This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kyrgyzstan from May to October 2023. It has been 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, the negative trend of deteriorating protection of civic space and the freedoms of expression, association and assembly continued in Kyrgyzstan. Restrictive NGO and media draft laws were taken forward despite widespread criticism; independent media outlets were subjected to pressure because of their reporting; criminal prosecutions continued as an instrument of retaliation against civil society activists, journalists and other critics of the authorities; and the right to peaceful assembly was undermined by a prolonged ban on protests in central areas of the capital, Bishkek.
The draft “foreign agent” style NGO law, which was initiated by an MP last autumn, was resubmitted to Parliament in May 2023 with broad support from MPs. If adopted, this law would require foreign-funded NGOs that supposedly carry out “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” and subject them to excessive and discriminatory state oversight. The draft law has been heavily criticised by civil society, international experts and even national government agencies. IPHR and its partners called for the rejection of the draft, warning that it would enable authorities to arbitrarily discredit and obstruct the work of foreign-funded NGOs, and that it could lead to hundreds of groups being faced with the difficult choice of either registering under the new stigmatising label or ceasing their operations. Due to the outcry, some MPs withdrew their support for the bill and its consideration was postponed until after Parliament’s summer recess. However, following the reconvening of Parliament in September 2023, the draft law was put back on the agenda and, as of late October 2023, it was quickly progressing in Parliament despite all the criticism voiced against it. On 25th October 2023, Parliament passed the draft law at first reading – if it is passed in two further readings, it will be finally adopted and submitted to the President for signature.
Eight human rights NGOs call on Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to reject repressive, Russian-style draft law which seriously threatens civil society: https://t.co/HwS20iy97b w/ @nhc_no @hfhrpl @hrw @freedomnoworg @FrontLineHRD @OBS_defenders @omctorg @fidh_en
— IPHR (@IPHR) June 12, 2023
Another draft NGO law, put forward by the presidential administration in autumn 2022, remained under consideration in a working group comprising both government and civil society representatives. The working group was established to address the initial outpouring of criticism received by the draft law, and the deadline for finalising its work was extended until February 2024. As initially worded, the draft law would significantly increase state control over NGOs, introduce excessive restrictions on the operations of such organisations and undermine previous achievements in civil society participation in the country.
A revised version of a restrictive draft media law initiated by the presidential administration last autumn was put up for public discussion in May 2023. However, the revisions made failed to reflect key recommendations from media experts, and if the draft law is adopted in this form it would still lead to excessive state control over the activities of media and online platforms. In addition to media and civil society organisations, experts from the United Nations and the OSCE also expressed serious concerns about the revised draft law, including provisions that would introduce strict registration requirements for media and online platforms, extensive government regulation of their activities and a sanctions system that could be used to target those reporting critically on public affairs. As of late October 2023, the draft media law had not yet been submitted to Parliament.
A so-called law on the protection of children from harmful information, which was adopted in Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2023, also raised concerns about freedom of expression. Among other things, the law introduced a broad ban on the dissemination of information that “contradicts family values, promotes non-traditional sexual relations and encourages disrespect for parents or other family members”, allowing for it to be used to restrict the right to receive and share information on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The authorities continued to exert pressure on independent media. The news portal Kloop, which is well known for its independent and investigative reporting, had its website blocked for two months in September 2023 because it had allegedly spread “false’’ information when it published an article about a political activist who claimed to have been tortured. The block was imposed under a broadly worded law on protection against “false’’ information, which the government has repeatedly used to restrict access to independent news sites. Even before their website was blocked, Kloop learnt that a local prosecutor had petitioned the court to shut it down because it was allegedly not registered as a media outlet and was carrying out activities outside the scope of its charter. However, the main arguments used in the prosecutor’s complaint centred on the ‘’negative’’ nature of Kloop’s reporting coverage and its ‘’sharp criticism’’ of government policies, which clearly showed that the closure of the platform stemmed from officials’ dislike of its critical reporting. The legal proceedings in the case against Kloop were still ongoing as of late October 2023.
Prosecutors in Kyrgyzstan are pushing to shut down independent news site Kloop, citing its critical stance on government policies as a threat. This move marks a fresh assault on media freedom in the country https://t.co/jBu1FznWnw
— Eurasianet (@eurasianet) August 29, 2023
Earlier this year, in April 2023, a local court ruled to close down another independent news service, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (known as ‘’Radio Azattyk’’), over a video report about hostilities on Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan. The government argued that the video report featured ‘’war propaganda’’ and ‘’hate speech’’, although it only reflected the official positions of the two neighbouring countries on the border hostilities. The Radio Azattyk website had previously been blocked by order of the government because the same video report allegedly contained ‘’false information”. Radio Azattyk appealed against the widely criticised court order to close it down and subsequently reached a settlement with the government in July 2023, which resulted in the decision being overturned and the service being able to continue its work on the grounds that the video report in question was no longer accessible on its website.
