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Kyrgyzstan: Ongoing  concerns over restrictions on free speech, civic engagement
Photo: OSCE PA, Polling station in Bishkek, 28 November 2021, CC BY-SA 2.0, retrieved from: https://flic.kr/p/2mMtQEC
Kyrgyzstan: Ongoing  concerns over restrictions on free speech, civic engagement
Photo: OSCE PA, Polling station in Bishkek, 28 November 2021, CC BY-SA 2.0, retrieved from: https://flic.kr/p/2mMtQEC
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CIVICUS

This is an update on developments related to the rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from the beginning of September to the beginning of December 2022, prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.

During the reporting period, parliamentary elections were held in Kyrgyzstan after having been postponed for more than a year following the cancellation of the results of the October 2020 elections due to mass protests. The adoption of a controversial Constitution following the evolving political crisis, which saw the rise to power of President Sadyr Japarov, considerably weakened the role of parliament.

International observers concluded that the new parliamentary elections were competitive but that a low-key campaign prevented voters from making an informed choice. They also reported significant procedural problems during the vote count on election day. In addition, a technical glitch in the Central Elections Commission’s (CEC’s) online result reporting system cast a shadow of concern over the vote count and resulted in protests by several opposition parties, who were initially shown to have made it into parliament, but minutes later failed to meet the required threshold. However, their protests remained small-scale and were peaceful in nature. A recount confirmed that six parties, three of which support Japarov’s administration, gained representation in parliament.

A decision by the CEC to deny accreditation to independent media organisation Kloop to monitor the elections raised questions about the authorities’ commitment to ensuring transparency of the elections. The organisation eventually deployed monitors under another framework but reported facing additional obstructions.

Despite President Japarov’s pledges to safeguard freedom of expression in the country, serious concerns remained in this area. There were reports about decision makers using a new law on tackling “false” information to put pressure on media outlets and journalists, as well as about new cases of intimidation and harassment of individuals critical of those in power, including wiretapping and other interference with their communication.

Representatives of the media community spoke out against draft legislation strengthening state control of the national TV and radio broadcasting corporation as they believe that this reform would result in the corporation’s channels becoming mouthpieces of the government. They also cautioned against allowing a planned revision of media related legislation, in the framework of the ongoing inventory of the country’s legal framework initiated by President Japarov, resulting in a deterioration of current norms.

Rules for implementing a new, unjustified and discriminatory financial reporting scheme for NGOs, which was adopted in the summer, were still being elaborated, resulting in continued uncertainty among NGOs as to how it will affect them in practice. President Japarov publicly explained his support for the new reporting scheme by referring to alleged problems of overpoliticisation and security within parts of the NGO sector. While MPs initiating the new scheme have argued that it is needed for transparency purposes, civil society fears that it might be used to interfere with the legitimate activities of NGOs.

Once again, parliament passed a problematic trade union law without addressing key concerns raised about it. However, for the third time, President Japarov returned the law to parliament for reconsideration. Among others, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has criticised this law for restricting independent trade union activity in violation of international standards.

The investigation into the death of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov in prison continued amid persistent concerns about its thoroughness and impartiality. Kamil Ruziev, another human rights defender who has been criminally charged in apparent retaliation for his efforts to document and ensure accountability for abuses perpetrated by law enforcement authorities, received support from the Ombudsperson’s Office and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in his struggle for justice. His case has been pending in court for more than a year.

General developments: parliamentary elections

On 28th November 2021, elections were held in Kyrgyzstan. New members of parliament were elected to replace those who had remained in office for more than a year beyond their original term following the cancellation of the results of the October 2020 elections due to mass protests, which plunged the country into a political crisis. The controversial new constitution pushed through after the October 2020 political crisis weakened the status and role of parliament and reduced its seats from 120 to 90. In accordance with new electoral legislation adopted shortly before the elections, members of parliament were elected undera mixed electoral system, with 54 being elected based on party lists in one nationwide constituency, and 36 in single mandate districts. The national threshold for parties to gain representation in parliament has been set at five percent.

A mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which monitored the elections, concluded that the elections ‘’were competitive but constitutional changes weakening parliament, subsequent extensive legislative changes to key aspects of the elections, a stifled campaign and overall voter disillusionment hindered meaningful engagement.’’ It found that:

“Critical and analytical reporting was, with the exception of a few online media, largely absent during the official campaign in the monitored media, limiting the voters’ ability to make an informed choice.’’

With regard to election day, the mission found that it was peaceful and that “voting was well organised in the vast majority of polling stations observed’’ but that ‘’significant procedural problems were noted during the vote count’’. It noted that the CEC received a total of 142 complaints, including complaints of vote-buying and misuse of administrative resources and issued 51 warnings and fines in response to these. The ODIHR mission also expressed concerns about more restrictive eligibility requirements for citizen observers introduced by the CEC prior to the elections. With reference to these requirements, one group was denied accreditation to deploy monitors (see more under Association).

According to the official results, six parties made it into parliament, with three pro-government parties gaining most of the votes. The voter turnout was only 34 percent. A glitch in the CEC’s vote tabulation system cast a shadow of doubt over the results. The CEC started publishing preliminary results on its site as soon as polling stations closed. When 80% of the votes had been counted, its tabulation page indicated that 10 parties would gain representation in parliament. However, at this point, the page disappeared and when it became accessible again after some time, it displayed results that differed significantly from the previous ones: the number of parties making the five percent threshold had decreased, leaving several opposition parties without representation.

According to the CEC, the glitch in its system was due to a technical error by one of its experts when writing the formula used for calculating the results displayed on its page. However, representatives of opposition parties accused the CEC of falsifying the results and called for new elections. Later, a working group, composed of representatives of different political parties, independent IT experts and members of the CEC, also concluded that incorrect preliminary results were displayed on the CEC site due to a technical error. Moreover, following a recount of the votes, in December 2021, the CEC confirmed the election results, according to which six parties had gained representation in parliament. Re-elections were announced for two single-mandate districts in the capital as a majority of the voters there had supported the ‘’against all’’ option.

Expression

Worrying free speech climate and intimidation of critical voices

At a press conference about his first year in office, held in October 2021, President Japarov pledged to ensure freedom of expression in the country and not to allow persecution of journalists. He called on members of his cabinet to grant journalists access to information. At a later meeting with media representatives in November 2021, Japarov stated that neither he nor any members of his cabinet would sue journalists because of what they write.

Serious concerns nevertheless remain about the climate for free speech in the country. As covered before, a widely criticised new law on the protection from “false” information, passed by parliament in July 2021 and signed by the President the following month, requires owners of web sites and pages to promptly remove any content based on complaints from individuals who claim that the content in question is defamatory. If they fail to do so, the online resources might be blocked, without a court decision. Media watchdogs and civil society representatives protested against the adoption of the law, saying it constitutes a censorship tool that might be used by officials to intimidate and silence online resources critical of their actions. As of the beginning of December 2021, a government decree on the implementation of the new law was still under consideration. However, according to media reports, politicians and business representatives were already referring to the new law to put pressure on media outlets and journalists to remove online content which is critical of them.

Other new cases of intimidation of individuals critical of those in power were also reported. As covered in the previous update, when detaining opposition activist Orozayym Narmatovain early September 2021, law enforcement authorities specifically referred to her outspoken views as the grounds for her detention. After a public outcry, Narmatova was released the following day, with police claiming she had only been questioned as a witness. The Ombudsperson subsequently demanded that the police explain their actions in this case.

In another case of concern regarding intimidation of critics, on 29th September 2021, security services summoned Aisuluu Kudaiberdiev, a social media activist and supporter of opposition politician Ravshan Jeenbekov, for questioning, carried out a search of her home and confiscated her phone. The following day she was summoned again in relation to the content of her phone, and on 8th December 2021, she was questioned once more. The activist said that she believed that the security services were putting pressure on her because of her opposition activities on social media and her support of Jeenbekov. However, having been requested to sign a non-disclosure agreement, she could not share any additional information about the issues on which she was questioned.

As covered in the previous update, in August 2021, it was revealed that law enforcement authorities had wiretapped dozens of opposition politicians, civil society activists, human rights defenders and other critical voices as part of their investigation into the events relating to the political crisis in October 2020. Targeted activists called this measure a ‘’flagrant violation’’ of their rights. The General Prosecutor’s Office stated that the wiretapping had been conducted in accordance with relevant provisions of criminal procedure legislation and that it had found no violations. However, the Ombudsperson was not satisfied with this conclusion and requested the General Prosecutor’s Office to thoroughly investigatewhether the police had provided sufficient material to the court sanctioning the measure to justify the wiretapping of all those 100 people targeted.

