We are writing to express our profound concern about an ordinance on public gatherings adopted by the Bishkek City Council that restricts public gatherings in the capital.We are concerned that the ordinance undermines the right to freedom of assembly enshrined in the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic and in international law.

We call upon your government to ensure that the Bishkek City Council ordinance and other local and national laws and regulations on public gatherings are in conformity with the Kyrgyz Republic’s international human rights obligations on freedom of assembly.
We also urge you to take measures to address last months’ arrests, including ensuring an investigation into the arrests, exoneration of those found to have been arbitrarily arrested, provision of adequate compensation, and taking appropriate disciplinary action against officials who acted improperly.
On November 30, 2007 the Bishkek City Council issued an ordinance regarding public gatherings that permits assemblies in only three places in Bishkek: Youth Park, Gorky Monument, and Erkindik Square. The ordinance, which entered into force December 7, requires organizers to submit notification of any public gathering to municipal authorities at least 10 days in advance of the planned event – an unnecessarily restrictive requirement. Under article 4 of the ordinance, the mayor's office may either permit the gathering or provide a “reasoned refusal." The ordinance does not enumerate grounds for refusal, opening the possibility for municipal authorities to arbitrarily ban public gatherings. The ordinance requires organizers of public gatherings to pay in advance all expenses related to the protection of public order and medical services during the event and cleaning of the area after the event. Organizers must submit confirmation that these expenses have been paid together with the notification of the event.

The ordinance essentially establishes a licensing regime for public assembles and is therefore at odds with the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic, which requires only that local authorities receive notification – not grant permission – about planned public actions. Article 25 states that “Citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic have the right to hold peaceful political gatherings, meetings, rallies, demonstrations and pickets subject to prior notification of state authorities or bodies of local self-government. The rules and conditions of holding these events shall be established by law.”

The Constitutional Court of the Kyrgyz Republic has ruled that the establishment of any licensing regime for public assemblies is unconstitutional. In a ruling handed down on October 14, 2004 the court recognized null and void articles 5, 6 and 7 of the 2002 Law on the Right of Citizens to Hold Peaceful Assemblies, which had required organizers of public events to obtain permission from governmental bodies. In this context, the court also pointed out that the constitution bars “state authorities and local self-government bodies and their officials” from “exceeding their authority as established by the Constitution and the laws.”

As noted above, the Bishkek City Council ordinance has not only interfered with the right to freedom of assembly but also led to the arbitrary arrest of peaceful protesters. On December 18 and 20, police in Bishkek arrested about two dozen people who were holding small, peaceful protests on the main square in Bishkek and near the Central Electoral Commission building. The demonstrators were youth political activists and human rights defenders participating in the “Ia ne veryu” (I don’t believe) campaign, which is protesting the Central Election Commissions decision upholding the results of the December 16 parliamentary election.

On December 18, about 19 persons held a peaceful protest near the Central Electoral Commission building. Police arrived about 10 minutes later and arrested all of them. They were charged with misdemeanors and released after five hours because of the Kurban-Ait holiday. A misdemeanor hearing was scheduled for December 20.
On December 20, two separate protests were held, and 23 persons were arrested, about half of whom had been participants in the December 18 protest. At about 1 p.m., seven human rights defenders and two journalists gathered in the main square of Bishkek, some holding posters with the slogan “Ia ne veryu.” After about half an hour police arrived and arrested Maxim Kuleshov, head of the nongovernmental organization Mir, Svet, Kultura (Peace, Light, Culture), for a public event that he had organized on December 7. Then without any explanation, the police arrested seven remaining protesters. Another participant had left the square earlier and so was not arrested.

At about the same time on the same day about 40 people gathered near the Central Electoral Commission building, without blocking traffic or entry to any buildings. The police arrested 15 of them.

On December 3, Maxim Kuleshov had submitted notification to the Bishkek mayor’s office about a series of protests planned for December 7 through December 20 near the State National Security Committee, Ministry of Interior, House of Government and mayor's office, involving 10 or more persons. The mayor’s office replied two days later, stating that the events could not take place in the planned venues, as this would present “difficulties in the normal functioning of said governmental agencies, and it will complicate traffic and free movement of people in this area. It all might lead to the violation of their rights and freedoms." The mayor’s office instead proposed that the public gatherings take place in Gorky Park, about a kilometer from the city’s center.

Of the 23 arrested, 18 were tried on December 20 for misdemeanors. The court, which held the hearing at night in a closed session in the detention facility, convicted all 18 for “violations of the established order for holding demonstrations,” as well as “disobeying an order of a law-enforcement officer.” Seven were sentenced to five days of imprisonment, six for seven days of imprisonment, four were fined and one received an official warning. The appellate court has suspended consideration of the appeals until the Bishkek Inter-District Court can consider the legality of the Bishkek City Council ordinance on public assembly.
The convictions demonstrate how the overly restrictive ordinance has been used to punish individuals who by all accounts engaged in small protests that did not block traffic or other movement or otherwise pose a threat to public order, and featured slogans and speeches that were exclusively peaceful and protected. This is contrary to international law. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party, states:

The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. 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.

Any restrictions on the right to assembly must be limited to what is necessary and proportionate—the manner and intensity of state interference must be necessary to attain a legitimate purpose, and the prohibition or forceful breaking up of an assembly may be considered only when milder means have failed. The actions taken by your government in past weeks exceed permissible restrictions recognized under international law.

Finally, Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the alleged mistreatment of the detained protesters. The 13 persons who were sentenced to imprisonment served two days in a Bishkek detention center (priemnik-raspredelitel), after which they were released pending appeal. We are deeply concerned by the inhuman conditions in which the detained protesters were held. They reported that they were kept in a cold, rat-infested cell and were given dirty, bad-smelling thin blankets. They were not allowed to take one hour of exercise outside, as provided for under Kyrgyz law, and instead were allowed only 20-25 minutes outside of their cells. Tolekan Ismailova, who suffers from high blood pressure, did not receive appropriate medical care. When her blood pressure rose sharply, emergency medical services were called; they arrived one hour later but treated Ismailova in a humiliating manner, calling her “a faker.” Detained activists also reported to Human Rights Watch that one of the officials running the detention facility threatened them, “Now you are mine. I can do whatever I want with you.” Most seriously, police allegedly beat Maxim Kuleshov on the head and body after placing him in a solitary confinement cell and denied his request to undergo a medical examination.

Human Rights Watch requests a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation of the December arrests of human rights defenders and youth activists, and, should their arrests be shown to have been unwarranted, order their exoneration. Appropriate disciplinary measures should be taken against officials, whatever their rank, responsible for conducting arbitrary arrests or mistreatment in detention. We urge that adequate compensation be provided for those arbitrarily arrested or mistreated. Finally, we call upon your government to ensure that the Bishkek City Council ordinance and other local and national laws and regulations on demonstrations are in conformity with the Kyrgyz Republic’s international human rights obligations on freedom of assembly.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch