Kyrgyzstan: Activist Held For Opposing Flag Change, Says HRW

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Kyrgyz authorities have brought a criminal case against an activist and blogger, Aftandil Jorobekov, after he publicly opposed and called for protests against the government’s proposal to alter the country’s flag, Human Rights Watch said today. The charges, which include calling for mass unrest, violate his freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly.

On December 7, 2023, Kyrgyz authorities searched Jorobekov’s home, confiscated equipment, including multiple laptop computers and phones, and detained him for allegedly “calling for active disobedience to the authorities’ legal demands and for mass riots, as well as calling for violence against citizens.” This followed a video he posted the previous day to his media accounts criticizing the government. On December 8, a Bishkek court sent him for two months of pretrial detention. If convicted, he faces up to eight years in prison on charges of “mass unrest” under article 278, part 3 of Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code.

“Jorobekov should not be facing criminal prosecution for opposing a government initiative or calling for peaceful protests, all protected forms of expression,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyz authorities should drop the charges and release Jorobekov immediately.”

In late September, legislators proposed changing elements of Kyrgyzstan’s flag, contending that the sun on the flag could be confused with a sunflower. The proposal garnered widespread criticism, with some politicians saying that other, more vital issues need to be addressed, and others raising the financial burden entailed in modifying the flag.

On November 29 parliament adopted the bill in its first reading. The bill passed a second and third reading on December 20. It is now awaiting the president’s signature.

Jorobekov, 39, is a civic activist and the administrator of Bespredel.kg social media accounts, which have over 125,000 followers. He is known for his criticism of the authorities and their handling of socio-political issues in the country.

In the video posted to his Facebook page on December 6, Jorobekov expressed his discontent about the flag proposal and criticized the lack of socioeconomic progress in the country. He also said that he was planning to hold a peaceful protest against the flag change at Gorkiy Square in Bishkek on December 9.

A state-commissioned linguistic analysis of the video and accompanying comments concluded that the language in his post was aimed at “overthrowing the current authorities,” and “creating mass unrest” in society. Jorobekov’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he considers the charges “patently absurd.”

Jorobekov had earlier announced a motor rally against changing the flag. On December 2, Bishkek police summoned him for interrogation about the motor rally, which he had planned for December 3. As he was leaving the police station, the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) took him for interrogation again. The authorities then banned the motor rally.

Jorobekov’s arrest takes place against the backdrop of a deteriorating human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch said. Parliament is considering several draft laws that would significantly curtail fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly.

“Criticizing the government and calling for peaceful protest is not the equivalent of stoking mass unrest, and it is certainly not criminal,” Sultanalieva said. “Kyrgyz authorities should drop this absurd case against Jorobekov and uphold his right to free speech and peaceful assembly.”

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