Independent media outlets have also faced pressure in the form of defamation lawsuits entailing excessive requests for compensation for alleged moral damages. The independent outlet Kaktus.media was convicted of defaming the pro-state Vecherniy Bishkek (‘’Evening Bishkek’’) newspaper in May 2023 and ordered to pay around EUR 10,000 in compensation, which is a considerable amount, even if significantly lower than the EUR 500,000 the plaintiff had requested. Another independent outlet, PolitKlinika was convicted of defaming a state TV channel in September 2023 and ordered to publish a retraction, even though the court rejected the TV channel’s request for EUR 100,000 in compensation.
The court proceedings in the highly publicised “Kempir-Abad case” began in July 2023 and were still ongoing at the time of writing. In this case, almost 30 civil society activists, journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and other public figures have been charged with preparing riots and other crimes, although they are only known to have peacefully engaged against a government-negotiated border deal with Uzbekistan concerning the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir. First arrested in October 2022, some of the defendants were released earlier this year after spending months in deplorable conditions in pre-trial detention, while others still remained behind bars as of late October 2023. The trial in this case is taking place behind closed doors despite the lack of compelling reasons to deny the defendants a public hearing. The lack of transparency in the trial has reinforced concerns about its unfair and politically motivated nature.
In a case that attracted much attention, writer Olzhobay Shakir was arrested in August 2023 for allegedly publishing ‘’provocative’’ social media posts containing calls for disobedience of authorities and riots. The writer was charged after announcing on social media his intention to hold a peaceful protest against the government’s plans to hand over certain property to Uzbekistan and invited others to join him. As of late October 2023, he is still being held in pre-trial detention. Previously, several other people were charged with similar criminal offences because of social media posts on issues which are perceived as sensitive by those in power. Among them is blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev, who was charged after re-posting a video appeal in which a political rival of President Japarov spoke critically about the latter’s plans regarding the Jetim-Too iron ore field. The proceedings against Zhekshenaliev were stalled in spring 2023 pending further expert investigations and had not been resumed at the time of writing.
In a decision issued in September 2023, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier court decision to deport journalist Bolot Temirov in apparent retaliation for his investigations into high-level government corruption. Temirov was deported in November 2022, as part of a criminal case initiated against him on spurious grounds. Temirov’s legal team announced it would continue the struggle for justice by taking the case to the UN Human Rights Committee.
A court-sanctioned ban on holding peaceful protests outside the Russian embassy, the presidential and parliament buildings, and in other central areas of the capital Bishkek was extended again during the reporting period. This blanket ban, which has been in force for more than a year, runs counter to Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations to ensure the right to peaceful assembly.
In a welcome development, in July 2023, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which expressed serious concerns about the current crackdown on media, civil society and government critics in Kyrgyzstan and made important recommendations to national authorities and EU institutions.
European Parliament agreed resolution calling on 🇰🇬 to revoke repressive “false information law” & revise laws on foreign representatives, mass media and so-called LGBT propaganda law. Laws use known playbook to crack-down media and civil society https://t.co/dj8iydLhTS 1/2 pic.twitter.com/ZpbPgxSbh9
— Iskra Kirova (@iskrakirova) July 13, 2023
The issues summarised here are described in more detail in the sections below.
Constitutional Court’s powers restricted
In August 2023, the presidential administration initiated new legislation affecting the powers of the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of legal acts. According to the new law, the decisions issued by the Constitutional Court will no longer be final in all cases but could be revised in certain circumstances at the initiative of the President of the Republic or the Chairperson of the Court, including when a decision is deemed contrary to ‘’moral values’’ or ‘’public consciousness’’. Civil society organisations expressed concerns that the amendments would risk exposing the Constitutional Court to politically motivated pressure. However, despite the criticism expressed, Parliament passed the new law in all three required readings in September 2023 and it was subsequently signed into law by the President. It came into force on the day of its official publication.
The presidential administration put forward the new legislation after the Constitutional Court issued a ruling allowing matronymic middle names (in addition to patronymics), which caused controversy.
2 weeks later #Kyrgyz president’s admin initiates a draft law that allows for the Constitutional Court to go back on its decisions, currently final & irreversible. Although no clear mention of #matronymic case in draft explainer, top officials have raged against this development. https://t.co/m0WRckg2qo
— Syinat Sultanalieva (@SyinatS) July 18, 2023
European Parliament resolution
On 13th July 2023, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the current crackdown on media, civil society and government critics in Kyrgyzstan. Among others, the resolution criticised recent restrictive legal initiatives affecting freedom of expression and association, the detention and criminal prosecution of human rights defenders, media workers and journalists, and pressure on independent media outlets, and provided a number of important recommendations to the Kyrgyzstani authorities on these issues. The resolution also urged EU institutions to raise concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan in all their exchanges with national authorities and called for a reassessment of the benefits granted to Kyrgyzstan under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+). Under this scheme, Kyrgyzstan is expected to comply with a series of international treaties on good governance and human rights in exchange for enjoying trade benefits.
While Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the European Parliament resolution ‘’biased, one-sided and superficial’’, civil society welcomed it as an important expression of support.
We welcome the important resolution that the @Europarl_EN adopted today, flagging concerns about the ongoing crackdown on the media & freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan and calling for a reassessment of Kyrgyzstan’s benefits under the EU’s GSP+ scheme: https://t.co/DXiSwsFRGj
— IPHR (@IPHR) July 13, 2023
Restrictive draft media law
As covered before, a new draft media law was put forward for public discussion by the presidential administration in autumn 2022. Following widespread criticism of the draft law by media experts, lawyers and human rights defenders, the presidential administration agreed to revise the draft media law, with a working group consisting of both state officials and media representatives being set up for this purpose. However, the presidential administration failed to adequately take into account the recommendations made by media representatives in the process of revising the draft law. Thus, a new revised version of it, which was put forward for public discussion in mid-May 2023, remained of serious concern. Key problems include the potential designation of any blog or website as “mass media” and its strict regulation; strict requirements for the registration and re-registration of media outlets – including online resources – as well as the accreditation of journalists; extensive restrictions on the operation of foreign media in the country; vaguely and problematically worded obligations and prohibitions relating to the activities of media outlets and journalists, such as a ban on disseminating materials that promote same-sex marriages or are considered harmful to public health and morals; and significantly broadened grounds for imposing sanctions on media outlets, including the suspension and termination of their activities.
The revised draft law was severely criticised, not only by media and civil society organisations, but also by international human rights experts. In a letter addressed to the Kyrgyzstani government in June 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression concluded that the draft media law, if adopted ‘’would have severe implications for the freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan’’. The Special Rapporteur stressed, among others, that the draft law would grant the government far reaching and disproportional powers to regulate the online space; create undue barriers for media outlets to operate because of the proposed registration scheme; and risk resulting in undue limitations on the freedom of expression, including sanctions against those reporting critically on public affairs because of the use of vague and overly broad terms. The Rapporteur urged the government to ‘’pause the adoption process’’ of the law, and ‘’seek sufficient international support and expertise and ensure an inclusive consultation process’’.
In a joint opinion, finalised in July 2023, the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also voiced serious misgivings about the draft media law. In particular, the OSCE institutions concluded that the draft law ‘’could restrict the media’s ability to operate independently and investigate important issues by imposing stringent registration requirements on all mass media outlets’’, including internet resources. The opinion also criticised the fact that media regulation ‘’is fully concentrated under government bodies’’, as well as the use of overbroad terms such as “extremism” or the prohibition of the promotion of “same-sex marriage”, warning that this could result in implementation undermining the exercise of freedom of expression and the principle of non-discrimination. The opinion further concluded that the proposed system of sanctions ‘’may lead to suspension or termination imposed on the basis of vague and broad grounds’’ and ‘’is likely to produce a chilling effect on media freedom’’.
Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsperson has also called for revisions of the draft media law.
As of late October 2023, there was no further information about how the presidential administration had addressed the critical remarks issued by international experts or when the draft media law would come up for consideration in Parliament.
Concerns about law on the protection of children from harmful information
A so-called law on the protection of children from harmful information was passed by Parliament in June 2023 and signed by the president in August 2023. The new law, which introduced amendments to the Code of Offences and other existing legislation, prohibits the dissemination of several types of information which is considered to be harmful to children. Among others, it prohibits the dissemination of information that ‘’poses a threat to the health of children’’, ‘’contradicts family values, promotes non-traditional sexual relations and encourages disrespect for parents or other family members’’ and ‘’justifies unlawful behaviour”. Those found to violate the prohibition on disseminating such information might be fined from 2,000 som (around EUR 20) to 25,000 som (over EUR 250).
Human rights groups criticised the law, warning that the broad wording used in it will result in violations of the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. For example, when commenting on the draft law, the Media Policy Institute concluded that the law provides ‘’another administrative lever for establishing censorship and arbitrary restriction of citizens’ access to information’’. Human Rights Watch stated that the draft law, if enacted, ‘’would be detrimental to children’s rights’’, stressing that authorities must take care to ensure that legislation aimed at protecting children from exposure to harmful information is not overly broad and protects children’s freedom of expression, including the right to receive and share information on sexual and reproductive health, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have approved a bill to protect children from “harmful information,” a category they say includes anything deemed to promote “non-traditional sexual relations” and “disrespect” toward parents. https://t.co/CRZ2IFOytQ
— Eurasianet (@eurasianet) June 23, 2023
Human rights groups also objected to the fact that the law on the protection of children from harmful information was adopted in a rushed manner in Parliament, in particular by being passed in second and third readings in one sitting, despite parliamentary rules requiring at least ten days to elapse between each hearing.
In another development, in which concerns about children’s well-being were cited to justify a measure with negative implications on sharing and receiving information online, the Ministry of Culture announced in late August 2023 that it was requesting the blocking of the TikTok social media platform in the country over concerns that the platform was “negatively affecting the mental development and health of children.” The Ministry argued that TikTok does not provide for any age or other restrictions on access to information that is harmful to children. In early September 2023, it was reported that the Ministry was holding talks with TikTok officials about the possibility of the platform introducing age limits and making other adaptations with respect to the accessibility of its content in Kyrgyzstan. According to the Ministry, in late October 2023, negotiations with TikTok were still underway, in parallel with efforts to develop technical solutions for blocking platform content. While some providers had already blocked access to TikTok, the platform remained accessible through others.
As pointed out by observers, decision-makers in some Western countries, including the United States and Canada, have also taken steps toward restricting access to TikTok. However, in these countries, such steps have been primarily motivated by concerns that data shared on the Chinese-owned platform might be made available to Chinese government agencies.
Pressure on independent media outlets
As covered before, the government has repeatedly used a controversial law on protection against ‘’false’’ information to block access to independent news sites. In the cases of Kloop and the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Azattyk, such measures were initiated as part of wider campaigns of pressure featuring legal motions to close them down:
Attempt to silence Kloop
The Ministry of Culture ordered the blocking of the website of the respected independent news site Kloop for two months in September 2023 because it had allegedly disseminated ‘’false’’ information in an article about a political activist claiming to have been tortured in detention. Kloop stressed that it had only reported the activist’s allegations, without presenting them as proven facts, and refused to delete the article in question. However, its complaint about the blocking order was rejected and thus its site was blocked by local operators, as a result of which it was only accessible through a mirror site in Kyrgyzstan.
New alarming development in Kyrgyzstan: on top of lawsuit to shut down @kloopnews, the gov’t seeks to block access to its site bcs it has allegedly spread ”false” info – this pattern of persecution must stop! See joint NGO appeal from this week: https://t.co/zNoFYc0QpK https://t.co/PpF2Q0qUu1
— IPHR (@IPHR) September 7, 2023
Moreover, prior to the blocking of its site, in late August 2023, Kloop learned that a local prosecutor had filed a petition with local courts requesting the organisation be closed down because it is not registered as a media outlet and allegedly carries out activities that ‘’go beyond the scope’’ of its charter as a public foundation. However, under current national law, it is not compulsory for online information platforms to register as media outlets and Kloop’s charter does cover the establishment of an information platform on social, political and economic issues. It was clear from the argumentation used in the prosecutor’s request that it had been initiated in retaliation for Kloop’s independent coverage of issues which are inconvenient to those in power, including human rights violations and government corruption. Thus, the lawsuit focused primarily on the allegedly ‘’negative’’ nature of Kloop’s coverage and its ‘’sharp criticism’’ of government policies. It also described Kloop’s publications as being ‘’manipulative’’ of public opinion and ‘’causing harm’’ to public health and well-being. The lawsuit even argued that the portal’s reporting causes feelings of ‘’fear, anxiety, despair and panic’’, leading to ‘’psychological disorders’’, “aggressive criminal behaviour, sexual anomalies, addictions, suicidal inclinations and other disorders of social adaptation’’, and that it ‘’zombifies’’ the population. Kloop learned about the petition shortly after President Sadyr Japarov publicly criticised the platform for its reporting, saying that its journalists “bring only harm and no benefit’’ to the Kyrgyz people.
In a joint statement, IPHR and five other international NGOs expressed alarm at the move to close down Kloop, saying that accusations made against the organisation to justify this request are ‘’absurd, partly even ridiculous’’ that ‘’it is apparent that they stem from officials’ dislike of being publicly scrutinised, criticised and held to account’’. The NGOs called on the authorities to withdraw the lawsuit to shut down Kloop and to stop targeting it because of its reporting.
Despite the criticism voiced by civil society representatives in and outside Kyrgyzstan, the prosecutor’s office did not back off on its request to close down Kloop, and the legal proceedings against the platform began in late September 2023. A month later, several preliminary hearings had been held, with the consideration of the merits of the case set to start as of 3rd November 2023.
It is of further concern that the lawsuit filed by the prosecutor’s office referred to an investigation allegedly opened against Kloop in 2021 on suspicion of publicly calling for seizing power, which is a criminal offence punishable with up to five years in prison (under article 278 of the Criminal Code). The Criminal Code provision in question has repeatedly been used to bring charges against bloggers writing on issues which are sensitive to state officials (see more below under ‘’Cases against bloggers’’). Thus, this reference reinforced fears that Kloop and its journalists might be subjected to further, even more serious pressure.
While Kloop has also previously been subjected to intimidation and harassment because of its work, this is the first time that the authorities have taken steps to close it down and potentially initiate criminal charges against its representatives.
Radio Azattyk ordered closed, but settlement reached
As covered before, the Ministry of Culture ordered the blocking of Radio Azattyk’s site for two months in October 2022 because of a video report about hostilities at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, which allegedly contained ‘’unconfirmed’’ allegations about Kyrgyzstan’s role in the hostilities and featured ‘’elements of hate speech’’. The video report in question presented the official views on the hostilities of the authorities of both countries. When the initial period of blocking of Radio Azattyk’s site expired, the Ministry of Culture extended it indefinitely pending the removal of the report from the service’s site. Radio Azattyk denied the accusations levelled against it, saying the video report about the border hostilities was in line with its standards of balanced reporting. However, the service’s attempts to legally challenge the blocking decision were unsuccessful, with its complaint being rejected by court.
In a parallel development, the Ministry of Culture filed a petition to a local court requesting that Radio Azattyk’s activities as a media outlet be terminated due to its failure to delete the video report about the border hostilities, which the ministry argued featured elements of ‘’war propaganda’’ and ‘’hate speech’’ in violation of the Law on Media. In April 2023, the local court ruled in favour of this request in a decision, which was widely criticised by the media community, human rights groups and representatives of the international community.
Following an appeal submitted by Radio Azattyk against the April ruling, on 12th July 2023, Bishkek City Court confirmed a settlement between the service and the Ministry of Culture. According to this settlement, the lower-level court decision was reversed and the proceedings against the service were terminated on the grounds that the video report about the border hostilities was no longer accessible on the service’s site in accordance with RFE/RL content retention protocols. As a result, Radio Azattyk was able to renew its work in Kyrgyzstan and access to its site was restored. While this outcome was a relief, it is regrettable that the measures to block Radio Azattyk’s site and close it down were initiated in the first place and that the service had to reach a settlement with the Ministry of Culture in order to be able to continue to operate in Kyrgyzstan. Some media representatives also criticised Radio Azattyk for agreeing to the settlement, saying that it set a problematic precedent.
Retaliatory defamation lawsuits against independent media
As covered in the previous update, in several recent cases, pro-state media outlets have sued independent media outlets for defamation, requesting excessive sums in compensation for alleged moral damages. This has given rise to concerns about the misuse of defamation lawsuits to put pressure on independent outlets. In the following two cases, local courts ruled in favour of such lawsuits, even if not awarding as large amounts in damages as the plaintiffs had requested:
- The state TV channel ElTR sued PolitKlinika over an article which showed that the state TV channel had incorrectly reported that no state loans had been obtained for the development of the energy sector during Sadyr Japarov’s presidency. ElTR argued that the article ‘’undermined its reputation’’ and requested a total of 10 million som (around EUR 100,000) in compensation for alleged moral damages from PolitKlinika and its journalist. In a decision issued on 26th September 2023, a local court partly ruled in favour of ElTR, ordering PolitKlinika to publish a retraction but dismissing the state TV channel’s request for monetary compensation.
- The Vecherniy Bishkek (‘’Evening Bishkek’’) newspaper sued independent Kaktus.media following an article published in December 2022, which it argued contained incorrect information about the operations of the newspaper, although Kaktus.media said it was based on information from employees of the newspaper. Vecherniy Bishkek demanded that Kaktus.media and its representatives pay a total of 50 million som (over EUR 500,000) in compensation for alleged moral damages. In late May 2023, a local Bishkek court partially ruled in favour of Vecherniy Bishkek, ordering Kaktus.media and the journalist who wrote the December 2022 article to pay a total of 1 million som (around EUR 10,000) in compensation to the newspaper – a sum that is still sizeable, even if not as high as the plaintiff had requested. In September 2023, the Bishkek City Court upheld the lower-level court ruling and Kaktus.media appealed against this decision to the Supreme Court.
Kempir-Abad case continues
As previously reported, the police arrested almost 30 people in October 2022 who had openly criticised the draft border agreement negotiated by the government with neighbouring Uzbekistan over the strategically important Kempir-Abad water reservoir. Those arrested included civil society activists, bloggers, human rights defenders, opposition politicians and former public officials.
Most of those arrested were subsequently placed in pre-trial detention on charges of preparing to organise riots, although they are only known to have peacefully expressed their opposition to the draft border agreement, demanded transparency of the decision-making process on this issue and peacefully associated with others to challenge the government’s plans for Kempir-Abad. Just before the mass arrests, some of those targeted had set up a public committee for the protection of Kempir-Abad.
The pre-trial detention of most of those arrested was subsequently extended by court despite the apparent lack of tangible progress on the investigation and the absence of any compelling grounds for keeping those concerned behind bars. Those held in pre-trial detention reported limited access to sanitation, medical treatment and visits with family, and the health of several of them deteriorated significantly. Due to health concerns, several of the detainees were eventually transferred to house arrest in the first few months of 2023, including women activists Orozaiym Narmatova, Perizat Suranova, Klara Sooronkulova, Asiya Sasykbaeva and Gulnara Dzhurabaeva. The only remaining woman to remain in detention in this case, Rita Karasartova, was finally transferred to house arrest in late June 2023, after spending eight months behind bars. However, some of the other individuals arrested in the case were still in pre-trial detention at the time of writing.
The legal proceedings in the Kempir-Abad case began in July 2023. IPHR joined Freedom Now and other international partners in expressing serious concerns that the proceedings are taking place behind closed doors, stressing that open and transparent trials are a cornerstone of the rule of law and fair judicial proceedings and that there is no evidence of exceptional circumstances that would meet the threshold required under international law to close the proceedings to the public, the press, or international observers. The Ministry of Interior classified the Kempir-Abad case as a state secret in January 2023. Later, in March 2023, Bishkek City Court ruled to partially lift the secrecy order, ordering the investigators to identify and separate case materials containing classified information from those not containing any such information. Nevertheless, the local court hearing the case refused defendants’ requests to open the trial to the public. As of late October 2023, the legal proceedings in the case were ongoing.
We urge Kyrgyzstani authorities to ensure strict compliance with due process & fair trial guarantees in the hearing of the charges brought against 27 critics of the Kempir-Abad border deal with Uzbekistan https://t.co/OG8UrPxkXt pic.twitter.com/jxUMWpnyAo
— Freedom Now (@freedomnoworg) July 6, 2023
Deportation of corruption whistle-blower upheld on appeal
As covered in the previous update, corruption whistle-blowing journalist Bolot Temirov was deported from Kyrgyzstan in November 2022.
As previously reported, following the publication of a high-level corruption investigation on the journalist’s YouTube-based outlet Temirov Live, the authorities initiated criminal proceedings against him on charges of drug possession. It is believed that the police planted drugs on him during a raid on his outlet’s office. Temirov, who also holds a Russian passport, was later additionally charged with allegedly forging documents to obtain and renew his Kyrgyz passport and using this passport to cross the border illegally. In September 2022, a local court acquitted him of most of the charges and, although it found him guilty of document forgery, it did not impose any sentence for this offence due to the statute of limitations. At an appeal hearing in November 2022, Bishkek City Court upheld the decision of the lower court unchanged. Nevertheless, on unclear legal grounds, it ruled that the journalist was subject to deportation, as a result of which he was forcibly detained in the courtroom, taken to the airport and placed on a flight to Moscow.
The deportation of the journalist was widely criticised by civil society and representatives of the international community. In July 2023, Temirov’s lawyers filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, requesting that he be fully acquitted of the charges brought against him and that his deportation order be revoked. However, in mid-September 2023, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal and upheld Temirov’s deportation. The journalist’s legal team announced plans to continue the struggle for justice by turning to the UN Human Rights Committee.
Disappointed by the Kyrgyz Supreme Court’s decision to deny investigative journalist Bolot Temirov’s appeals. Members of the free media are vital to fighting corruption — they must be protected, not punished. The U.S. remains committed to protecting press freedom, and…
— U.S. Embassy Bishkek (@USEmbassyKG) September 12, 2023
Cases against bloggers
As covered before, several people have recently faced criminal charges in Kyrgyzstan because of social media posts argued to contain ‘’false’’ information on issues sensitive to the authorities. Charges have typically been initiated under broadly worded provisions of the Criminal Code, including article 330, which penalises ‘’incitement’’ to ethnic, national and other hatred without clearly defining this offence, and article 278, which prohibits calls for disobedience of authorities and for riots.
During the reporting period, the following case attracted much attention:
- A criminal case was opened against writer Olzhobay Shakir for publishing ‘’provocative’’ social media posts allegedly containing calls for disobedience of authorities and riots, in violation of article 278 of the Criminal Code. He was arrested on 23rd August 2023, with a local court sanctioning his pre-trial detention for two months. The writer’s arrest came shortly after he announced his intention on social media to hold a peaceful protest in Bishkek against government plans to hand over certain property – which was constructed during the Soviet era – to Uzbekistan and invited others to join him during this protest. Civil society representatives called the charges against the writer ‘’absurd’’, emphasising his right to peacefully voice discontent about the actions of the authorities, and called for the case to be closed and for him to be released. At the time of writing, Shakir remained in pre-trial detention.
Представители медиа- и гражданского сообщества выступили в защиту писателя и публициста Олжобая Шакира, который сейчас находится под стражей по обвинению в призывах к массовым беспорядкам.https://t.co/5oepMV3x9H
— Kloop (@kloopnews) August 25, 2023
The following case, covered before, was ongoing:
- Facebook blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev was detained by police in August 2022 after posting an old video appeal in which a former high-ranking security service official and political rival of President Japarov spoke critically about the latter’s plans regarding the Jetim-Too iron ore field. Zhekshenaliev was accused of spreading ‘’incorrect’’ information and attempting to ‘’manipulate public information’’ regarding Jetim-Too. He was first placed in pre-trial detention but later transferred to house arrest on charges of calling for disobedience of authorities and riots (under article 278 of the Criminal Code). The prosecution requested that Zhekshenaliev be sentenced to six years in prison. However, in April 2023, the court postponed the further hearing of the case and subsequently ordered additional expert assessments to be carried out, while prolonging Zhekshenaliev’s house arrest. An earlier expert assessment had found that the video appeal posted by Zhekshenaliev did not feature any calls for riots. At the time of writing, the trial had yet to re-start.
In the following case, the conviction was upheld on appeal:
- Blogger Aizhana Myrsalieva (also known as Aizhan Myrsan) was criminally prosecuted because of a video posted on TikTok in March 2022, which contained excerpts from an earlier Facebook livestream in which she criticised the lack of achievements by ethnic Kyrgyz during Kyrgyzstan’s 30 years of independence and their approach to other nationalities in the country. Although herself an ethnic Kyrgyz, she was charged with inciting inter-national hatred (under Criminal Code article 300). In March 2023, a local court in Bishkek convicted Myrsalieva of these charges and fined her 100,000 som (around EUR 1,000). In August 2023, Bishkek City Court upheld this decision on appeal. The blogger told media that she has stopped publishing posts on sensitive issues following her conviction, adding that she feels like her mouth has been ‘’taped shut’’. She stated: “I can’t say anything today, and there are many like me.”
As covered before, two restrictive NGO laws have recently been initiated in Kyrgyzstan, prompting serious concerns about attempts to restrict civic space.
‘’Foreign agents’’ style draft law
One of these draft laws, a ‘’foreign agents’’ style draft law, was first initiated by Member of Parliament Nadira Narmatova in November 2022, then re-submitted by her to Parliament in May 2023, with the support of more than 30 other MPs. It draws heavily on a previous Russia-inspired law, which parliament eventually voted down in 2016. Among others, in accordance with the draft law, NGOs that receive financial assistance from foreign sources and engage in broadly defined ‘’political activities’’ would be required to register as organisations ‘’performing the function of a foreign representative’’ which, similarly to ‘’foreign agents’’, is a highly stigmatising label. The failure of organisations to register under this label could result in their activities being suspended for up to six months without a court decision. The draft law also provides for burdensome reporting obligations for organisations registered as ‘’foreign representatives’’ and allows the government to conduct both planned and unplanned inspections of their activities.
Very worrying that another ”foreign agent” style draft NGO law has been initiated by MPs in Kyrgyzstan. NGOs should be supported & praised for their important work to the benefit of citizens, not stigmatised & repressed! @CIVICUSMonitor @CIVICUSalliance https://t.co/XnmeOkupG6
— IPHR (@IPHR) May 26, 2023
The ’’foreign representatives’’ draft law has been severely criticised by civil society, representatives of the international community and even state bodies.
In a joint appeal issued in June 2023, IPHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Front Line Defenders, Freedom Now, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) called on members of Parliament in Kyrgyzstan to reject the dangerous and ill-conceived draft law, stating that it would enable the authorities to arbitrarily discredit and obstruct the work of foreign-funded NGOs. The signatories stressed that due to the vague and ambiguous language used, virtually any activities carried out by NGOs could be construed as ‘’political activities’’, as a result of which hundreds of groups could be faced with the difficult choice of either having to register as ‘’foreign representatives’’ or ceasing their operations to avoid the restrictions and reputational damage that this status would entail. Because of the lack of domestic opportunities, most NGOs in Kyrgyzstan rely on foreign funding.
Local civil society organisations have issued numerous appeals protesting the draft law. In a joint appeal published in September 2023, over 100 organisations called on Parliament to reject the draft law, stressing that it would have a negative impact on the entire NGO sector, if adopted. In October 2023, civil society representatives issued a call to the US, EU member states and other foreign countries to stop issuing visas to MPs supporting the draft law.
The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has also critically assessed the ‘’foreign representatives’’ draft legislation, noting that it provides for restrictions that ‘’are not prescribed by law nor necessary in a democratic society, and therefore not compliant with the right to freedom of association.” In a joint letter addressed to the Kyrgyzstani authorities on 2nd October 2023, three UN Special Rapporteurs — those on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the situation of human rights defenders — concluded that many provisions in the proposed law would be contrary to Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations and that, if adopted, it ‘’could have a chilling effect on the operation of all associations’’ in the country. The UN experts urged the authorities to ‘’refrain from approving the draft law in its current form’’ and to ‘’consult broadly with all sectors of civil society to develop a new comprehensive law, which ensures an enabling environment for civil society, and which complies with the international human rights obligations and best practices’’.
In addition to civil society representatives and international experts, state bodies have voiced objections to the draft law. In particular, following its review of the draft law, Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet of Ministers issued a number of critical remarks and recommended that it be revised accordingly. The recently appointed new Ombudsperson, in turn, called on the initiators of the draft law to withdraw it because of its inconsistency with Kyrgyzstan’s constitution and international law and to prepare a new version with the participation of experts.
