On the Establishment and Conduct of an Investigation into the Events of April 6-7
April 15, 2010

Human Rights Watch welcomes the April 8 statement by Roza Otunbaeva, head of the interim government, announcing the establishment of a commission to investigate the violent events of April 6-7. We are writing to share recommendations for a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation, because we believe such an investigation is essential to establish the truth, ensure justice for the victims, and hold perpetrators accountable.

To the best of our understanding, based on information Human Rights Watch received from your administration, the investigative commission has not yet started its work. We strongly believe that an investigation urgently needs to get under way while memories are still fresh and before valuable evidence is lost. We hope that the attached memorandum can help to inform the commission.

The memorandum describes standards for the conduct of the investigation itself, standards that the investigation should use when evaluating the conduct of police and security forces, and critical incidents the investigation should examine.

The interim government will need to establish the full scope of the investigation, though we understand that it will examine the circumstances that led to the deaths of at least 84 people and the injuring of more than 500. For this reason, we urge that the commission have competent expertise in forensics, ballistics, and crime scene investigation.

The investigation should establish as best as possible what happened and identify those responsible irrespective of which side they were on; its mandate should enable the commission to establish which if any deaths and damage were the result of human rights abuses committed by government forces.

We fully appreciate the enormity and complexity of the task before the interim government in reestablishing law and order in Kyrgyzstan. We urge to you make the commitment to a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation a high priority as you set about this task. We believe that such an investigation is indispensable to show that the interim government is serious about respecting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms and for a democratic restart in Kyrgyzstan. We hope that the interim government can work with the international community on such an investigation.

As we believe you are aware, in recent years Human Rights Watch has been concerned about the decline in the protection of human rights in Kyrgyzstan, particularly those that are fundamental for the development of civil society and that constitute the framework for free and fair elections. We sought a dialogue with the government under President Kurmanbek Bakiev and regularly notified that government of our growing concerns.

We welcome dialogue with the interim government and appreciate your attention to these vital issues.

Basic Chronology

As part of an initial inquiry, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 25 witnesses and victims to the events on April 6 and 7. Some of the findings are included in the chronology below. The findings are preliminary in nature and do not represent comprehensive or definitive conclusions. They do indicate which incidents, and aspects of incidents, need to be the subject of an in-depth investigation.

Clashes by the local administration building in Talas, April 6

On the morning on April 6, authorities in Talas detained Bolot Sherniyazov, deputy head of the Ata Meken Socialist Party, who had arrived in Talas to participate in a gathering planned for the next day. When about 150 supporters of Sherniyazov gathered in front of the local police station, the police authorities released him.

Sherniyazov and his supporters then proceeded to the local administration building. At around 2 pm a fight broke out when the governor of Talas went out to speak with the people who had gathered. Shortly thereafter, the crowd, which by that time had grown to between 500 and 600 people, broke into the administration building. By evening the number of protestors had risen to a couple of thousand.

In the early evening, two planes with about 100 riot police and five helicopters arrived in Talas. The riot police stormed the local administration that evening. According to witnesses, riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the crowd; they also took away the governor and Sherniyazov.

Shortly thereafter, however, protestors returned. Witnesses say that the crowd had become visibly more aggressive after the use of force by the police. They surrounded a group of riot police and started beating them. Protestors also torched the administration building. Throughout the evening, looters raided the administration building carrying away furniture, computers and other equipment. By around 4 am on April 7, the crowd had dispersed. 

According to information from the hospital obtained by the Talas representative for the ombudsman, 48 people sought medical treatment on April 6. Of the 48, 37 people were members of law-enforcement agencies.

Clashes at the local police station in Talas, April 7

Early in the morning on April 7, people started to gather again in front of the administration building. The crowd eventually grew to about 15,000. Some of the protestors went to the local police station to demand the release of Sherniyazov. A group of elders tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with the police authorities.

At around 2 pm, the protestors charged the building. Police opened fire with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, but they were quickly overrun by the demonstrators. Police fled the police station after the protesters threw Molotov cocktails. 

As the police were fleeing, some protestors attacked them, beating some severely, including then- Interior Minister Moldomulsa Kongatiyev, who had arrived that morning. Kongatiyev was captured by the crowd around 3 pm. He escaped the crowd only around 9 pm the same day after near-continuous ill-treatment. 

