs voted in favour and only five against, in a quick procedure that featured no debate.

Following the law’s approval by parliament, representatives of civil society and the international community again spoke out against the law’s adoption, appealing to President Japarov to veto it. For example, in a joint open letter to the president, IPHR and 30 other CSOs from different countries called for the President to utilise his veto, stressing that the law would “impair civil society’s ability to carry out its important and legitimate work to the benefit of the people of Kyrgyzstan and to promote public participation, transparency, accountability and good governance,” thereby “eroding democratic and human rights progress made by Kyrgyzstan.” They also stated that the law “will endanger international development and economic assistance programmes in the country, which will undermine prospects for the achievement of sustainable development goals contrary to the government’s ambitious agenda in this area.” The EU Delegation in Kyrgyzstan and the Embassies of Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States urged the president “to listen to the concerns voiced inside and outside the country” and revisit the legislation, stating that its provisions threaten the ability of NGOs to operate freely, contravene international norms and “jeopardize our ability to provide assistance that improves the lives of the citizens and residents of the Kyrgyz Republic.” 

However, President Japarov ignored the appeals to refrain from endorsing the law on “foreign representatives” and proceeded to sign it into law on 2nd April 2024. When announcing that he had signed it, he used incorrect and misleading arguments regarding NGOs, for example, asserting that NGOs previously “were not registered anywhere”, “were not accountable to anyone” and “took money from foreign donors and used it as they saw fit, including for personal purposes.” Contrary to his claims, NGOs in the country are registered with the Ministry of Justice and regularly report their activities and finances to various state bodies, with information on their funding sources and usage being publicly accessible. In addition, NGOs adhere to strict donor requirements regarding the use of foreign grants, preventing arbitrary allocation of funds. President Japarov also accused NGOs of disseminating “false information” about the potential negative impacts of the law, despite similar concerns being raised by international human rights bodies. The example of Russia also highlights the detrimental effects such legislation can have.

In an earlier official response to a letter from US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken regarding the draft law on “foreign representatives,” President Japarov echoed similar arguments to those used in his announcement on 2nd April. He accused foreign-funded NGOs of being “grant-eaters,” “fearing to step out of the ‘shadow,’” and disseminating “false and unreliable information.” Additionally, he characterised Blinken’s letter as “interference in the internal affairs” of the country, despite Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to treating human rights issues as matters of direct and legitimate international concern.

President Japarov’s comments raised further concerns, despite his assurance that there “will be no persecution” under the new law. The law came into effect 10 days after its official publication on 5th April 2024, with the government granted one month to develop implementing rules. The law’s enforcement depends largely on these rules, which the Ministry of Justice was elaborating as of mid-April 2024.

The adoption of the law on “foreign representatives” was a serious assault on Kyrgyzstan’s civil society, known as the most vibrant in the Central Asian region. It has caused widespread anxiety and uncertainty among NGOs in the country, with many organisations now facing the difficult decision of whether to register under the discrediting label of “foreign representatives,” refuse to do so and risk suspension and eventual liquidation, or pre-emptively close down their operations. Some NGOs have already initiated self-liquidation procedures.

When commenting on the entry into force of the new law, a spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concerns that “many of the affected NGOs may feel forced to close” to avoid stigmatising and arbitrary government scrutiny. He also stated that groups who register under the new label “may ultimately face the need to self-censor” and warned that the law might “lead to a serious suppression of legitimate public activity, human rights monitoring, and discussion of issues of public interest.” “We call on the authorities to cancel the new law,” he concluded.

Funding opportunities for local NGOs are also likely to decline as foreign donors withdraw their programmes due to concerns about the impact of the new law. On 15th April 2024, the Open Society Foundations (OSF) announced that they were ceasing their operations in Kyrgyzstan due to the adoption of the law on “foreign representatives.” OSF stated that, during its 30 years of operations in Kyrgyzstan, its national foundation had provided over USD 115 million in funding for a wide range of projects working with both government and civil society partners. Binaifer Nowrojee, president of the OSF said: “We are deeply saddened that this work cannot continue and that this repressive new law will see civil society operate in a climate of uncertainty and intimidation.”

