The EU will hold its annual human rights dialogue with the government of Kyrgyzstan in Brussels this week, at a time when unprecedented threats to the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly abound in the Central Asian country. It is essential that the EU uses the opportunity afforded by the dialogue on 9 November to speak out against these threats, making it clear that the adoption of legislation and other measures that run counter to Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights treaty obligations will negatively affect EU-Kyrgyzstan relations.
A briefing paper, prepared and submitted for the dialogue by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF), documents recent alarming trends with respect to free speech and civic engagement in Kyrgyzstan. Major concerns include:
Highly restrictive legal initiatives affecting NGOs and media
A foreign agent style draft law was passed by parliament on first reading on 25 October 2023, despite serious criticism voiced by civil society, international experts and even state officials. The draft law is expected to be submitted for a second and possibly also a third and final reading next week, prompting fears that it will be rushed through. If adopted in the proposed format, this Russia-inspired draft law would enable the authorities to arbitrarily discredit and obstruct the work of foreign-funded NGOs and would result in hundreds of groups being faced with the difficult choice of whether to assume the stigmatising label of ‘’foreign representatives’’, risk sanctions, or cease their operations. The draft would grant the authorities powers to suspend the activities of NGOs found to violate the requirements of the law and prosecute NGO leaders on vaguely worded criminal charges.
A draft media law currently on the table has also been widely criticised by civil society and international experts. If adopted in its proposed format, this law would provide for stringentregistration requirements for media and online platforms, extensive government regulation of their activities and a system of sanctions that could be used to target those reporting criticallyon public affairs. While the draft law was revised due to the outcry that followed its initial introduction, the revisions failed to reflect key recommendations of media experts.
Other problematic legal initiatives include a second draft law providing for excessive state control over NGOs, which is under consideration by a government working group, and a law adopted in summer 2023, which prohibits the dissemination of information that ‘’contradicts family values’’ or ‘’promotes non-traditional sexual relations’’ under the guise of protecting children.
Pressure on independent news services
The government has repeatedly used a controversial law on protection against ‘’false’’ information to block access to independent news sites and carried out wider campaigns aimed at closingdown two leading independent media services: Radio Azattyk, the local service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Kloop news portal. While Radio Azattyk eventually reached a settlement with the government in July 2023 that enabled it to continue its operations in Kyrgyzstan, Kloop is currently facing the threat of closure. The August 2023 request by prosecutors to close down Kloop focuses on the allegedly ‘’negative’’ nature of the platform’s coverage and its ‘’sharp criticism’’ of government policies. This makes it clear that the request has been made in retaliation for the platform’s coverage of human rights issues, government corruption and other topics which are inconvenient to those in power. The trial against Kloop began in September 2023.
Intimidation and harassment of critical voices
Civil society activists, journalists, bloggers and others who criticise the authorities have faced increasing intimidation and harassment in Kyrgyzstan, ranging from online threats to arrests and criminal prosecution.
The so-called Kempir-Abad case is of particular concern. In this case, close to 30 civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, political activists and former public officials 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 remain behind bars. The trial in the case is taking place behind closed doors despite the lack of compelling grounds for denying the defendants a public hearing. The lack of transparency of the trial has reinforced concerns about its unfair and politically motivated nature. If convicted, the defendants could face lengthy prison sentences.
A number of journalists and bloggers have recently been prosecuted because of social media posts which authorities claim contain ‘’false’’ information, with charges being initiated under criminal code provisions that provide for overly broad restrictions on freedom of expression. Among those targeted is journalist-writer Olzhobay Shakir, who was arrested in August 2023 for allegedly publishing ‘’provocative’’ social media posts containing calls for riots and disobedience to authorities. His arrest came after he announced his intention on social media to hold a peaceful protest against government plans to hand over property to Uzbekistan. Blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev faced similar charges after re-posting a video appeal in which a political rival of President Japarov spoke critically about the latter’s plans regarding the country’s largest iron ore deposit. Legal proceedings against him are under way. Journalist Taalaibek Duishenbiev is currently subject to three years’ probation after being convicted of inciting inter-national hatred in September 2022. These charges concerned social media comments reposted by his outlet, Next TV from a Ukrainian media outlet which suggested that Kyrgyzstan had agreed to provide military assistance to Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine.
In another development of serious concern, journalist Bolot Temirov was deported from Kyrgyzstan in November 2022 in apparent retaliation for his investigations into high-level government corruption. The Supreme Court upheld this decision in September 2023.
Blanket ban on peaceful protests in capital
A court-sanctioned ban on holding peaceful protests outside the Russian embassy, near the presidential and parliament building, and in other central areas of the capital Bishkek has been in force for over 1,5 years. The ban was first introduced in spring 2022 following a request from the Russian embassy to put a stop to protests held outside its premises after the launch of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. The ban, which is not consistent with Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations to protect peaceful assembly, has been repeatedly used by police to justify detentions of peaceful protesters.
IPHR and LPF urge the EU to raise the issues summarised above as a matter of priority during the Human Rights Dialogue with Kyrgyzstan. The EU should remind Kyrgyzstan of its legal obligation to effectively implement international human rights treaties not only as a party to such treaties but also as a beneficiary of the EU’s GSP+ scheme and stress that the failure to do so could result in Kyrgyzstan’s GSP+ benefits being re-assessed, as set out in the resolution on Kyrgyzstan adopted by the European Parliament on 13 July 2023. It is particularly important to convey this message in relation to the draft NGO and media laws currently under consideration given the serious threat they pose to civil society.