September 12, 2002
President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Dear President Bush,
We write in anticipation of your forthcoming meeting with President Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan. We hope that you will use this opportunity to raise concerns about the dramatic disintegration of basic freedoms in Kyrgyzstan, and that the meeting will produce concrete steps that will improve the protection of human rights, as well as genuine commitments to systemic reform.
During the past year the Kyrgyz government has displayed growing intolerance for its political opposition, enacted draconian laws and used brutal methods to deprive citizens of their right to free assembly and expression, intensified the persecution religious dissidents, and taken an aggressive stance against human rights defenders. The new relationship between the United States and Kyrgyzstan brought on by the campaign against terrorism has not prevented a deterioration in the human rights situation there.
It remains to be seen whether in the long term, this closer relationship will help or hurt the cause of democracy and rule of law in Kyrgyzstan. On the one hand, there is a danger that increasingly close military ties with the United States will encourage Kyrgyz officials to believe that they can ignore U.S. concerns in other areas, including human rights. On the other hand, closer engagement affords opportunities for the United States to press for change.
The key lies in how the United States engages. Change can come if the United States makes clear that the benefits Kyrgyzstan hopes to obtain from a closer relationship, whether increased aid or further high-level visits, will depend on responsiveness to U.S. concerns on human rights. Change can come if Kyrgyzstan hears this strong and consistent message from all of its U.S. interlocutors, including from the Defense Department - and if President Akaev hears it in the strongest terms from you. And change needs to come because a comprehensive approach to security-one that builds the rule of law, respect for basic civil and political rights, and more open and transparent political systems-is essential to lasting peace and stability in Central Asia. The needs of both countries will be best served if the United States uses the influence and leverage it has with Kyrgyzstan to help pull that country back from the precipice of political crisis and the loss of public confidence.
Setbacks to Reform and Respect for Human Rights
Kyrgyzstan was once heralded as an island of democracy, a model of reform in a highly volatile and repressive region. But actions taken by the government in the past year are only the latest evidence that it has turned its back on democratic and human rights reform and has instead joined the club of authoritarian and grossly abusive Central Asian states. Under President Akaev, the government has:
- Jailed the president's political rivals, including former vice-president Feliks Kulov, who was arrested in March 2000 and later convicted on trumped-up charges, and Azimbek Beknazarov, a member of parliament who has been released from custody but continues to face charges widely viewed to be politically motivated;
- Used police violence. Police have beaten protesters and fired live ammunition into crowds to disband public demonstrations. On September 9, the government displayed outright contempt for the right to free assembly by reportedly calling on parliament to ban all protests and public demonstrations for a period of three months;
- Detained and prosecuted journalists under criminal libel laws and other politically motivated charges intended to silence critical expression;
- Threatened, intimidated, and arrested human rights defenders in retaliation for their courageous work to protect the rights of fellow citizens;
- Exploited the war on terrorism to arrest independent-minded, peaceful Muslims and to jail at least one rights defender, Bakhodir Akhmedov, who defends the rights of ethnic Uzbeks and other non-violent Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls;
- Failed to institute necessary reforms, recommended by the international community, to make possible free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in the future.
Benchmarks for Progress
President Akaev values his relationship with the United States, and will seek to gain maximum advantage at home from his forthcoming meeting with you. We therefore urge that your administration insist that the Kyrgyz government take the following steps before President Akaev's arrival in the U.S., as a gesture of good will and as evidence of the government's commitment to greater openness, democratization, and respect for human rights:
- Release Feliks Kulov, and restore his freedom of expression and freedom of movement;
- Dismiss criminal charges pending against Azimbek Beknazarov;
- Provide for an independent, non-governmental committee to review the charges against rights defender Bakhodir Akhmedov;
- Publicly commit to veto any legislation proposing to amnesty or otherwise exculpate those officers responsible for the use of live ammunition on unarmed demonstrators in the Aksy district of Jalal Abad province on March 17 and 18, 2002. At least five were killed and many others were injured as a result;
- Establish an independent commission of inquiry, including independent experts drawn from Kyrgyzstan and the international community, to investigate the government's response to the Aksy demonstrations;
- Publicly recommit Kyrgyzstan to respect the right to free assembly and withdraw from consideration any proposal to deny Kyrgyz citizens this right.
The government of Kyrgyzstan also needs to undertake a series of systemic reforms, which we hope will be addressed during your discussions with President Akaev and reflected in any concluding document signed by both countries. The government should:
- Direct state prosecutors to bring to justice police accused of rights violations, including officers who used disproportionate or indiscriminate force against demonstrators that resulted in the deaths of unarmed protesters in Aksy;
- Eliminate criminal penalties for libel that have made possible state harassment, prosecution, and even incarceration of journalists in retaliation for protected speech;
It is also vital that the war on terrorism not be interpreted by the government of Kyrgyzstan as a green light to crack down on religious dissidents, particularly peaceful Muslim groups. During the past year, dozens of peaceful Muslim believers in Kyrgyzstan have been arrested and jailed for nothing more than their religious beliefs or affiliation. These include 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. While many find the organization's views antithetical to human rights, its members throughout Central Asia have not committed actions that justify imprisonment and abuse of their fundamental rights.
The increased state repression of non-violent Muslim groups and individuals during the past year in Kyrgyzstan, coinciding with closer U.S. ties to that country, risks undermining your administration's vow that the war on terrorism will not become a war against Islam. We urge you to convey to President Akaev the urgent need for his government to provide for the independent review of all prosecutions of peaceful Muslim believers on charges related to their ideas, expression, or affiliation.
We appreciate your taking the time to consider seriously these pressing issues and extend our hopes for a productive meeting.
Human Rights Watch
Europe and Central Asia division
Human Rights Watch
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
CIS Program Director
International League for Human Rights
cc: Dr. Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State Colin Powell
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld