Developments seen in Kyrgyzstan during the Covid-19 pandemic have prompted renewed concerns about growing restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms in the country. A briefing paper published by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) documents key trends with respect to the human rights impact of measures taken by the authorities following the declaration of a Covid-19 emergency in the country. The paper focuses on the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, access to justice, and the protection of vulnerable groups. The findings are summarized below – more details can be found in the full briefing paper.
Authorities declare emergency, derogate from international treaty obligations
The first Covid-19 cases were registered in Kyrgyzstan in mid-March 2020 and by the end of the month, more than 100 cases had been reported. The authorities responded by announcing an emergency situation in the country as of 22 March 2020, and a stricter state of emergency in the capital Bishkek, the second largest city Osh, as well as several other regions as of 25 March. The state of emergency was prolonged through 10 May, while the emergency situation remained in force beyond this date, with more extensive quarantine regulations continuing to be applied in Bishkek. The emergency regimes featured a series of restrictions, in particular, on the freedoms of movement and assembly of residents. In view of these restrictions, Kyrgyzstan’s government informed the UN Secretary-General about its derogation from the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that protect these rights, thus becoming the only Central Asian country to take the exceptional step of derogation under the ICCPR in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The implementation of the emergency regimes also negatively affected the protection of other rights and freedoms than those whose enjoyment was formally suspended.
Thousands detained for violating curfew rules, new penalties introduced
As part of the enforcement of the emergency regimes, law enforcement authorities stopped, warned, and fined thousands of people for violating curfew and other rules. Civil society raised alarm that police detained people accused of curfew violations, without granting them access to legal assistance and holding them for hours in crowded police cells, where they were exposed to a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19. In addition to pre-existing legal provisions setting out penalties for violations of rules applicable in times of emergency, the authorities introduced new such provisions, some of which are vaguely worded and provide for disproportionately harsh penalties, such as heavy fines and even imprisonment.
Lawyers and monitors face obstacles, limited amnesty
Lawyers were not exempted from the restrictions on people’s movement that applied in Bishkek and other regions during most of the period when the state of emergency was in force. As a result, they experienced difficulties in providing legal assistance to clients at this time of crisis. Civil society also criticised a decision to suspend the operations of local courts and replace them with an on-duty system for judges during the state of emergency, warning about the implications of this arrangement for defendants.
As in other countries, there have been concerns about the vulnerability of prisoners during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially as prison visits of lawyers and monitors also were restricted during the state of emergency lockdown. An amnesty adopted in mid-May 2020 provided for the release of certain categories of prisoners, among others, elderly and disabled people. However, those convicted of a number of crimes were not eligible for release even if the fell within these categories. For that reason, among others, human rights defender Azimjan Askarov did not qualify for release, in spite of his advanced age. While civil society representatives welcomed the amnesty initiative, they regretted its limited impact in practice and the failure of the authorities to agree to release seriously ill prisoners such as Askarov, whose health condition has recently deteriorated further.
Restrictive media policy, misguided efforts to prevent spread of “false” information
Media outlets have faced serious obstacles in providing access to information for citizens during the pandemic. For weeks, journalists were not accredited to work in the capital and other areas where the state of emergency was in force and, thus, could not effectively carry out their professional activities. Journalists also reported problems with obtaining adequate information on the measures taken in the struggle against Covid-19 as government press briefings did not feature question and answer sessions and officials responded to inquires with great delay, if at all. Media and human rights organisations criticised the restrictive media policy as unlawful and found it discriminatory since the restrictions did not apply equally to state and independent media, with the former being used as platforms for communicating government information about the pandemic.
In another development raising free speech concerns, security services detained and intimidated individuals posting allegedly “false” information about the pandemic, pressuring them to “publicly apologise” at the threat of criminal prosecution. Those targeted included medical professionals drawing attention to the lack of appropriate means of protection against Covid-19 at medical facilities. There are also concerns that new legislation on spreading “false” information introduced during the pandemic might be used to stifle the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. The media community has rallied against a draft law on the “manipulation of information”, which sets out a broadly worded ban on disseminating “false” information through the internet and grants authorities powers to block access to such information without a court decision. The parliament passed this draft law in late June 2020, after which it was passed to the president for signature.
Widely criticised NGO legislation pushed ahead, anti-NGO sentiments reinforced
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the parliament has also continued its consideration of draft legislation setting out new reporting obligations for NGOs. Civil society has criticised this draft legislation as an unjustified attempt to step up control of NGOs and fears that it might be used to intimidate NGOs working on issues that do not please the authorities. With reference to Covid-19 related restrictions, only selected NGO representatives were invited to a public hearing on the draft law held in May 2020 and, thus, many of those who would be directly affected by the new law were not granted any opportunity to comment on it. Most of those who participated in the hearing supported the adoption of the law. Having approved the draft legislation on first reading in March 2020, the parliament passed it on second reading in June 2020, in spite of the civil society objections, which were echoed by representatives of the international community.
The discussion surrounding the draft NGO law has contributed to reinforcing suspicion and mistrust against NGOs, with its proponents accusing NGOs of being “foreign agents” and of threatening national security. Thus, those advocating for the adoption of the law have re-invoked arguments used during the consideration of an earlier controversial, Russia-inspired draft NGO law, which the parliament eventually rejected in 2016. At the same time, civil society representatives have been subjected to growing pressure, with criminal investigations opened against two activists fighting against injustice and corruption.
Protests banned, selective law enforcement
All protests, demonstrations, rallies, pickets, strikes and other assemblies were banned during the state of emergency that was in force in the capital and several other areas of the country from 25 March through 10 May 2020. This ban continued even after the end of the state of emergency, under the quarantine that replaced it. Moreover, already several weeks before the declaration of the state of emergency, local authorities in Bishkek sought court bans on assemblies in the capital until 1 July, citing the need to prevent the spread of Covid-19. However, this argument was undermined by the fact that the authorities proposed allowing official events to take place. In the end, the authorities backed off from their controversial initiative and dropped their requests for such bans. In practice, law enforcement authorities have allowed some peaceful protests to take place during the Covid-19 emergency, while dispersing others, including a protest against violence against women held in Bishkek by picketers standing two meters apart and wearing face masks.
Domestic violence worsens
Domestic violence was already previously widespread in Kyrgyzstan, but the problem deteriorated further during the Covid-19 state of emergency. At the same time, it became more difficult for victims to escape abuse and seek help because of the lockdown measures, which also meant that crisis centres were not able to provide shelter and assist victims in their premises as usual. In a positive move, legal amendments adopted during the pandemic broadened the grounds on which suspected perpetrators of domestic violence may be temporarily detained to protect victims and their families. There have also been renewed calls for increasing penalties for domestic violence, which is treated as a misdemeanour under national law and currently is not punishable by imprisonment. However, lack of access to justice for victims of domestic violence remains a key problem.
Covid-19 cases surge, health care system overstretched
After the state of emergency ended and the restrictions imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic gradually were lifted, the number of Covid-19 cases surged in Kyrgyzstan. From mid-May to the end of June 2020, the number of reported cases increased more than four times, reaching a total of 5296 Covid-19 infections and 57 Covid-19 deaths by 30 June. In addition, there was a growing number of pneumonia cases and deaths not classified as Covid-19 cases at that time. The rapid increase in the number of patients needing medical assistance overstretched the capacity of the health care system, with reports of overwhelmed ambulance services, overfull hospitals, and shortages of medical staff and equipment, including ventilators. A considerable share of all those diagnosed with Covid-19 was also made up of medical workers. High-ranking government officials acknowledged the difficulties to cope with the rise in Covid-19 cases and called for measures to increase health care capacity. At the same time, they said that more stringent restrictions would only be re-introduced as a last resort because of the damaging impact of lockdown measures on the economy.
The briefing paper, which covers developments through June 2020, can be downloaded here.
The new IPHR-LPF briefing paper has been prepared as part of an initiative of IPHR and its partners to monitor and document human rights protection during the Covid-19 pandemic in Central Asia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.