ANOTHER PROBLEMATIC DRAFT NGO LAW IN THE PIPELINE

Another draft NGO law also remains under consideration in Kyrgyzstan. Introduced by the presidential administration in November 2022, the draft law threatens to heighten state control over NGOs and grant authorities discretionary powers to deny registration and initiate the closure of NGOs. The initial version of the draft law was met with severe criticism from civil society and international experts, prompting the establishment of a working group comprising government and civil society representatives to revise it. However, in late 2023, NGO members of the working group raised concerns that their key recommendations were disregarded in a revised version of the draft law circulated by the presidential administration. Moreover, the revised draft not only retained most of the problematic provisions from the original, but also introduced additional restrictive provisions. In response, NGO members submitted a new set of comments and recommendations. The working group’s timeline was later extended until 1st May 2024.

EXPRESSION

RESTRICTIVE DRAFT MEDIA LAW AND PROPOSED PENALTIES FOR DEFAMATION

A restrictive draft law on mass media, initiated by the presidential administration, was submitted to Parliament in December 2023. As covered in the previous update, key concerns of the draft law included the classification of websites as mass media, the introduction of a stringent registration regime for all media outlets, the use of vague and overbroad terms, and the granting of wide and disproportionate powers to authorities to regulate, control and sanction media resources. The draft law was widely criticised by the media communityhuman rights groups, and international experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expressionthe OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media and Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and the Venice Commission who all warned that the law runs contrary to Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations.

After being submitted to parliament, the draft media law was under consideration at committee level. However, following a meeting with media representatives in mid-March 2024, President Japarov ordered the withdrawal of the draft law from parliament for additional revision. A working group, whose members included several media and civil society representatives, was tasked with revising the draft law within two months. This was the second time that the draft media law was sent for revision. Following widespread criticism of the initial version, put forward in autumn 2022, the president also ordered the establishment of a working group for its revision. However, at that time, major recommendations put forth by media representatives were not incorporated, resulting in the revised version submitted to Parliament remaining highly problematic.

In late March 2024, the government introduced draft legislation aimed at amending the country’s Code of Offences to penalise slander and insult disseminated through media and online platforms. Under the proposed provisions, the Ministry of Culture and Information would be responsible for adjudicating such cases and imposing fines, which could amount to approximately EUR 300. Defamation was decriminalised in Kyrgyzstan in 2011, and defamation cases are currently adjudicated under civil law based on lawsuits filed by aggrieved parties. The government argued that the proposed provisions were necessary because civil law does not adequately protect against defamation. However, CSOs expressed serious concerns about the draft legislation, citing the lack of impartiality in the proposed arrangement and potential violations of the right to freedom of expression. For instance, the Adilet Legal Clinic stressed that the proposed quasi-criminal responsibility for defamation would contravene both the country’s Constitution and international standards.

Legislation adopted in 2021, which is currently in force, grants the Ministry of Culture and Information powers to block access to online resources accused of disseminating “false” information. The Ministry can block sites for up to six months without requiring court approval. The way in which this law has been implemented so far has validated the concerns expressed by civil society organisations at the time of its adoption: it has repeatedly been used to restrict access to independent news sites. It is feared that the proposed provisions regarding defamation would similarly be exploited as a tool for censorship.

RAIDS ON INDEPENDENT MEDIA OUTLETS AND MASS ARRESTS OF JOURNALISTS

On 15th January 2024, officers from the State Committee for National Security raided the editorial office of the independent news agency 24.KG. They confiscated equipment and documents and detained director Asel Otorbayeva and editors-in-chief Makhinur Niyazova and Anton Lymar for interrogation, holding them for several hours before releasing them. The security services also sealed the agency’s office. The raid was carried out in connection with a criminal investigation initiated on charges of “war propaganda.” The journalists were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement during interrogation, preventing them from publicly sharing detailed information about the charges. However, prior to being taken for interrogation, Niyazova informed the media that the raid was linked to the outlet’s coverage of the conflict in Ukraine.

Following the raid, the 24.KG office remained sealed for more than two months. The outlet’s director stated that she considered this an attempt to force the news agency out of business and silence it. However, in early April 2024, 24.KG reported that the criminal case against it had been suspended, resulting in its office being unsealed and computers, mobile phones and other confiscated equipment returned to its staff. This development followed shortly after the appointment of a new director for 24.KG. Ex-director Asel Otorbayeva stated that she had been planning to step down already before the January raid and that the agency’s editorial policies would remain the same despite the change in leadership. However, Makhinur Niyazova announced that she had left the position as editor-in-chief “out of principle” as she did not wish to be associated with the new leadership.

