February 14, 2005
President Askar Akaev
Prospekt Chuy, 205
Dear President Akaev,
We are writing to express concern about several developments surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s forthcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for February 27.
Regrettably, a series of troubling statements made by you and other government leaders seems designed to intimidate and impugn civil society activists and members of the political opposition. Government statements have treated the opposition as “extremists” and accused independent and opposition-affiliated media of subversion. Your government has also suggested that mass popular movements are merely creations of the West and has dismissed the concerns of these movements. These statements reject the ‘Ukraine scenario’ and at the same time degrade the idea of human rights. In Georgia and Ukraine popular movements used peaceful and democratic means to reverse the outcome of illegitimate and unfair elections and to ensure that the will of the people determined the make-up of the government.
In addition, a number of statements about mass protests seem aimed at undercutting the legitimacy of freedom of assembly and at intimidating critics of your government. Especially disturbing are reports of statements that you made claiming that human rights are internal affairs and questioning the legitimacy of election observers.
We have appended to this letter examples of such statements, which have created an atmosphere hostile to the exercise of people’s rights in advance of the election.
New legislation on demonstrations and recent, undue government interference in peaceful protests restrict freedom of assembly. The government’s refusal to register several opposition candidates appears to be politically motivated. Voices critical of the government have been silenced or marginalized in the media. Law enforcement and other government officials appear to be intimidating opposition political activists and civil society actors through petty harassment.
The above calls into question the government of Kyrgyzstan’s willingness to fulfill its human rights obligations under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; acceded to by Kyrgyzstan in 1994). That provision enshrines each citizen’s rights “To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;” and “To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electorate.” Government actions and pronouncements have also provided reason to regard the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, articles 19, 21, and 22 of the ICCPR respectively, to be at risk in Kyrgyzstan.
This letter details these concerns and offers concrete recommendations for steps your government can take to improve the situation.
Exclusion of Would-be Candidates
One of the amendments to the Election Code, signed into law on January 24, 2004, establishes a residency requirement of five years for would-be parliamentary candidates. This new provision, article 69-1, appears to be an unreasonable restriction on the right to political participation, specifically enacted to exclude opposition candidates who have served in government posts abroad.
The new requirement stipulates that anyone wishing to run for office must prove residency in Kyrgyzstan for the five years leading up to elections; six months of each year can be spent abroad, however. (For the first time, this year Kyrgyz citizens living abroad will not be permitted to vote in the parliamentary election.)
Election officials have cited the new residence requirement in denying the registration of several would-be candidates from the political opposition who had been serving as ambassadors abroad. The amendment has the effect of penalizing these leaders for the public service they have done representing their country abroad. It also ignores diplomatic convention that diplomatic representations abroad are sovereign territory of the represented state.
An eleventh-hour attempt by some in parliament to reverse the restrictions foundered on January 18 and then passed on January 20, and was sent to you for your signature. Under this measure, former diplomats who submitted their documents to the relevant electoral commission before the January 18 deadline for submission of nominations presumably would have been registered. But in an interview on January 28 you announced that you would not sign the measure.
Human Rights Watch is aware of the details of at least three cases in which this restriction has barred the registration of individuals representing opposition parties or movements.
● Roza Otunbaeva
Roza Otunbaeva is the co-chair of the Ata-Zhurt (Fatherland) political movement. Otunbaeva is a former minister of foreign affairs and prime minister, and has served as ambassador to the United States and Canada, and to the United Kingdom.
On January 7, Otunbaeva was denied registration as a candidate for parliament on the grounds that she allegedly was not a permanent resident of Kyrgyzstan for the five years leading up to the election. In its decision, the District Election Commission cited article 56 of the Constitution and article 69-1 of Kyrgyzstan’s Election Code. Otunbaeva has argued that she remained a registered resident of Kyrgyzstan even while living and working abroad. The Lenin District Court found against Otunbaeva, and her appeal before the Supreme Court, in which she argued that embassies and diplomatic spaces abroad should be considered part of the territory of Kyrgyzstan, was rejected on January 18.
The denial of Otunbaeva’s registration raises additional concern that election authorities sought to eliminate potential rivals to your daughter, Bermet Akaeva, in her parliamentary race. Akaeva, registered on January 20, and Otunbaeva would have been direct rivals for a seat in parliament representing the same district.
● Usen Sydykov
On January 10, election officials denied registration to Usen Sydykov, a leading member of the Kyrgyzstan People’s Movement, also citing the residence requirement. Sydykov formerly served as Kyrgyzstan’s envoy to the CIS.
Sydykov was also deregistered as a candidate in the 2003 parliamentary by-elections for a seat in Kara-Kulja, in the Jalal Abad province. After a dispute over the first round of voting in which he participated (he claimed a majority of votes while government figures declared his opponent the winner) a runoff vote was called for; but before it took place Sydykov was disqualified on the grounds that he failed to provide proof that you had given him permission to take a leave from his job as envoy to the CIS in order to run for office. He was also accused of failing to report some of his property and assets on his application.
● Medetkan Sherimkulov
Sherimkulov is a former ambassador of Kyrgyzstan to Turkey and also served as speaker of parliament in the mid-1990s. He was a candidate for president in the 1995 elections. On January 8 the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) denied Sherimkulov registration to run for parliament, citing the residency requirement.
● Bolotbek Maripov
The case of Maripov, a journalist and editor for the privately owned newspaper Obshchestveni Reiting (Public Poll), also suggests a political motivation for the residency restrictions. On January 19 Maripov was denied registration as a candidate for parliament on the grounds that he did not have a Bishkek city residency permit in his passport for seven months (February to September) in 2003. The election commission decided that a long-term gap in the permit amounted to a violation of article 69-1 of the new Election Code, the same law used to disqualify former diplomats from standing for office. Maripov explained that he had been without a permit for several months because he was living with his parents during this period while looking for an apartment to purchase. He argued that article 69-1 of the code requires residency in the country and does not mention issues of city housing registration. He provided evidence that he had been residing in Kyrgyzstan for the entire period in question. Although initially rejected, Maripov appealed and won his registration in the Universitetski district on January 24.
Freedom of Assembly
The ICCPR provides for freedom of assembly and specifies that: “No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” Thus, while some restriction is foreseen as permissible, states are not supposed to restrict the right in such a way that nullifies or destroys the right itself. New government proposals to amend the law on public assemblies, taken together with recent statements by government leaders and the unjustified interference with peaceful demonstration in the past, raise concern that this right may be in jeopardy, particularly in the lead-up to and aftermath of the election.
New Draft Law and Decree Restricting Freedom of Assembly
In October 2004 Kyrgyzstan’s Constitutional Court ruled that the existing law on public assemblies was facilitating the violation of citizens’ right to peaceful assembly and must be nullified and replaced with one that is in compliance with the constitution. However, the new draft law “On Making Amendments and Additions to the Law of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan on the Right of Citizens to Gather Peacefully and Without Arms, and to Conduct Rallies and Demonstrations” proposed by your government on November 23, 2004 and currently before the Kyrgyz parliament, if adopted, would represent a serious setback to freedom of assembly in Kyrgyzstan, creating unnecessary and unwarranted restrictions on this right.
The amendments would ban public gatherings, regardless of size, that are “adjacent to” (the exact distance is left undefined) the residences of the president and prime minister, the parliament, court buildings, and prisons; yet these are important symbolic venues for people seeking to have their grievances heard by the government. While article 21 of the ICCPR grants governments latitude to restrict the timing and place of demonstrations to meet the demands of public order, the amendments in this regard appear overly broad and likely to unjustifiably infringe on the right to freedom of assembly.
If this law is accepted, protest meetings also will not be allowed to begin before 8:00 a.m. or continue past 11:00 in the evening. This appears aimed at preventing mass campouts or prolonged protests, but could also be used to unreasonably restrict other public gatherings that do not pose a challenge to public order.
Of even greater concern are the proposed rules on notification. At first glance the proposed amendments appear to comply with the Constitutional Court’s ruling by requiring prior “notification” for demonstrations, rather than explicit permission. However, a closer reading clearly indicates that under the proposed amendments prior government permission is still required for public gatherings. The proposed amendments would make it illegal to hold public meetings, demonstrations and rallies in venues without notifying local government authorities in writing at least nine days in advance. Within six days the government is then obligated to “inform the event organizers in writing about the lack of objections” to the event. This proposal constitutes an unreasonable restriction, as it eliminates the possibility of spontaneous or quickly organized protests.
New Ordinance for Bishkek
We are concerned about further restrictions on demonstrations in Bishkek, which are more likely to attract the attention of the media and diplomatic community and to involve the leadership of opposition parties and movements.
On January 13 the Bishkek City Council issued a decree requiring organizers of all public gatherings to “notify” the city administration at least ten days prior to an event. To register, one has to provide a written request listing the name of the organization, names, home addresses, work addresses of the group’s representatives, a map of any march route, the date and time of the event, and the approximate number of participants. This appears to be tantamount to a licensing regime in parallel with the draft national law on assembly before the parliament.
The decree also states that city authorities should “recommend” that organizers hold all of their public meetings in Pervomaiski district, in the square near the Maxim Gorky monument in central Bishkek. Some authorities seem to have interpreted this as a requirement. For instance, as early as January 14 one rights defender reported that law enforcement officers cited the decree and told a small group of protestors outside a government building in Bishkek that public gatherings could now only be held in the square near the Maxim Gorky monument.
Restrictions in Practice
Because Kyrgyz law enforcement authorities have engaged in a pattern of suppressing peaceful demonstrations by the political opposition, but allowing others to take place, we are concerned that authorities may apply the amendments under consideration and the Bishkek ordinance in a discriminatory manner. For example, in 2004 demonstrations such as one protesting the work of the Renton group, a company that allegedly defrauded investors, and even a protest in which people allegedly publicly burned signs and threw condoms at officials during a demonstration against a sex-education text, were allowed to proceed. Yet rallies that support the political opposition, such as those in support of imprisoned Ar-Namys (Dignity) party leader Feliks Kulov, are not similarly tolerated.
For the past few years, Kyrgyz law enforcement have developed a record of unjustifiably breaking up such demonstrations. For instance, police used force against small groups of protesters peacefully demanding justice for their relatives killed by police in the 2002 Aksy demonstration. On several occasions in 2003 officers forcibly removed people who had come to Bishkek to protest, transporting them back to their home cities in the south. In May 2003, Bishkek police shoved a group of women onto buses and held them in police detention when they attempted to rally on behalf of the dead and wounded victims of Aksy. Police have also used force detaining seasoned civil society activists engaged in peaceful public assembly. In April 2004, one officer punched an activist after detaining her at a rally—she had attended the rally as part of a project to assess the degree of freedom of assembly in Kyrgyzstan.
As parliamentary elections near, state authorities have already taken action against the organizers of political opposition rallies.
Recent examples involve the organizers of rallies in support of Roza Otunbaeva, the opposition leader who was denied registration as a candidate for parliament. Beginning January 8, supporters of Otunbaeva gathered outside parliament in Bishkek to protest her exclusion as illegal and unconstitutional and call for her registration as a candidate. Approximately 200 people, including leading opposition members of parliament, took part in the protest gatherings.
The public gatherings at first went smoothly, even when, on January 10, about 100 counter-protestors were reportedly bused to the site, where they voiced their support for the president and called for parliament to resign. But following a particularly large demonstration held near the Gorky monument on January 19 involving about 400 people, authorities took action against some of the most prominent critics of the government who had appeared at the rally. Administrative charges were brought against Topchubek Turgunaliev, a human rights defender and leader of the Erkindik party, Ishengul Boljurova, co-chair of the Kyrgyzstan People’s Movement, and Roza Otunbaeva. The political opposition activists were accused of disturbing public order during a rally or procession (administrative code article 392), violating traffic rules (administrative code article 247), and disobeying the orders of a representative of the state (administrative code article 371) during the course of the January 19 public meeting. All three were tried in January in separate hearings and each fined the equivalent to ten times the monthly minimum wage (1,000 som, or about U.S. 24 dollars).
Pressure to Join a Pro-government Party
Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports, including from credible non-partisan groups, that the new pro-government party Alga, Kyrgyzstan! (Forward, Kyrgyzstan!), reportedly run by Bermet Akaeva, compelled people paid from the state budget—teachers, doctors, government officials, students—to become members of the party, under threat of losing their jobs or being deprived future benefits.
The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) recently reported allegations that university students in Bishkek were coerced into forming initiative groups and gathering thousands of signatures in support of Akaeva’s candidacy for parliament. This campaign came on the heels of months of mobilization of teachers and others in academia on behalf of the Alga, Kyrgyzstan! party.
The students’ signatures were submitted to the district election commission on January 17. Two days later, your government raised government stipends for students by thirty percent and raised the salaries of employees of cultural and educational institutions, including teachers and administrators. This created the impression that the increase in state benefits was somehow conditional upon student and teacher support of Akaeva.
Intimidation and Harassment of Opposition Politicians and Civil Society Activists
Acts of petty vandalism and harassment of NGO leaders, opposition politicians, and persons associated with them may signal a campaign to intimidate and silence critics of your government in advance of the election.
● On the night of January 9, unknown persons vandalized the homes of opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov and Roza Otunbaeva, as well as leading civil society activists. Graffiti, including dollar signs, was painted on the sides of the homes of Tolekan Ismailova, head of the NGO Civil Society against Corruption, Natalia Ablova, director of the Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, and Jaypar Jeksheev, another human rights activist, as well as on the wall of the offices of Res Publica, an opposition-affiliated newspaper. The victims of the graffiti said they felt threatened by the incident. The dollar signs are presumably a reference to Western money and meant to suggest that these leading opposition and civil society activists receive funding from Western sources. The prospect of Western funding of the opposition in Kyrgyzstan has been publicly denounced by you and senior members of your government.
Several incidents involving police in Bishkek suggested that opposition deputies are being persecuted for their support of Otunbaeva and involvement in protests supporting her and others.
● According to the KCHR, on January 10 two men who identified themselves as police officers held and interrogated Talant Turgunaliev, the driver of opposition parliamentarian Bolotbek Sherniazov. The men, who said they were police, allegedly stopped Turgunaliev and drove him around in their own car, asking him questions about the recent opposition rallies. He told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) that the men asked him about the organizers of the recent protests, where protest signs and tents in the city square had come from and, “tried to frighten me saying I could be arrested for possession of drugs.” He reported that when he returned to his car, someone had planted a small amount of marijuana in the trunk and taken sixty-eight dollars. According to the KCHR report, the driver was released after being warned that police would do the same “to every opposition activist.”
● On January 11, officers pulled over the driver of opposition parliamentarian Zamirbek Parmankolov for a traffic violation and then impounded his car. The same day police impounded the car of opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov and accused his driver of driving while intoxicated. Beknazarov's driver, Jyrgal Jailobaev, told IWPR that police asked him to open the trunk of the car and that, “When I said that I would not open the car, the traffic police immediately drew up a report that I was drinking and driving, and took away my documents.”
Both Beknazarov and Sherniazov have been actively involved in protests supporting the candidacy of Roza Otunbaeva. A statement by the Bishkek police department alleged that their cars had been spotted near the recent protests blocking major streets.
● Rights group “Kylym Shamy” reported that the car of Kubanychbek Junushaliev, Roza Otunbaeva’s official representative, was also impounded by police in January. Bishkek police at first justified the action by alleging that it was a stolen vehicle, but later confiscated protest posters that were found in the car’s trunk. According to a report by MSN (formerly Moya Stolitsa-Novosti), an administrative case was opened against the driver for allegedly disobeying police orders.
The above incidents seem minor, but are significant given government actions in recent years to intimidate or marginalize the political opposition and civil society activists. For example, in January 2004 listening devices were found in the government offices of several leading opposition parliamentarians. A parliamentary report accused the National Security Service of illegally placing the listening devices; the National Security Service denied responsibility. The report revealed that prominent civil society leaders were also the targets of illegal surveillance operations during past years.
Also, for years the Ar-Namys (Dignity) party has been a particular target of government persecution. Members told Human Rights Watch they are regularly approached by government authorities or security agents and that attempts are made to convince or coerce them to quit the party. Some expressed fear of retribution for their political activities.
The continued incarceration of the party’s leader, Feliks Kulov, has had a chilling effect not only on members of Ar-Namys but for the political opposition in general. As you know, Feliks Kulov was arrested and acquitted in 2000 on charges of abuse of office. He was rearrested after he declared his intent to run for president in that year’s elections, and was tried in 2001 and sentenced to seven years in prison. He faced new charges in 2003, adding three years to his sentence. Human Rights Watch has written to the government previously to protest Kulov’s incarceration, which we believe is politically motivated.
As noted above, police are particularly quick to crack down on rallies in support of the political opposition, particularly those involving Ar-Namys members and calling for the release of Kulov.
Also relevant in this context is the November 16, 2004 abduction of rights defender and politician Tursbunbek Akunov, who was released December 1. Allegedly, the kidnappers’ only demand was that Akunov halt his campaign calling for your immediate resignation. Rather than conduct a thorough investigation, officials accused him of staging the kidnapping himself and twisted the incident to make it seem as though Akunov was plotting to make himself a martyr to facilitate a Georgian-style popular uprising.
Instead of undertaking a thorough and unbiased investigation into this serious crime, government officials launched a smear campaign against Akunov. In our letter to you on December 2, Human Rights Watch expressed our objection to outrageous statements made by members of the Kyrgyz government in attempt to shift the blame for the kidnapping of Akunov on the victim himself rather than his captors. Since our December 2 letter, National Security Service deputy chief Boris Poluektov gave an interview discussing the possibility that the opposition would provoke public unrest, in which he also alleged that parliamentary deputies were planning a “Georgian scenario.” In that interview he reportedly told Interfax, “Such actions as the kidnapping of a human rights defender, Tursunbek Akunov, were planned in advance in the interests of certain political forces.” Poluektov added, “Akunov's disappearance and statements by some opposition deputies, who argue that the results of the 2005 parliamentary elections will be falsified and voters are already being bribed, indicate the existence of such plans.”
Removing Critical Media
Human Rights Watch is concerned that critical voices were silenced in advance of the campaign period, which began February 2. While all candidates are given air time during the three-week campaign period, outside this brief interval the routine practice in the government-affiliated media is marginalization of the opposition. Of particular concern has been the opposition’s lack of access to television coverage while the government uses its influence on broadcast media to publicly smear opposition politicians and critics of government policy.
For years, the government or its allies have closely controlled television stations that broadcast nation-wide. The only exception was the Pyramida station, which occasionally broadcast content critical of the government. In 2004, a new group of investors said to be linked to your son, Aidar Akaev, took over a controlling interest in the station. [Aidar Akaev is also a candidate for parliament—he was registered on January 18—and is expected to run under the auspices of his sister’s party Alga, Kyrgyzstan!]. Media watchdog groups have told Human Rights Watch that they now fear Pyramida will no longer represent even a semi-independent source of news.
Because television is the main source of news information for most people in Kyrgyzstan, this decline in diversity in political content is a worrying development, particularly coming as it did in the lead-up to the election campaign.
Opposition politicians, including members of parliament, are given little or no coverage on television. When they are shown, it is often along with disparaging commentary. This lack of access to the television media has crippled the political opposition’s ability to project to the public its message and program.
The use of television to smear the opposition appears to be especially prevalent. Koort TV—one of a half-dozen media holdings rumored to be controlled by your son-in-law Adil Toigonbaev—is particularly strident in its criticism of the opposition and is known to broadcast programs ridiculing and discrediting rights defenders and opposition parliamentarians. A representative of an international watchdog group who monitors media coverage told Human Rights Watch that Koort TV does not lose an opportunity to denounce the opposition.
Independent and opposition-affiliated print media have been the target of repeated government harassment and persecution. Their struggles to realize their right to publish critical content has been well-documented. Representatives of independent newspapers have told Human Rights Watch that the new independent printing press established with the help of U.S. government assistance has improved the situation for them and is in many ways a success. We welcome this progress and the end to the arbitrary interference with newspaper publication that took place when the state-run printing press was the only option. However, the government appears to be employing heavy-handed lawsuits and new tactics to silence critical print media.
In a recent example, antimonopoly laws were used to penalize a leading independent newspaper. The government newspaper Vecherny Bishkek, along with several other private and pro-government newspapers and the state printing house “Uchkun,” filed a complaint against the independent newspaper MSN, formerly known as Moya Stolitsa-Novosti. The complaint, filed with the government’s antimonopoly agency, said that MSN was charging too little for its newspaper, thereby undercutting the competition. The anti-monopoly department of the Ministry of Economy and Development, Industry and Trade ruled on September 29, 2004 that MSN had committed “monopolistic actions,” ordered the paper to raise its prices, and recommended that the complainants sue the paper for damages.
On December 3, 2004, O. Juravlev of the Department for Anti-monopoly Policy under the Ministry of Economy and Development, Industry and Trade wrote to the Oktiabrski district procurator’s office in Bishkek asking that a criminal case be opened against the editors of MSN under Criminal Code article 188, which punishes monopolistic activity and carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and confiscation of property.
Recommendations for Improvement
We urge you to take immediate and concrete steps to improve the protection of basic rights in Kyrgyzstan, in order to create a fairer pre-election environment and to fulfill Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations.
As a matter of priority, we call on you to undertake the following:
● Reaffirm your government’s commitment to the ICCPR, particularly article 25, the right to political participation, and also the basic rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association provided for in articles 19, 21, and 22 respectively.
● Withdraw the current draft law on assembly proposed by your government and instead introduce one that is in keeping with the constitution of Kyrgyzstan and the country’s international human rights commitments.
● Withdraw excessive limits on places where people can assemble in Bishkek.
● Sign into law the reversal of the unreasonable restriction that prevents diplomats who worked abroad from running for office.
● Charge the relevant agencies to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation into the kidnapping of Tursunbek Akunov, including by looking into his allegations that persons affiliated with the National Security Service and Ministry of Internal Affairs were involved in the crime.
● Cooperate with local and international elections monitors and guarantee them unfettered access to polling places on election day.
● Cease harassment of opposition and civil society leaders.
Thank you for your attention to these matters at this critical time,
Acting Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia division