For much of the 1990's Kyrgyzstan was described as an "island of democracy" in a region with corrupt and repressive political leaders. But after the country's first decade of independence following the breakup of the Soviet Union, its government, under President Askar Akaev, appeared to tighten its grip on power at the expense of fundamental rights. Kyrgyzstan, a country of 4.75 million people with few natural resources, received minimal attention from the United States government prior to the Bush administration's declaration of a global campaign against terrorism and the decision to base U.S. troops at Kyrgyzstan's Manas airbase.
Kyrgyzstan's human rights record has steadily worsened since 2000, the year of presidential and parliamentary elections. Official actions in the past year indicate that the government's new relationship with the U.S. may have emboldened it, allowing it to suppress political opposition leaders without fear of diplomatic consequence.
Kyrgyzstan today has serious human rights problems. The Akaev government has shown marked intolerance for political opposition, lodging politically motivated criminal charges against its rivals and critics. The right to freedom of assembly has been violated repeatedly, most dramatically in March 2002, when police opened fire on protesters, killing at least five people. In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan's aggressive stance against independent Islam began increasingly to resemble that of neighboring Uzbekistan, as dozens of non-violent Muslim believers have been rounded up, physically mistreated, and thrown into Kyrgyz jails.
In the lead-up to the October 2000 presidential elections, government authorities ensured the exclusion from the ballot of President Akaev's most prominent rival, Feliks Kulov. The National Security Service (SNB) arrested Kulov, head of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party on March 29, 2000 on trumped-up charges of abuse of office related to his time as head of the SNB. A military tribunal acquitted him in August 2000. The prosecutor's office appealed the acquittal, and one month later-just after Kulov announced his intent to run against Akaev in the presidential elections-police again arrested him. In January 2001, a court sentenced Kulov to seven years of imprisonment; in July, new charges of embezzlement were brought.
Kulov remains Kyrgyzstan's most high-profile political prisoner today. In addition to serving as SNB head, Kulov had also been vice president of Kyrgyzstan, governor of the Chui province, and mayor of Bishkek, the nation's capital. He lost his bid for a seat in parliament under highly suspicious circumstances prior to being arrested in 2000.
Police arrested Azimbek Beknazarov, a popular member of parliament and chair of its judiciary committee, on January 5, 2002 on charges of failure to investigate a murder dating from 1995, when Beknazarov worked as a procuracy investigator in the southern Jalal Abad province. Beknazarov supporters and other opposition activists contend that his arrest was motivated by the Akaev government's interest in silencing his criticism of the decision to cede to China land that had been the subject of contention between the two states for years. The land decision was especially unpopular in southern Kyrgyzstan. Beknazarov had also actively voiced his view that President Akaev should face impeachment proceedings over the land issue. U.S. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said at a briefing on March 19, 2002, that the U.S. government was concerned that "Mr. Beknazarov's arrest appears to have been politically motivated."
Following a trial allegedly marred by gross procedural violations, Beknazarov was due to be sentenced on March 18, 2002. Mass demonstrations shook Jalal Abad province on the eve of his sentencing. On May 24, a court handed down a one-year suspended sentence and stripped him of his seat in parliament. In June, an appeals court upheld the conviction but annulled the sentence, restoring his parliamentary mandate.
Police Violence Against Demonstrators: Five Killed
On March 17, 2002, at Kerben, in Aksy district in southern Jalal Abad province, police blocked marchers protesting the prosecution of Beknazarov. At one point, police began beating people in the crowd and reportedly grabbed Tursunbek Akunov, chair of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan. Demonstrators demanded that police release Akunov and allegedly began throwing stones. Without giving the protesters sufficient time to disband, the police opened fire, killing at least five protesters and wounding many more.
The U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and preservation of human life respected.
A government commission, headed by Oksana Malevanaia, chair of the parliamentary committee for human rights, issued a report on the Aksy events. The report concluded that an excessive police presence was employed to stop what was a legal public demonstration and that officers used excessive force when they shot live ammunition into the crowd. The commission found that five civilians died from gunshot wounds inflicted by the police, and that out of twenty-nine civilians injured, sixteen suffered bullet wounds. Unconfirmed media reports noted the death of a sixth civilian, injured by police during continued unrest on March 18. According to initial reports by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, forty-seven police officers were injured during the protests; the commission report noted that three had been hospitalized.
In an apparent effort to shift the blame from the officers responsible for the killings, Minister of Internal Affairs Temirbek Akmataliev suggested that the violence was in fact a coup attempt on the part of the political opposition, which had "embarked on [a] course of political extremism."
Shortly after the shootings in Jalal Abad, Human Rights Watch called for the creation of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate incidents of police violence against demonstrators.
Limits on the Right to Free Assembly
Throughout the year, the government tried to arbitrarily limit public demonstrations. In September, the government attempted to introduce a bill in parliament calling for a three-month moratorium on all public demonstrations. It later withdrew the bill.
In the months following the March demonstrations, police arrested between seven and ten people whom they claim organized the demonstrations, on charges that they had spearheaded "mass disturbances."
In an apparent attempt to discredit the political opposition's engagement in public assembly, the Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed that opposition political parties had paid people to take part in the Jalal Abad marches.
In May, security forces in Bishkek arrested an estimated ninety peaceful demonstrators as they gathered for a planned protest outside the parliament building. Law enforcement officers appeared to particularly target members of Ar-Namys, who were among the demonstrators. Police charged the would-be demonstrators with "violating public order;" most were subsequently released.
Persecution of Human Rights Defenders
In 2002 the Akaev government hounded numerous human rights defenders. Tursunbek Akunov, chair of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan was reportedly a particular target of police harassment during the Aksy protests in March. As noted above, protesters claim that Akunov was held by police during the demonstrations. Shortly after the shootings, Minister of Internal Affairs Temirbek Akmataliev had the temerity to blame Akunov himself and for the five deaths. According to the BBC, on March 19 he said, "I think that today with all responsibility we can say that the blame for the blood of the deceased lies on Tursunbek Akunov and his associates."
Akunov was again detained when police broke up the planned May 2002 protest in Bishkek described above. Others detained in that incident included Ramazan Dyryldaev, chair of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR), and Alexander Fomenko, Mamasadyk Jakyshev, and Kachkyn Bulatov, also of the KCHR.
Among the seven individuals charged in relation to the Aksy demonstrations was Kadyrkul Omurbekov, who had been working to defend the rights of victims of the Aksy violence and their relatives.
For the past three years Kyrgyz authorities have manipulated registration procedures to keep tighter control of the media and have harassed independent newspapers through civil defamation suits in some cases seeking damages awards that would bankrupt the papers. Authorities have also pursued criminal libel suits against government critics.
Among those charged with criminal libel this year is poet Asanbai Jusupbekov. In February the authorities charged him with "spreading false information" (criminal code article 329) when he informed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), that parlimentarian Azimbek Beknazarov had been beaten in custody. Jusupbekov had visited Beknazarov in detention shortly before he made the report. According to PEN International, Jusupbekov subsequently went into hiding. After his release Beknazarav reported that he had indeed been beaten.
Samagan Orozaliev, a television journalist, remains in prison at this writing on what appear to be politically motivated charges. Police arrested in Jalal Abad province in May 2001 when he was investigating allegations of local corruption for a documentary film. In November a court sentenced him to nine years of imprisonment for extortion, forgery, and illegal possession of a weapon.
In January 2002, the government issued Decree No. 20, which would have further eroded media freedoms. The government subsequently rescinded the decree after an outcry from the international community. The decree drew up a series of burdensome restrictions on the right to publish and disseminate materials. Among the most onerous was the requirement that all printing equipment (broadly defined to include even copy machines) be registered with the state and strictly monitored by state agencies.
The decree also revealed the government's attempt to censor independent religious thought. This was made explicit in the decree's introduction, which stated that it was intended "to prevent subversive ideological and propagandizing activities by various extremist religious centers and [to prevent]...their informational impact...."
The decree referred to unspecified religious publications as having an "anti-state character" and characterized their dissemination as "propaganda and subversive activities." To this end, the decree called on certain state agencies to regulate the number of religious groups and to conduct their own propaganda campaign to counter the "unlawful activities of various religious movements."
Religious Persecution in Kyrgyzstan
The Kyrgyz government has begun to arrest Muslims whose beliefs it rejects. Although the scale of arrests is not yet the same, the policy disturbingly appeared to be mimicking that of Kyrgyzstan's neighbor, Uzbekistan, which has imprisoned about 7, 000 independent Muslims in the recent years. Such arrests directly violate practitioners fundamental right to religious freedom.
The majority of Muslims affected by the new repression are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, (Party of Liberation), a non-violent Islamic organization with a strict interpretation of the Koran, that advocates restoration of the Islamic Caliphate.
Most Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Kyrgyzstan are ethnic Uzbeks. They are subject to fines, suspended sentences, or relatively brief stints in prison as punishment for what should be protected religious beliefs and activities. After the 1999 and 2000 armed incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) into Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz courts began more actively to hand down prison sentences to Hizb ut-Tahrir members. In the year since September 11 the government again increased arrests of Hizb ut-Tahrir members and other independent Muslims, justifying the arrests as necessary to counter "extremism," prosecuting them under reworked Soviet laws that criminalize a vaguely defined "incitement to racial enmity," and directing courts to hand down harsh and lengthy terms in prison. The result has been dozens of illegal arrests and convictions, police mistreatment of religious dissidents, and an ever-expanding rift in society between independent religious adherents and followers of state-sponsored Islam.