In a further concerning development, in September 2021, the Telegram accounts of several of those previously wiretapped, including Reform party leader Klara Sooronkulova, human rights defender Rita Karasartova and lawyer Saniya Toktogazieva were hacked and their private correspondence published on social media. Lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov, who was also among those previously wiretapped, reported receiving new information indicating that his phone had been wiretapped by the government Service of Special Communications, an allegation that the service denied. Journalist Bolot Temirov, well-known for his investigations into corruption-related issues, reported that that his office was wiretapped and under surveillance.

Concerns about legislative initiatives

As covered previously, an inventory of the country’s legal framework initiated by the president has been carried out in a rushed fashion, with critics raising the alarm about hundreds of laws being re-assessed without sufficient time for comprehensive expert reviews and consultations with those affected by the laws. As of the beginning of December 2021, the process was still ongoing.

As part of the inventory, media related legislation was also due to be reviewed, in particular the Law on Mass Media and the Law on Protection of the Professional Activities of Journalists. Representatives of the media community feared that this review could result in a deterioration of relevant legislation, which currently overall corresponds to international standards. They stressed the need to ensure thorough consideration and broad discussion of any amendments. At the end of the reporting period, the two laws in question were still pending review.

Draft legislation put forward by the government proposed to change the status of the national TV and radio broadcasting corporation (OTRK) from that of a public to a state-controlled institution, thereby reversing progress achieved after the 2010 revolution when its current status was introduced with a view to ensuring more politically impartial state-funded TV and radio coverage. Currently a supervisory board, one third of whose members are made up of civil society representatives, oversees the broadcaster’s operations and appoints its director. In accordance with the draft law, this board would be abolished and its director appointed directly by the President. Representatives of the media community protested against the proposed reform, expressing fears that it would result in the ORTK channels (which include six TV and five radio channels) serving as communication platforms of the authorities. In a joint appeal published on 29th October 2021, a number of Kyrgyzstani media organisations and journalists called on the government to pull back the draft law. Members of the IFEX, a global network of over 100 organisations promoting and defending freedom of expression, also called on the government to withdraw the draft legislation.

We call on the Kyrgyz government to withdraw the legislation in its current form, and instead amend it extensively to ensure that all Kyrgyz citizens can access a diversity of voices, opinions, and information from an independent, transparent, and accountable public broadcaster.

At the beginning of December 2021, the draft law remained under consideration.

Association

Continued lack of clarity about implementation of new NGO reporting scheme

As covered in the previous update, a new law adopted in June 2021 tightens control over NGOs by introducing a new, unjustified and discriminatory financial reporting scheme for them. The failure of NGOs to comply with the new reporting obligations may result in serious penalties, including the closure of organisations. While the MPs who initiated the new scheme have argued that it is needed for reasons of transparency, it increases an already heavy reporting burden for NGOs. As of the beginning of December 2021, the details of the new reporting scheme had yet to be determined by the government, creating a high level of uncertainty for NGOs as to how the requirements will be implemented in practice.

There are fears that the new reporting scheme might be used to put pressure on ‘’inconvenient’’ NGOs who challenge public policies and seek accountability for corruption and human rights violations. These fears are strengthened by the fact that proponents of the law sought to discredit and stigmatise human rights NGOs by accusing them of threatening national security and undermining so-called traditional values. When speaking at a government meeting in October 2021, President Japarov made ambiguous statements on this matter. While stating that state bodies should work in partnership with civil society, he also argued that there is sometimes ‘’excessive politicisation’’ among NGOs and that there are ‘’some problems with politics and security’’ within the NGO sector, adding that this is the reason why he supported the new law on NGOs. He further stated that ‘’we will talk, within the framework of the law, with those who threaten state and national security’’.

At an event held in November 2021, Edil Baisalov, Deputy Chair of Japarov’s Cabinet of Ministers, announced plans to increase state support to civil society organisations, saying some legal changes had already been initiated to this end but without providing further details on the support scheme. At the same time, he also said that the cabinet would ‘’draw the attention of donors and foreign embassies to examples of how some of their grantees spend their money,” thus suggesting that some NGOs receiving foreign grants do not spend them for the intended purposes. In addition, Baisalov accused civil society actors of a lack of initiative and competency in their work. NGO representatives rejected these accusations as unfair and unfounded.