Due to the initial outpouring of criticism over the ‘’foreign representatives’’ draft law following its submission to Parliament in May 2023, some of the MPs who initially supported it withdrew their support. In addition, the consideration of the draft law in Parliament was postponed until after the Parliament’s summer recess. However, when Parliament reconvened following its recess, the draft ‘’foreign representative’’ law was brought back on the agenda and as of late October 2023 it was quickly progressing in Parliament.
Two parliamentary committees gave their initial approval to the draft law on 3rd and 10th October 2023, respectively. On 17th October 2023, a parliamentary hearing on the draft law was held, during which representatives of state bodies, international organisations and NGOs provided feedback and recommendations. Despite renewed criticism of the initiative at this hearing, Parliament passed the draft law on first reading in the plenary on 25th October 2023. During the vote, which took place without any discussion, 52 MPs supported the draft law, and only seven voted against it.
Very worrying that the foreign agents style NGO law is progressing in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament despite massive criticism from civil society, international experts and even state bodies. This dangerous & ill-conceived draft law should be stopped now! https://t.co/0cCvsPL80c
— IPHR (@IPHR) October 4, 2023
A propaganda movie, which the initiators of the problematic draft law showed during its consideration in Parliament, demonstrated the flawed arguments used to justify this repressive initiative. This draft law documented the alleged harm caused by NGOs in the country, reflecting negative stereotypes and perceptions of such organisations. In particular, NGOs were baselessly accused of hiding income from foreign sources and of carrying out activities contrary to Kyrgyzstani ‘’mentality’’ and ‘’national values’’, e.g., by advocating for gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights.
Because of the progress of the draft law in Parliament following the summer recess, there are serious concerns that it might be quickly pushed through in the weeks to come. The draft law will be finally adopted if it is passed by Parliament on two more readings and thereafter will be signed by the president.
Restrictive draft NGO law initiated by the presidential administration
Another draft law, which was put forward for public discussion by the presidential administration in November 2022, also proposed to significantly increase state control over NGOs and provided for excessive restrictions on the operations of such organisations. Among others, in accordance with the draft law, all NGOs would have to register with the authorities in order to operate lawfully in the country, and pre-registered NGOs would have to re-register or face liquidation. The draft law also granted broad powers to authorities to oversee NGO activities. In a joint statement, IPHR and CIVICUS said that the draft law ‘’mirrors NGO legislation seen in more repressive countries in the post-Soviet region’’ and that going ahead with it ‘’would seriously endanger the operating freedom of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan and undermine hard-won gains in terms of civil society participation in the country.’’
Following serious criticism of the draft law by both civil society and international experts, the presidential administration agreed to revise the draft law, with a working group composed of government officials and NGO representatives being set up for this purpose. The working group was charged with revising the draft law by 1st June 2023. Later, this period was extended first until October 2023, and thereafter to February 2024. Despite the welcome initiative to revise the draft law, there are remaining concerns that it might result in excessive restrictions on the operating freedom of NGOs.
During the reporting period, numerous peaceful assemblies took place without interference. However, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly was undermined by a court-sanctioned ban on holding peaceful protests in central areas of the capital Bishkek, which remained in place. This blanket ban, which was first introduced in spring 2022, runs counter to Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations to protect the right to peaceful assembly.
As covered before, in accordance with a ruling issued by the Pervomaisky District Court in April 2022, peaceful assemblies were prohibited outside the Russian embassy, the presidential administration, the Parliament building and the headquarters of the State Committee for National Security, as well as on the central Ala-Too Square. The ban was issued after the Russian Embassy had requested the authorities to put a stop to protests against the Russian war against Ukraine outside its premises. Protesters were instructed to instead gather in a park specifically designated for holding assemblies, namely Gorky Park. However, official events organised at Ala-Too Square were exempted from the ban, which demonstrates its discriminatory nature.
The court ban from April 2022 has subsequently been prolonged several times, most recently until 31st December 2023.
В Бишкеке еще на три месяца продлили запрет на проведение митингов в центре города. Мирные собрания по-прежнему разрешено проводить в сквере имени Горького https://t.co/0CqEhca4Qo
— Радио Азаттык (@AzattykMedia) September 29, 2023
With reference to the court-sanctioned restrictions, police have repeatedly carried out detentions.
Recently, court-sanctioned blanket bans on holding peaceful assemblies at central locations have also been issued elsewhere than in Bishkek. Based on a request from local police, in October 2023, peaceful protests were banned by the court outside the local state administration building, the mayor’s office and in other public places in Chon-Alai district in Osh region. The ban, which was issued for an indefinite period, was justified with ‘’security concerns’’. Previously, in September 2023, a similar ban had been issued in the Uzgen district of Osh region – for a period of several weeks.
The practice of blanket bans on protests has been criticised not only by NGOs, but also international human rights experts. After reviewing Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the ICCPR in October 2022, the Human Rights Committee called on the authorities of the country to refrain from blanket restrictions on peaceful assemblies and from selective and discriminatory dispersals of peaceful assemblies.