It is unclear whether police authorities used live ammunition during the events in Talas on April 6 and 7. According to the prosecutor of the Talas oblast, 111 people sought medical treatment in the aftermath. At least 67 of the injured were members of law-enforcement agencies while at least 41 were civilians.

Arrest of opposition leaders between late April 6 and early April 7

In the night of April 6, several opposition leaders, including Omurbek Tekebaev of the Ata Meken Socialist Party, Emil Kaptagaev secretary of the United National Movement, and Almaz Atambaev, former prime minister and chairman of the Social Democratic Party, were detained in Bishkek. Tekabaev's deputy, Duyshon Chotonov, and the ex-governor of Osh province, Anvar Artykov, were also taken into custody in Osh.

Gathering at the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party in Bishkek, April 7

On the morning on April 7, journalists, civil society activists and opposition members gathered at the headquarters of the Socialist Democratic Party in Bishkek to attend an announced press-conference. Having established a cordon around the headquarters, however, the police denied entry to most people who had gathered there to attend the press conference. According to eye-witnesses the people who had gathered at the headquarters were peaceful at that point.

At around 11 am, police encircled a group of protestors and attempted to take some of them away to waiting buses. The protestors broke out of the circle and started throwing stones at the police. Police in riot gear responded by using tear gas, rubber bullets and smoke grenades. The riot police quickly lost control of the situation, however, as more protestors arrived at the Forum.

Protestors took control of two trucks which had carried police personnel to the scene. Opposition supporters locked up some of the police weapons, found in the police trucks, at party headquarters so that they could not be used.

Protestors then started marching towards Alatoo Square, led by the two trucks that they had taken control of. It is unclear how many protestors brought weapons with them to the square.

Protest and killings at Alatoo Square in Bishkek, April 7

At Alatoo Square, police in riot gear attempted to stop the crowd by using teargas and firing into the air. The crowd quickly pushed them back, however, and surrounded the White House.

From about 2 pm until after midnight, protestors and security forces engaged in a standoff on the square. When demonstrators approached the White House, security forces used teargas; gunmen opened fire from the roof forcing the demonstrators to retreat. When the teargas cleared, the demonstrators approached again. The demonstrators took over the White House after midnight

In the afternoon a group of protestors went to the headquarters of the Kyrgyz National Security Service to demand the release of the opposition leaders. The leaders were subsequently released, but their release failed to end the demonstration.

At least 84 people were killed and more than 400 injured as a result of the violence at Alatoo Square.

Some of the protestors were apparently killed when they attempted to use vehicles to drive through the fence surrounding the White House. A significant number of people seemed to have been killed and wounded in the late afternoon when the authorities opened fire on an armored personnel carrier that had been taken by some of the protestors. It is unclear whether protestors on or in the APC were firing at the White House. However, several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they observed other protestors using weapons to shoot at the White House.

Several witnesses have also told Human Rights Watch that they saw people getting shot at as they were retreating from the White House or as they were helping others who were wounded.

Standards to guide an investigation

A number of international principles and instruments describe and recommend basic requirements that should guide an independent investigation into the April 6-7 events. Of central guidance would be the United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, which sets out the Model Protocol for an Investigation and indicates the standards to be used, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. Although the European Convention on Human Rights is not binding on Kyrgyzstan, the European Court of Human Rights in its judgments has indicated standards with respect to the conduct of investigations and provision of remedies, which should still serve as authoritative guidance on the scope of these generic obligations under international human rights law.

Standards for the conduct of the investigation

The investigation's mandate must include the authority to establish the key issues of responsibility and liability. It should be open to public scrutiny and capable of leading to the identification and where appropriate prosecution of anyone determined to be responsible for the unlawful injury or death of a victim. It should enjoy the power and resources to secure the evidence which leads to the determination of those issues.

Timeliness. The investigation need to be reasonably prompt, as "a prompt response by the authorities in investigating a use of lethal force may generally be regarded as essential in maintaining public confidence in their adherence to the rule of law and in preventing any appearance of collusion in or tolerance of unlawful acts."[1] Also, as noted above it is important for an investigation to take place as soon as possible, before memories fade and valuable evidence is lost.

Transparency. An effective investigation should involve a sufficient element of public scrutiny, including to the greatest extent possible, the involvement of the next of kin of victims.[2] Public scrutiny of the investigation or its results is necessary to secure accountability, maintain public confidence in the authorities' adherence to the rule of law, and prevent any appearance of collusion in or tolerance of unlawful acts.[3] The investigation into the events on April 6 and 7 should meet this requirement.

