Human Rights Developments
The year 1999 was a troubled one for Kyrgyzstan. Armed clashes with militants in the south of the country put the region in crisis. Torture in police custody continued, as did widespread trafficking of women into forced prostitution abroad. The government's adoption of a flawed election law and its ongoing campaign against the independent media continued a downward trend in respect for human rights in Kyrgyzstan.
In August, armed militants, apparently en route to Uzbekistan, clashed with Kyrgyz government troops in the southern Batken region. On August 3, the militants took four Kyrgyz citizens hostage in the village of Zardaly, Osh region. The militants released the hostages on August 13 following the reported payment by the government of an unspecified ransom. The crisis escalated two days later when the Kyrgyz army, backed by Uzbek warplanes, began to attack suspected strongholds of the militants both in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In response, on August 22, another group of militants, reportedly numbering between 500 and 1,000, entered Kyrgyzstan via the border with Tajikistan and took approximately twenty persons hostage, including four Japanese geologists and a general of the Kyrgyz army, Anarbek Shamkeev. The militants released four ethnic Kyrgyz hostages on August 31 and reportedly demanded the release of wrongfully jailed Muslim believers held in Uzbekistan, including those held in connection with a series of bomb explosions in Uzbekistan in 1999. The Russian government agreed to consider supplying military equipment to the Kyrgyz army, but ruled out sending troops to the region.
Victims of the crisis multiplied on August 29 when the Uzbek airforce mistakenly bombed the village of Kara-Teyit, killing four, injuring 280, and rendering thirty-one families homeless. As of this writing, estimated casualties from the numerous and ongoing clashes were at least twenty government soldiers killed, with around half that number wounded. The government claimed to have inflicted similar casualties on the militants although that claim could not be independently verified. As of this writing, at least nine persons were still being held hostage, although some reports suggested that figure may be much higher. Independent human rights activist Tursunbai Akunov assumed the role of mediator in the crisis and reported on September 10 that the hostages were alive and well. Akunov stated that the militants were overwhelmingly ethnic Uzbek with Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Afghans making up the remainder.
The government's response to the crisis was indiscriminate: In September, police systematically rounded up hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Afghans in the city of Jala-Abad and the capital, Bishkek on the pretext of passport checks, holding them in custody for up to two days. As of this writing, it was unclear how many remained in custody. Local human rights groups reported that over 5,000 persons had been displaced in the conflict and were located in government-organized camps, while on September 9, the director of the Federal Migration Agency, Cholponkul Arabayev, put that figure at 7,500. As of mid-October, reports stated that many internally displaced persons had begun to return home with between 3,000 to 5,000 remaining in government camps. On September 3, the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights reported that many of those displaced complained of inadequate food and medicine in the camps and expressed fears that their difficulties would be exacerbated by the imminent onset of winter.
The government continued to crack down on the independent media using forcible break-ins, libel suits, and tax inspections in an attempt to silence dissent. On the night of April 24, the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights reported that the premises of the independent Bishkek newspaper, Asaba (The Standard) were broken into and information related to members of the Ministry of National Security erased from computers. No items of value were stolen, strongly suggesting a political motive, a supposition strengthened by statements reportedly made by the deputy minister for national security two days prior to the break-in, calling for information held by the newspaper on the ministry's members to be handed over and threatening legal action if the information were published.
On February 18, the independent Bishkek newspaper Res Publica (The Republic) published an appeal to President Akaev and other senior government officials in which journalists and employees of the State Television and Radio Company alleged that they had been unfairly dismissed by the head of that company, Amambek Karepkulov. Karepkulov immediately filed a lawsuit to defend his "honor and dignity" under article 18 of the civil code. On March 30, the Pervomaisky court in Bishkek found in Karepkulov's favor and awarded him 200,000 som (approximately U.S.$5,000) in damages. As of this writing, Res Publica 's appeal against the decision was pending.
On August 18, the government stepped up its attack on the independent media with a series of tax inspections on Vecherny Bishkek (The Evening Bishkek), a daily mass-circulation independent newspaper. On August 24, tax police threatened Vecherny Bishkek editor and majority shareholder Alexander Kim with arrest after he refused to admit inspectors onto the newspaper's premises. Kim alleged that the newspaper was due to undergo a tax inspection in December, a full year after the previous inspection, and that any additional inspections contravened the Kyrgyz tax law. Kim further stated that the multiple inspections began after the paper carried interviews with several opposition politicians, including potential candidates in the 2000 presidential elections. In addition to the tax inspections, local printing presses came under direct pressure from the presidential administration not to print the paper. On September 21, Kim resigned as editor of the newspaper, citing the tax inspections, along with internal staff difficulties, as the reason. As of this writing, Vecherny Bishkek continued to be published.
On June 24, the government adopted a new electoral code. While containing numerous praiseworthy clauses that safeguard the transparency of the electoral process, a clause excluding candidates convicted of an administrative or criminal offense from standing for public office left the code open to politically motivated abuse.
In a positive move, on December 5, President Akaev signed a decree imposing a two-year moratorium on the death penalty. The decree was announced three days after the declaration of an amnesty for 2,000 prisoners, mostly minors, women, and those guilty of economic crimes. The moratorium and amnesty were announced to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
On December 15, a Bishkek court issued its ruling in the case of three ethnic Uighurs- Kurban Yasin, Kular Dilaver, and Jalal Mahmud Kasarly-arrested in April 1998 on charges of disseminating Wahhabi literature, inciting inter-religious hatred, terrorism, forgery, and the illegal possession of weapons. The court sentenced Kasarly, a Turkish citizen, to fourteen years of imprisonment for illegal possession of weapons and armed resistance to the authorities. The court sentenced Yasin, a Chinese citizen, to time served and acquitted Dilaver, a Turkish citizen.
Defending Human Rights
In 1999, authorities attempted to dissolve the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) and replace it with a state-sponsored proxy of the same name. The government annulled the KCHR's registration on September 28, 1998, as the organization actively worked to protest an October referendum on constitutional amendments. Although the KCHR continued to function in its non-registered capacity and submitted an application to re-register, authorities informed the KCHR on April 21 that a new Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights had been "re-registered" with an entirely different staff, headed by a Mr. S. Botaliev. Botaliev, a former member of the KCHR, had been expelled from the organization in 1996 for violating committee rules. In June, authorities unsuccessfully attempted to appropriate the KCHR's office equipment and furniture for the new committee. On August 12, following protests and multiple interventions by international human rights groups and institutions, the Ministry of Justice revoked the registration of the bogus KCHR and on August 19, the true KCHR successfully re-registered.
The Role of the International Community
In January, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women issued its concluding observations on Kyrgyzstan's initial report and noted numerous problems including the increase in all forms of violence against women, including gang rape, the classification of lesbianism as a sexual offense, increased prostitution and trafficking of women, and poverty and unemployment among women. In August, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women raised concern over discrimination against non-ethnic Kyrgyz "in the fields of employment and housing, in particular against the Russian-speaking minority."
The European Union (E.U.), while acknowledging "a clear need [for the Kyrgyz government] to increase efforts regarding implementation of existing laws" concerning democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights, remained silent on specific cases of human rights abuse in 1999. The E.U. disbursed 10.4 million euros (U.S.$11.2 million) under its Action Program for 1999, a program that aims to support Kyrgyzstan's transition to democracy and a market economy through structural and institutional reform and infrastructure development.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
January saw the opening of an OSCE Center in Bishkek. The office's activities included advising the government on establishing a human rights ombudsman, making recommendations on a new election law, holding seminars on topics such as the human rights ombudsman, democracy, and free and fair elections, as well as consulting with local human rights groups and alleged victims of human rights abuses. The OSCE Center played a key role in resolving the dispute surrounding the re-registration of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights.
The OSCE chairman-in-office, Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek of Norway, visited Kyrgyzstan in September as part of a broader trip to the region to meet with political leaders and nongovernmental organizations. The Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights visited Kyrgyzstan in April and May to initiate a project on training election monitors and to implement a series of projects intended to advance human rights and democratization.
The United States criticized the government's harassment of the independent media and gave an accurate and impartial account of human rights abuses in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 . Aid to the country continued, however, with U.S.$70.4 million allotted for fiscal year 1999.