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Kyrgyzstan: Parliament should reject bill that criminalises and obstructs civic activism

Kyrgyzstan: Parliament should reject bill that criminalises and obstructs civic activism
The parliament building in Bishkek – Unsplash photo
Kyrgyzstan: Parliament should reject bill that criminalises and obstructs civic activism
The parliament building in Bishkek – Unsplash photo

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, Zhogorku Kenesh, should reject a Russia-style ‘foreign agents bill’ that poses a grave threat to nongovernmental organisations’ activities across the country, nine international human rights groups said on January 25, 2024, in a joint statement. The repressive legislation, known as the ‘foreign representatives law’ is expected to come up for a second and – final – third reading in parliament in a near future after being endorsed at a crucial committee hearing on 23 January.

The groups issuing this statement are Civil Rights Defenders, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), Norwegian Helsinki Committee, People in Need, Frontline Defenders, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

The proposed amendments are at odds with Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations, including the rights to freedom of expression and of association and assembly protected under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

The draft law, which is based on corresponding Russian legislation, proposes to introduce a series of  amendments to Kyrgyzstan’s law on non-profit organisations and its Criminal Code. It was first submitted by Nadira Narmatova, a member of parliament, in late 2022. In May 2023, Narmatova re-submitted the draft law in an updated format with the support of a large number of other members.

Civil society has widely criticised the draft law. In September 2023, about 120 Kyrgyzstani groups urged parliament to drop the legislation, and international human rights groups have repeatedly called for its rejection. In addition, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s  Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and  UN human rights experts have issued highly critical assessments of the draft law, and international institutions and foreign embassies have called for its review or withdrawal.

Despite this criticism, the draft was passed at first reading in October, and on 23 January, the parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Legislation gave its final approval. If passed by the full parliament on two more readings, the draft law will be sent to the president for signature.

Although some changes have been made to the initial version of the draft law, it remains fundamentally flawed and introduces far-reaching restrictions on the activities of foreign-funded groups.

The most troubling provisions are:

  • All groups that receive any kind of financial assistance or other support from foreign sources and engage in ‘’political activities’’ would be required to register as ‘’foreign representatives’’ – a stigmatising and discrediting label that implies that the groups follow the orders of ‘’foreign’’ actors to the disadvantage of the Kyrgyzstan population. The Justice Ministry would create a public register of ‘’foreign representatives.’’
  • The term ‘’political activities’’ is broadly defined as any activities that seek to ‘’influence decision-making of state bodies’’ with the aim of ‘’changing public policies pursued by these bodies”, as well as activities to ‘’shape public opinion’’ for similar purposes. Under the draft law, such activities include, for example, organising public meetings, debates and rallies; publishing appeals or opinions on legal provisions; sharing opinions on state policies and political processes in Kyrgyzstan; monitoring and advocating positions for elections; conducting surveys and sociological research and publishing their results; involving members of the local public – specifically youth – in these types of activities; or financing of any such activities. The draft law also refers to so-called propaganda of ‘’non-traditional’’ sexual relations and LGBTI rights as a ‘’political activity’’.
  • Groups registered as “foreign representatives” that publish or share any kind of information and/or materials would be required to include detailed information on their donors in their publications as commissioners of these materials.
  • If a group violates these requirements, the Justice Ministry would be able to suspend their activities for up to six months, following a warning. If a group fails to rectify the violations within this period, the Ministry could ask a court to shut down the organisation.
  • The Justice Ministry would also have broad powers to supervise the activities of ‘’foreign representatives’’, including by requesting access to their financial and organisational documents and participating in a group’s events.
  • The proposed amendments to the Criminal Code introduce harsh sanctions – ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment for up to three years (for individuals) or up to five years (if committed by a group of individuals) – for those found guilty of activities that cause significant harm to citizens’ rights, society, or to the state or that induce the public to refuse to perform civic or official duties, or to commit any other illegal acts. These vaguely worded provisions could be arbitrarily used against representatives of groups that are inconvenient to those in power.

If adopted and signed into law, the ‘foreign representatives’ bill is likely to have far-reaching implications for Kyrgyzstan’s vibrant civil society because most groups receive foreign funding due to the lack of domestic sources. According to official statistics, more than 20,000 groups are currently registered in the country. If the law is adopted, the experience of human rights and other groups in Russia indicates that many are likely to be forced to shut down – either at their own initiative or by the authorities.

Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record has significantly deteriorated in the last few years, with the authorities taking increasing steps to stifle freedoms of speech, association, and assembly.

Independent media and journalists, bloggers and others critical of the Kyrgyz government’s policies have faced increasing pressure, including with politically motivated criminal cases, arrests, and imprisonment. The websites of independent news sites have been arbitrarily blocked and the authorities have attempted to close down media organisations because of their independent reporting, such as in an ongoing court case against the online news outlet Kloop and an earlier case against the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

During the week of January 15, law enforcement agents in the capital, Bishkek, raided several critical news outlets, pending investigation on spurious charges of inciting “mass disorder”. Several newsrooms remain shut while journalists are trying to retrieve their confiscated equipment.

A parallel draft  law developed by the presidential administration and first put forward for public debate in November 2022 remains in the pipeline and may be submitted to parliament in the near future. While steering clear of imposing criminal liability on groups and labelling some as ‘foreign representatives,’ it would introduce burdensome registration and operational restrictions, as well as require existing groups to re-register, raising concerns that the authorities could use this law to force inconvenient organisations to close.

Parliament should reject the proposed “foreign representatives” legislation and refrain from adopting any legal provisions that unduly obstruct the work of independent civic society and media groups, in violation of the country’s international human rights obligations and commitments.

The Kyrgyz government’s compliance with its obligations under International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should be an important consideration by the EU and other international and financial actors with whom Bishkek aims to forge closer relations. If adopted, the law would place Kyrgyzstan sharply at odds with the obligations it has undertaken to receive preferential trade access to the lucrative EU market. A recent critical report by the European Commission already highlighted the dire situation for independent groups and journalists as a main area of concern.

Should parliament proceed with the law, despite these warnings, the EU needs to seriously reconsider the trade benefits, as well as the pending signature of an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kyrgyzstan that focuses on democratic development and fundamental rights as one of its core tenets. Kyrgyzstan’s negative trajectory also raises the question of whether the country is qualified to continue serving on the UN Human Rights Council.

The statement has been signed by the following organisations:

Human Rights Watch
Civil Rights Defenders
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
People in Need
Frontline Defenders
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

***

For more information on recent civic space trends in Kyrgyzstan, see:

Kyrgyzstan: the latest news

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