(New York) - The government of Kyrgyzstan should allow peaceful opposition demonstrations planned for April 7, 2010, to take place, and to refrain from using excessive force to break up gatherings, Human Rights Watch said today. The opposition had called for kurultais, or political gatherings, to be held nationwide on that date.
Developments today in northwest Kyrgyzstan, and the detention today of the country's opposition leaders, indicate that the Kyrgyz authorities may begin a crackdown on the meetings.
"We urge the government to allow peaceful gatherings tomorrow," said Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. "A blanket policy to break up all gatherings violates fundamental rights and could escalate tensions."
Human Rights Watch also said that the opposition should ensure that any demonstrations it holds tomorrow are conducted peacefully.
Government forces in Talas, a city in northwest Kyrgyzstan, used tear gas today to disperse demonstrators gathered at the main government building. Accounts of the incident and what triggered it vary widely. Based on the reports, between 500 and several thousand people had gathered at the province administration building to demand the release of Bolot Sherniyazov, deputy head of the Ata Meken Socialist Party. He had arrived in Talas in the morning to participate in tomorrow's gatherings and had been detained by the authorities upon his arrival. The government said that protesters seized the building and took the province governor hostage. Opposition supporters said, though, that protesters initially went into the building only to demand Sherniyazov's release.
The Interior Ministry sent special forces to Talas, who tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. They eventually cleared the building of protesters, who then counterattacked security forces. According to the government, the protesters were armed with Molotov cocktails and set two police cars on fire. Radio Liberty, a U.S. government-funded radio station, reported that at least 30 people had been wounded, although this number could not be independently confirmed. Several police officers were severely beaten. The Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a nongovernmental organization, said that both police and demonstrators had been wounded. At this writing, the building continues to be occupied by protesters.
The internal affairs minister declared publicly today that "all kurultais designated for tomorrow are unlawful; if anyone tries to organize any meeting, picket, or march, we will stop them."
Human Rights Watch called on European Union, the United States government, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the situation on the ground and to work with the government of Kyrgyzstan to ensure that protests can take place peacefully.
The authorities have filed criminal charges against the Talas demonstrators, charging them with attempting to overthrow the government violently and with organizing mass disturbances.
At around 9:40 p.m. this evening, 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 different locations in the capital, Bishkek. In Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, Tekabayev's deputy, Duyshon Chotonov, and the ex-governor of Osh province, Anvar Artykov, were also taken into custody.
When Tekebaev was detained at his home, an investigator showed identification, but then 15 unknown men in bulletproof vests and with machine guns forced Tekebaev in a car that drove away. Local activists believe he is being held at the National Security Committee building, where Atambaev is being held.
"We call on the authorities to clarify the circumstances of the detentions," Berg said. "The men should immediately have access to a lawyer and be brought promptly before a judicial officer or released."
Human rights activists and other sources in Kyrgyzstan told Human Rights Watch that the Internet was not working on April 6 as of 8 p.m. Kyrgyz time and that cell phone communication was difficult.
"The authorities should immediately restore all means of communication," Berg said. "The free flow of information is indispensable to understand the situation and to prevent and address human rights violations."