Independence. With respect to investigations into potentially unlawful killing by state agents the persons responsible for and carrying out the investigation must be independent from those implicated in the events. This means not only a lack of hierarchical or institutional connection but also a practical independence, so that they are not dependent on the good will of those potentially implicated for co-operation or funding, nor for provision of evidence.[4]

Expertise. Investigators should have the support of adequate technical and administrative personnel, as well as access to objective, impartial legal advice to ensure that the investigation will produce admissible evidence for later criminal proceedings. Investigators should receive the full scope of the Government's resources and powers, and should have the power to seek help from the international community of experts in law, medicine and forensic sciences.[5]

The commission should amplify its own expertise by availing itself of independent, international expertise including that of the United Nation Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union to ensure that the investigation is conducted in accordance with the applicable human rights standards.

Due Process. In line with the Model Protocol for a Legal Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions ("Minnesota Protocol") persons subject to an inquiry should be guaranteed the minimum procedural safeguards protected by international law at all stages of the investigation.

Standards for the evaluation of law enforcement and security forces conduct.

One of the critical questions the investigative commission will need to determine is whether any of the deaths and injuries were the result of human rights violations. It will need to determine whether state agents' use of force was excessive or whether it met standards for the use of force set out by The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These principles require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to, 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 are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury, and with preservation of human life respected.

Critical incidents to examine

The investigation commission should conduct a thorough and independent investigation into the events on April 6-7 in Talas and on April 7 in Bishkek. In particular the investigation should encompass the clashes at the police station in Talas on the morning of April 7; the beating of the police officers and former Minister of Interior Kongantiev; the wave of arrests of opposition leaders in the night from April 6 to April 7 in Bishkek and Osh; the incident at the headquarter of the Social Democratic Party in Bishkek in the morning of April 7; and the protests and killings at the White House in Bishkek on April 7, including the circumstances of the killing of the drivers of an armored vehicle and other vehicles used to break through the fence.

In examining these events, the investigation should seek, amongst other things, to factually establish:

  • Whether each of the demonstrations described above was peaceful;
  • How protesters obtained weapons and whether the protestors used the weapons that they obtained;
  • When gunmen shot from the roof, if they used live fire, what the stated targets of their fire were and if warnings were given;
  • What orders the police had to respond to any use of force by protestors and any rules on escalation of use of force, including the risk assessment made in advance and resulting in the deployment of forces armed with live ammunition.

The investigation should also seek, amongst other things, to determine:

  • Whether the use of force and firearms by the police was consistent with national law and international human rights law and standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials;
  • Whether the protestors committed criminal acts which provoked a legitimate response from the police, and whether that response was then proportionate;
  • Whether excessive force was used by law enforcement agents at the White House in Bishkek on April 7;
  • Why such a discrepancy exists between security forces and civilian casualties, taking into consideration such factors as whether the former had armor, bullet proof, or other protective equipment;
  • Who if anyone bears command responsibility for overseeing any operations in which force was found to be excessive.

The investigation into these events should make full use of all available video and photographic evidence as well as witness testimony; and undertake forensic investigations into the number of rounds of live ammunition and rubber bullets used by law enforcement officials, the number of persons killed and sustaining injuries from the use of live ammunition and rubber bullets, and the nature of those injuries.

[1] See European Court cases such as Yaşa v. Turkey, no. 63/1997/847/1054, judgment of September 2, 1998, paras. 102-104; Cakıcı v. Turkey, no. 23657/94, paras. 80, 87 and 106; and Mahmut Kaya v.Turkey, no. 22535/93, paras. 106-107.

[2] See, inter alia, Hugh Jordan v. UK, no. 24746/94, judgment of May 4, 2001, paras. 106-109.

[3] Nachova and Others v. Bulgaria, para. 119; see alsoMcKerr v. the United Kingdom, no. 28883/95, ECHR 2001-III.

[4] Nachova and Others v. Bulgaria, para. 118; see alsoGle v. Turkey, judgment of July 27, 1998, Reports 1998‑IV; ğur v. Turkey, no. 21954/93, ECHR 1999‑III; Ergı v. Turkey, judgment of July 28, 1998, Reports 1998‑IV; and Hugh Jordan v. UK, no. 24746/94, judgment of May 4, 2001, para. 106.

[5] http://wfrt.net/humanrts/instree/executioninvestigation-91.html.

More reporting on: