International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) regrets the court decisions to extend the pre-trial detention of well-known civil society activists, human rights defenders and other critical voices arrested in the so-called Kempir-Abad case in Kyrgyzstan despite the absence of any credible grounds for keeping them behind bars. These court decisions violate Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations to uphold the right to liberty and security of person and to ensure that no one is detained because of their legitimate exercise of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly. The court decisions also demonstrate a shocking lack of humanity, in particular in relation to detained women and elderly detainees, many of whom are in a weak and debilitated state after two weeks of hunger strikes.
This week, Bishkek City Court heard the appeals of more than 20 civil society activists, human rights defenders, bloggers and political figures, who have been held in pre-trial detention since October 2022 on charges of preparing mass riots (which are punishable under articles 36 and 278 of the Criminal Code and carry a sentence of up to ten years in prison). Prior to their arrest, the activists had all publicly opposed a controversial government-negotiated border agreement with Uzbekistan regarding the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir and some of them were members of a public committee set up to protect the reservoir.
Following its hearings, Bishkek City Court rejected the detainees’ appeals against the recent decisions by a lower-level court to keep them behind bars for an additional two months (until late February 2023) pending trial. These decisions were issued despite the apparent lack of tangible progress on the investigation and the failure of the prosecution to present compelling grounds for extending the pre-trial detention of those charged in the case. The prosecution argued that it was necessary to keep them in detention since the results of expert assessments of their electronic devices, as well as of discussions held at a meeting of the public committee for the protection of Kempir-Abad are not yet available. However, this is not an acceptable reason for extending their detention. It is particularly troubling that the court failed to take account of the defendants’ state of health, age, family and other individual circumstances when rejecting their appeals.
In accordance with international standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kyrgyzstan has ratified, those charged with criminal offenses have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and pre-trial detention should only be used as a measure of last resort when other, less harsh, measures of restraint are not possible. As stressed by the UN Human Rights Committee, pre-trial detention should not be mandatory for all defendants charged with a particular crime, without regard to individual circumstances, and pretrial detention should not be ordered based on the potential sentence for the crime in question but strictly based on a determination of the necessity of this measure. In an earlier comment on the cases against those arrested over the Kempir-Abad issue, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reminded the Kyrgyzstani authorities of their obligations in this respect.
According to civil society monitors, the appeal hearings were also characterised by other due process and fair trial violations, in particular violations of the principle of equality of arms and the right to an adversarial hearing, as detainees were not granted adequate opportunities to contest the prosecutor’s arguments and present their counter-arguments. Moreover, as pointed out by Adilet Legal Clinic in a detailed analysis of the procedural violations in the cases of those arrested over the Kempir-Abad issue, the authorities have consistently failed to present any credible evidence to support the criminal charges initiated against the detainees and they are, in fact, being held merely on the basis of unsubstantiated assumptions.
The procedural violations documented reinforce the impression that the charges against the civil society activists, human rights defenders and other critical voices arrested in this case are politically motivated and have been brought in retaliation for their criticism of government policies and their civic engagement on the Kempir-Abad issue. As emphasised by the UN Human Rights Committee, detention as punishment for the legitimate exercise of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly protected by the ICCPR is arbitrary and impermissible.
Among those whose periods of pre-trial detention were prolonged are well-known human rights advocates Klara Sooronkulova and Rita Karasartova, civil society activist Perizat Suranova, and former MP and opposition activist Orozaiym Narmatova, all of whom declared a hunger on 14 December to protest against the Pervomaisky District Court’s decision to keep them in pre-trial detention. The health and well-being of the four women activists, and especially of Suranova and Narmatova, have seriously deteriorated due to the hunger strike. Narmatova was so weak during the initial appeal hearing of her case on 27 December that she lost consciousness, an ambulance had to be called and she had to be carried out from the courtroom on a stretcher. However, she was subsequently taken back to the detention centre and the hearing in her case continued the following day.
In addition to the four women activists, more than a dozen others in detention over the Kempir-Abad issue also went on hunger strike in mid-December. It is of serious concern that they reportedly have not been granted access to appropriate medical examinations and assistance, despite calls made to this end by, among others, the Ombudsperson’s office. Two of those detained — Perizat Suranova and Orozaiym Narmatova — have not been hospitalised, although their health has dramatically deteriorated since they launched their hunger strikes. Following the appeal hearings this week, all but one detainee reportedly ended their hunger strikes. However, there are ongoing concerns about their health and well-being as they have lost a lot of weight and strength during the hunger strikes and several of them suffer from chronic illnesses. It is of further concern that some detainees reportedly have been denied visits by family members, in violation of international standards, including the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Based on the above, we reiterate our previous calls to the Kyrgyzstani authorities, issued together with 10 other human rights NGOs, to:
- Ensure strict compliance with due process and fair trial guarantees set out by national and international law in the criminal cases related to the Kempir-Abad issue;
- Ensure that pre-trial detention is replaced with an alternative measure of restraint during the ongoing investigation – especially in cases involving detainees in poor health, women, those with young children and elderly detainees;
- Ensure immediate access to adequate medical assistance to those behind bars, including hospitalisation when needed;
- Safeguard the right of detainees to communicate with and receive visits by family members; and
- Promptly and unconditionally release all those against whom criminal cases have been initiated merely because of their peaceful and legitimate exercise of their freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
We also urge Kyrgyzstan’s international partners to support these calls and use all available avenues to help secure the release of wrongfully detained activists.
See also: Kyrgyzstan: Mass arrests of government critics in escalating crackdown on dissent