On 16th January 2024, the day after the raid on the 24.KG office, police carried out a new round of raids, searching the office of the investigative outlet Temirov Live and the homes of 11 of its current and former staff members, confiscating equipment and arresting the journalists. The journalists were charged with “calling for disobedience and mass unrest” and – in two cases – “organising mass unrest” and ordered by a local court to initially be held in pre-trial detention for two months pending an investigation into these charges. The charges concern video reports published by Temirov Live and its sister project Ait Ait Dese, which allegedly contain “discrediting” information about state organs.

Temirov Live is known for its work in exposing corruption and has also come under pressure in the past. The outlet’s editor-in-chief, Bolot Temirov, is currently in exile after being stripped of his Kyrgyz citizenship and deported to Russia in November 2022.

The National Centre for the Prevention of Torture raised concerns that the arrested journalists were initially held for two weeks in a temporary detention facility, only intended for short-term detention of up to 48 hours. The body concluded that the journalists’ continued detention in this facility would qualify as “torture.” Finally, on 29th January 2024, the journalists were transferred to a pre-trial detention facility in the capital.

As of mid-April 2024, four of the Temirov Live associated journalists remained in this facility: Makhabat Tajibek kyzy (who is the director of Temirov Live and Bolot Temirov’s wife), Aike Beishekeyeva and Azamat Ishenbekov (both of whom worked with Temirov Live at the time of their arrest) and Aktilek Kaparov (a former Temirov Live employee). Two other current and four former Temirov Live staff members were placed under house arrest and one ex-staff member released with a travel ban in March-April 2024. The Committee to Protect Journalists commented on this development by saying that it was “a step in the right direction” but that “Kyrgyzstan continues to grossly flout its international free speech obligations by charging 11 journalists, four of whom are still being held, in retaliation for their reporting on official corruption.”

Another worrying development is that Makhabat Tajibek kyzy reported being subjected to ill-treatment in detention: she stated that a prison officer beat her and several other detainees (who are not related to the case against Temirov Live) on 5th April 2024. As a result of the beating, she contracted bruises on her face and arms. Representatives of the Ombudsperson’s office who visited her in detention confirmed these injuries and submitted their findings to prosecutors for investigation.

The raids on 24.KG and Temirov Live and the mass arrests of journalists were criticised by both local media groups and international human rights NGOs. In a joint statement, Civil Rights Defenders, Human Rights Watch, IPHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, People in Need, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organisation Against Torture called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to drop the criminal charges against these outlets, which were clearly initiated in retaliation for their reporting, and to allow independent media and journalists to carry out their work without fear of retribution.

Representatives of the international community also commented on the January raids and related developments. A spokesperson for the US State Department stated that the measures taken by the authorities in this context were part of “a pattern of government activity that appears aimed at stifling public debate and free expression.” A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reminded the authorities that “arrest or detention as a punishment for the legitimate exercise of human rights, including freedom of expression, is arbitrary under international human rights law.” A joint statement by the EU Delegation to Kyrgyzstan and the embassies of 14 EU Member States also expressed concern about the raids on media and called on the authorities to “protect freedom of expression and the integrity of journalists and media outlets, in order to allow them to carry out their professional activities.”

ONE INDEPENDENT MEDIA OUTLET CLOSED, ANOTHER FUNDRAISING TO PAY DAMAGES

As reported in the previous update, in August 2023, a local prosecutor petitioned the court to shut down the Kloop Media Foundation, which operates the independent news portal Kloop. While the prosecutor argued that Kloop was allegedly conducting activities that went “beyond the scope” of its charter, it was clear from the arguments used that the motion was made in retaliation for Kloop’s independent reporting. Thus, the prosecutor’s petition focused primarily on Kloop’s “negative” coverage of current affairs, its “sharp criticism” of government policies and the allegedly “harmful” impact of its reporting.

On 9th February 2024, a local court in Bishkek granted the prosecutor’s request to liquidate the Kloop Media Foundation. During the trial, the court heard testimony from state-appointed experts who claimed that Kloop’s “purely negative” reporting and “harsh criticism” of the authorities had adverse psychological effects on the country’s population, leading to an increase in mental disorders, sexual depravity, drug addiction and suicidal tendencies. One such expert, a psychologist, stated to the court that “in a secular state, there should be no criticism of the authorities.”