Independent organisation faces obstruction to monitor elections

The CEC denied accreditation to independent media organisation Kloop to monitor the parliamentary elections held on 28th November 2021. The CEC argued that the organisation’s statutes did not specify that it would engage in election monitoring activities, and thus allegedly did not meet a requirement set out in recent amendments to the CEC’s regulations on the registration of election observers. IPHR and partners expressed concern that this decision appeared to be aimed at preventing Kloop from repeating its experience at previous elections, when it deployed large teams of monitors who documented scores of violations, resulting in hundreds of complaints to the country’s electoral commissions.

Kloop eventually deployed monitors through a different legal entity but reported additional obstruction. Two days before election day, YouTube deleted a Kyrgyz-language video providing instructions to monitors on Kloop’s channel because it allegedly contained “harassment and bullying” and banned the organisation from posting anything for a week. Kloop was convinced that this was the result of an orchestrated campaign as a result of complaints aimed at preventing it from effectively observing the elections. YouTube dismissed the initial appeal submitted by Kloop, and only restored the video and revoked the ban on 1st December 2021. Kloop still managed to publish dozens of videos of violations that took place during the elections, using other channels.

On election day, Kloop observers experienced problems with obtaining copies of manual vote protocols, thus preventing them from making a comparison with automatically tallied results.

Dragged-out court case against NGO leader

In a case covered before on the Monitor, Kamil Ruziev, human rights defender and head of the NGO Ventus, was detained and criminally prosecuted in May 2020 in apparent retaliation for his efforts to ensure accountability for torture and other unlawful practices of security service officials, as well as for threats (including death threats) he received because of these efforts. While his initial detention was replaced firstly by house arrest and later with other restrictions on his movement, his case has been pending in court for more than a year. He has been accused of forging a medical certificate for the alleged purpose of extending the deadline for appealing the decision in a court case he was working on. However, Ruziev has dismissed these allegations. In October 2021, the Ombudsperson’s office confirmed in an expert assessment the genuineness of Ruziev’s medical certificate and stated that it would send a letter on this issue to the court and the prosecutor’s office engaged in the case. In November 2021, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defendersMary Lawlor spoke out in support of Ruziev, saying:

“It is extremely disturbing that authorities began laying criminal charges against Mr. Ruziev after he exposed police torture and ineffectiveness, when they should actually be investigating the death threats made against him”.

She called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to ‘’give Mr. Ruziev a fair trial and effectively investigate all allegations of threats and ill-treatment against him’’. She also expressed concerns about reports that the defender’s health had deteriorated in the course of the investigation.

At the end of the reporting period, legal proceedings in Ruziev’s case were still ongoing at Karakol City Court.

Struggle for justice for deceased defender

The authorities have yet to ensure justice in relation to the death of human rights defender and NGO leader Azimjan Askarov, who died of COVID-19 related symptoms in prison in July 2020 after being denied adequate medical attention and urgent release. As covered in the previous update, in accordance with a court decision issued in August 2021, the investigation into his death was re-opened after having been closed in May 2021 without finding anyone responsible for violations. The following month the investigation was transferred from the prison service to the State Committee for National Security. Currently the investigation continues.

Restrictive trade union law vetoed for the third time

In late October 2021, parliament yet again passed the new widely criticised trade union law. This was a revised version of a law previously passed by parliament in March and June 2021, but vetoed by President Japarov on both occasions. As covered before, trade unions, human rights NGOs and the ILO have all criticised the trade union law for restricting independent trade union activities in violation of international standards, in particular by introducing a trade union monopoly.

According to trade union representatives, this time parliament again failed to address key concerns raised about the law and to ensure adequate consultation with trade union representatives when revising it. They therefore called on the president to veto it again sent the law back to parliament for reconsideration for the third time.

Peaceful Assembly

During the period covered by this update, people in the country continued to use their right to freedom of assembly and held a series of peaceful protests on issues of concern to them. There were no reports of violations of the rights of protesters during this period. Among others, representatives and supporters of opposition parties that did not pass the five percent threshold to gain seats in parliament (see more under general developments) held several peaceful protests in the capital to demand the cancellation of the election results and the holding of new elections.

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