KYRGYZSTAN: ‘True freedom cannot be granted by external forces; it needs to be claimed by people’

TolekanIsmailovaCIVICUS speaks about the restrictive conditions for civil society in Kyrgyzstan with Tolekan Ismailova, founding president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society and director of the human rights movement One World-Kyrgyzstan (Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan, BDK).

Founded in 2000, BDK is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at establishing an effective human rights monitoring system and encouraging the civil participation of young people and marginalised groups.

What is the relationship like between government and civil society in Kyrgyzstan?

The government has long been very hostile towards civil society. I recall the harassment and persecution faced by CSOs during my tenure as president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, which we set up to contribute to the transparency and fairness of elections, strengthen the rule of law and protect human rights in the Kyrgyz Republic.

When we initiated comprehensive and impartial civic education programmes spanning from local communities to national levels, as well as independent monitoring of every stage of the electoral process, a large-scale smear campaign was orchestrated against us through state TV, radio and other media channels. CSO offices were subjected to attacks and their members faced intimidation, harassment and physical violence.

Moreover, the authorities established a parallel organisation, the Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, whose members were in fact government-organised NGOs (GONGOs), with the sole purpose of discrediting active citizens and independent civil society leaders and organisations.

In 1999, Kaliya Moldogazieva, the director of the Institute for Environmental Protection, was dismissed for publishing a newspaper article about pollution in Issyk-Kul Lake caused by the activities of a Canadian mining company, which had been contaminating local waters and glaciers while hiding evidence from public scrutiny in collusion with the Kyrgyz authorities. Ever since she founded a CSO, Tree of Life, Kaliya has faced government attacks to discredit her findings and expertise.

Attacks against her have been part of a government-led campaign against women human rights defenders, particularly those pushing for transparency and respect for human rights in mining companies’ operations. We were subjected to widespread hate speech in the media and open discriminatory humiliation by former president Almazbek Atambayev, who ruled between 2011 and 2017. We brought lawsuits against him but the courts dismissed them following processes that lacked all fair trial guarantees.

Have you been able to hold authorities accountable for human rights violations?

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz Republic has struggled to hold the authorities accountable due to the absence of an independent judiciary, high levels of political corruption and the dominance of the family and clan system.

It has therefore been extremely challenging to seeking redress for victims of human rights violations. For example, women from five villages who were subjected to forced abortions as the result of a 1998 cyanide accident caused by the activities of the Kumtor goldmine are still fighting for justice and compensation.

Another notorious case is that of Azimzhan Askarov, a prominent human rights defender and prisoner of conscience. He was arbitrarily detained in 2010 while documenting inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in prison in 2020 after being denied timely and adequate medical care. BDK has fought for his rights for 13 years, but his case remains unresolved because the Kyrgyz authorities overlooked our court petitions and the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Committee regarding justice restoration and compensation for Askarov’s family. Their inaction further perpetuates a climate of impunity in Kyrgyzstan.

Has anything changed in recent years?

Following independence, Kyrgyz authorities have maintained close economic ties with Russian oligarchs and have established a family-clan system that hindered the growth of independent media, civil society and democratic political parties. Unlike in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, security agencies in Kyrgyzstan have not been reformed and, as is also the case in Russia, they are the direct continuation of the former KGB.

Unfortunately, waves of mobilisations in reaction to corruption and authoritarianism that rose in 2005 and 2010 didn’t bring about positive change. Instead, the persecution of independent mass media and CSOs led to a growing atmosphere of political corruption and impunity.

Law enforcement institutions are instrumentalised by the government. They receive technical assistance from Russia and China, which further makes them punitive institutions. This includes the State Committee for National Security, the national agency responsible for intelligence on counterterrorism and organised crime.

Bills are being introduced to enable censorship and limit the exercise of freedoms of association and expression. Independent investigative journalists, such as Bolot Temirov, are being expelled from the country.

Several restrictive laws have been imported from China and Russia. For instance, we got our own versions of the Russian laws on combating extremism and terrorism and on ‘foreign agents’. The latter, called the ‘foreign representatives’ law in the Kyrgyz Republic, was initiated by the president in 2022 and is now being discussed in parliament. Its aim is to increase control over CSOs.

Once it’s passed, the Ministry of Justice and the General Prosecutor’s Office will be able to ensure that CSOs align their activities with Kyrgyz legislation by examining internal documents, inspecting offices and sending representatives to participate in CSOs’ internal activities. If there are violations, these state bodies will be able to request a court to dissolve a CSO. The proposed law also requires CSOs to register with the Ministry of Justice, and any organisation failing to do so will face dissolution.

Additionally, the draft law prohibits foreign citizens from establishing CSOs. It introduces the concept of ‘foreign non-profit nongovernmental organisation’ and outlines procedures for scrutiny of these. Foreign and international CSOs would need to disclose information about their projects and obtain permission from the Ministry of Justice to be granted foreign CSO status, while the authorities would be able to refuse registration or order liquidation on vague grounds.

Do you think the bill is likely to pass?

The authorities are determined to pass it despite warnings from experts, human rights activists and independent media, as well as concerns raised by international partners about the potential threat to democracy and the negative impact on the country’s international reputation.

The authorities have an international obligation to safeguard and advance the rights of citizens to freedom of association. They should adhere to two fundamental principles of non-interference and creating favourable conditions. First, the state must refrain from intervening in the exercise of the right to freedom of association. And second, it should create an environment conducive to the functioning of CSOs. This involves ensuring the freedom to join or leave an organisation, the autonomy to define membership criteria, protection from interference in internal affairs, and the right to freely seek, receive and use financial, material and human resources. It is important to simplify regulatory requirements to avoid excessive burdens, facilitate access to resources and help address the challenges faced by CSOs. The authorities should also engage in consultations with civil society prior to enacting any laws, policies or practices regarding the activities of CSOs.

BDK filed a Constitutional Court in June 2021 seeking to have the bill declared unconstitutional, but the Court’s decision was ambiguous and inconclusive.

In the meantime, some CSOs are working to find alternatives, but unfortunately there is a gap in engagement with local communities that allows the authorities to manipulate public opinion through state media, promoting ‘patriotism’ and misleading people by portraying western values as a threat to national traditions and customs. They label us as ‘foreign agents’ and accuse us of undermining traditional family values.

So BDK is trying to bridge this gap by working closely with community leaders in their preferred languages, including Kyrgyz and Uzbek. Through the innovative platform of the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, known as ‘One World-Kyrgyzstan’, BDK encourages the active participation of women and young people in the ‘Art and Human Rights’ theme. This approach aims to promote awareness and understanding of human rights issues in the Kyrgyz Republic.

BDK and Solidarity Partner Network are also developing a campaign aimed at safeguarding freedom of association and freedom of speech in seven regions of the Kyrgyz Republic. Our belief is that true freedom cannot be granted by external forces but needs to be claimed by people.

What forms of international support does Kyrgyzstan need to open up civic space?

International organisations must reconsider their approach to dealing with authoritarian governments. They must demand transparency and accountability for all investments made in the Kyrgyz Republic. They must urge the Kyrgyz authorities to fulfil their international obligations and agreements, specifically by respecting and expanding the political space for civil society and promoting democratic reforms.

Additionally, international organisations should advocate for compliance with international principles of humanitarian law and support the involvement of independent justice in cases of crime of aggression, while endorsing the decision made by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the authorities of the Russian Federation. A unified effort against impunity for human rights violators is crucial, and it is essential to apply sanctions against such violators.

In sum, this is the time for global solidarity networks to support Kyrgyz civil society’s efforts to force parliament to reject the ‘foreign representatives’ bill and promote the ratification of the ICC’s Rome statute by the Kyrgyz state.

Civic space in Kyrgyzstan is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @BirDuinoEnglish and @TolekanI on Twitter.



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