In the aftermath of the February ruling, Kloop declared its intention to appeal and affirmed its commitment to continue its operations despite the court’s decision.

Kloop’s website was blocked in September 2023 on the initiative of the Ministry of Culture and Information, which accused the portal of spreading “false” information in an article about a tortured political activist. However, in a ruling issued by an administrative court in Bishkek in late March 2024, the September 2023 decision was declared invalid. As a result, there is a possibility of a partial unblocking of the website (specifically, the Russian version, while the Kyrgyz version remains blocked based on a separate decision). Currently, readers in Kyrgyzstan can access the Kloop portal via a mirror site.

The independent news website Kaktus.media also faced difficulties during the reporting period. Following a Supreme Court ruling which upheld a defamation claim against the portal and one of its journalists, Kaktus.media struggled to raise the necessary funds to pay the non-pecuniary damages awarded. Although the Supreme Court reduced the amount to be paid from 1 million som (approx. EUR 10,000) to 600,000 som (approx. EUR 6,000), this still represented a significant financial burden for the outlet. In February 2024, Kaktus.media launched a public fundraising campaign to cover the expenses. In March, the outlet announced that, thanks to the funds received, it had successfully paid the compensation owed by its journalist.

CRIMINAL CASES INITIATED BECAUSE OF SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS, SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM BLOCKED

An increasing number of blogger-activists in Kyrgyzstan have faced criminal charges for their posts on social media because they allegedly contained “false” information on issues sensitive to the authorities. Many of these charges were initiated under a broadly worded provision of the Criminal Code (Article 278.3), which prohibits calls for “disobedience” of lawful demands by the authorities and calls for riots.

For instance, blogger and activist Zarina Torokulova was convicted of such charges in January 2024 after she was accused of “systematically” publishing “provocative” material on social media. She was sentenced to five years in prison but initially released on probation. However, in April 2024, the Bishkek City Court overturned the decision to release her on probation and reinstated her five-year prison sentence.

Other cases initiated on charges of calling for “disobedience” of authorities and riots are currently under way. For example, in December 2023, blogger-activist Aftandil Jorobekov was arrested on such charges after publicly opposing the government’s proposal to change the country’s flag – an initiative that sparked a public backlash. The trial in his case began in a local Bishkek court in late February 2024.

In September 2023, writer Olzhobay Shakir was arrested and charged because of “provocative” social media posts. His arrest came shortly after he announced plans to hold a peaceful protest against a government initiative regarding Soviet-era property and invited others to join him. As of early April 2024, his trial was ongoing in a local court in the Chui region. The case was transferred to a new judge in February 2024, resulting in a re-start of the proceedings.

In a positive turn of events, a local Bishkek court acquitted blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev in December 2023, following over a year of investigation on charges of publicly calling for “disobedience“ of authorities and riots. These charges were brought against him after he re-posted a video appeal in which a political rival criticised President Japarov’s plans for the Jetim-Too iron ore field. The prosecutor appealed the December ruling; however, the blogger’s acquittal was upheld on appeal in February 2024.

A list published by the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Azattyk, in December 2023 featured the names of 29 individuals who have been summoned for questioning and/or prosecuted because of social media posts since 2020, when President Japarov came to power. Out of those listed, 25 had faced criminal charges, with others receiving warnings following questioning. Since December 2023, new criminal cases have been initiated because of social media posts. Many of those prosecuted have been charged with calling for “disobedience” of authorities and riots, such as in the cases described above, or with “incitement” to ethnic, national and other hatred, punishable under another broadly-worded Criminal Code provision. Still others have been charged with “publicly calling for the forceful seizure of power”.

One example of a case initiated for “incitement” to hatred involves human rights activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov, who was charged because of Facebook posts in a case dating back to summer 2023. In mid-January 2024, the court hearing his case ordered an additional expert assessment of his social media posts, in addition to government-ordered and independent assessments already conducted. This decision resulted in a postponement of the trial, further prolonging the proceedings. Despite being advised by police officers to “sit quietly” and “raise his grandchildren” as he had reached retirement age, Toktonasyrov expressed his intent to continue his civic engagement, citing growing concerns about the situation in Kyrgyzstan.

Another case involves Askat Zhetigen, a musician and poet, who was arrested in March 2024 for “publicly calling for the forceful seizure of power”. His arrest came after he published a social media appeal critically assessing a media interview with President Japarov, during which he resorted to swearing. Prior to this incident, Zhetigen had been vocal about various government policies, including the initiative to change the country’s flag and the arrests of activists.

In a further development giving rise to concerns about undue restrictions on free speech on social media, internet providers in Kyrgyzstan blocked access to the popular platform TikTok in mid-April 2024. This action was taken in response to a request from the Ministry of Digital Development, acting on orders from the State Committee for National Security (SCNS). The SCNS argued that this measure was necessary due to TikTok’s perceived lack of a “systematic and principled approach” to content censorship, particularly concerning material aimed at children. The agency referred to the so-called law on the protection of children from harmful information, adopted in autumn 2023. Human rights groups had previously warned that this broadly-worded law might result in violations of freedom of expression and access to information. Reporters without Borders (RSF) expressed concern about the blocking of TikTok, stating: “Under the pretext of protecting minors, this decision restricts the right to information online. RSF calls on the government to lift this arbitrary blocking and define a clear legal framework to regulate platforms.” There was already a government initiative to block TikTok in autumn 2023, but it was not implemented at the time.

Ongoing trial in Kempir-Abad case

The legal proceedings in the so-called “Kempir-Abad case” continued during the reporting period. In this case, more than two dozen civil society activists, bloggers and political figures were arrested in October 2022 on charges of preparing to organise mass unrest because they had peacefully expressed their views on a border deal with neighbouring Uzbekistan regarding the Kempir-Abad water reservoir, as well as their peaceful civic engagement on the issue. In connection with their arrest, the authorities used edited recordings of wiretapped conversations, which were circulated online, to portray them as coup plotters, even though they were only talking about holding peaceful rallies. Later, the defendants were additionally charged with attempting to seize power by force, reportedly due to posts on social media.

Most of those arrested in the case were initially placed in pre-trial detention, with the period of their detention repeatedly prolonged in violation of international human rights standards. Mainly due to their deteriorating health, exacerbated by poor detention conditions, many of them were later moved to house arrest. Moreover, one of the detainees, Bektur Asanov, was released in February 2024 with a travel ban and later permitted to travel abroad for medical treatment due to health issues. At the beginning of April 2024, however, nine defendants in the case still remained in pre-trial detention.

The legal proceedings in the Kempir-Abad case began in July 2023, with the trial taking place behind closed doors, which has reinforced concerns about its fairness. The trial has been progressing slowly and was still ongoing in mid-April 2024. Procedural violations have been reported during the proceedings, such as hearings being held without the defendants’ lawyers being present. On 27th March 2024, court guards reportedly used excessive force when removing one of the defendants, Ilgiz Shamenov, from the courtroom, including by strangling him, as a result of which he lost consciousness and needed emergency medical assistance.

IPHR and its partners have voiced concerns about the politically motivated nature of the Kempir-Abad case and called on the authorities to ensure that the trial is held in compliance with due process and fair trial standards, and that those prosecuted without reasonable cause are cleared of all charges and promptly and unconditionally released.

PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

Throughout the reporting period, a blanket ban on peaceful protests remained in force in central areas of Bishkek, undermining the right to freedom of assembly. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the court-ordered ban was imposed in spring 2022 at the request of the Russian embassy to prevent protests against the Russian war against Ukraine outside its building. Since then, the ban has been repeatedly extended. Most recently, the Pervomaisky District Court extended it until 30th June 2024, a decision that was later upheld by the Bishkek City Court and the Supreme Court.

The ban applies, among others, to the areas in front of the Russian Embassy, the Presidential Administration, the Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Interior and the headquarters of the State Committee for National Security, as well as Ala-Too Square and several other central sites. Those seeking to protest in these areas are instructed to instead gather in Gorky Park, which is specifically designated for such gatherings. Notably, official state and municipal events are exempt from the ban, which demonstrates its discriminatory nature.

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Kyrgyzstan on watchlist – research brief on recent restrictions to civic freedoms

Kyrgyzstan research brief March 2024

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