(Osh) – Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election offers a crucial opportunity for a new leader to curb human rights violations that have plagued the country since the June 2010 ethnic violence, Human Rights Watch said today. The new president should also immediately rescind restrictions imposed on the media in the months leading up to the elections, Human Rights Watch said.
Voters will go to the polls on October 30, 2011, to choose from among 16 candidates in the first presidential election since a popular uprising ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010. Roza Otunbaeva, who has served as the country’s interim president, is not seeking re-election.
“Whoever wins, the new president should make a commitment to uphold human rights and stop abusive practices,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If there is going to be any chance for national reconciliation and regional stability, the new president should end the torture and unfair trials that have become all too familiar and allow the media to operate freely.”
The election law, passed in 2010 by the interim government, bans retransmission of any of the foreign broadcast media that contains “electoral propaganda” and any content “attacking the honor, dignity and reputation of candidates” during the campaigning period, which began on September 25.
In order to comply with the law, local television and radio broadcasters are expected to record all news broadcasts during the campaigning period and edit out any of the prohibited material. Most local broadcasters do not have the equipment or staff to do such editing. In addition, in their retransmission contracts with foreign television channels, local broadcasters report that they are not allowed to edit the content. As a result, broadcasters in Kyrgyzstan have been forced to suspend transmission of foreign news broadcasting, including CNN, BBC, Euronews, as well as Russian and Kazakh channels for the duration of the campaign period. Election monitors for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe condemned the restrictions as incompatible with the 2010 constitution and Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations.
In addition, in July, the Election Commission denied accreditation to online news agencies, thereby limiting their access to candidates, campaign activities, and timely Central Election Commission information.
The incoming president should rescind restrictions on the media, respect freedom of information, and tolerate all forms of legitimate speech, including criticism of the new government and its policies, Human Rights Watch said.
The incoming president should also act swiftly to end the abusive practices and flawed trials that have characterized the justice system in southern Kyrgyzstan since the violence there in June 2010, Human Rights Watch said. In a security and social environment deeply destabilized after the April 2010 uprising that led to Bakiev’s ouster, ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad during four days in June. More than 400 people were killed and nearly 2,000 houses destroyed.
Horrific crimes were committed against people of both Uzbek and Kyrgyz ethnicity. Government statistics indicate that the majority of victims of killings, arson, and looting were ethnic Uzbeks, but the overwhelming majority of people who have faced criminal charges relating to the violence are also ethnic Uzbeks.
More than 5,000 criminal cases have been opened. As of May, about 85 percent of people who had been detained in connection with the violence and 83 percent of those prosecuted for homicide were ethnic Uzbeks.
Overall the criminal investigations and prosecutions have been seriously flawed. Human Rights Watch has documented arbitrary detention and torture in police custody, predominantly of ethnic Uzbeks. Between July and September 2011 alone, Human Rights Watch documented 10 cases of arbitrary arrest and torture of ethnic Uzbeks, who were either accused of committing crimes in June 2010 or from whom police were trying to extort large sums of money in exchange for releasing them. Two died as a result of torture.
Human Rights Watch has observed numerous trials stemming from the June violence. In the majority, the prosecution relied solely on confessions, many coerced under torture, ill-treatment, or threats of violence against the defendants or their families. The courts have consistently failed to consider allegations of ill-treatment and have sentenced the accused to lengthy prison terms.
The trials in southern Kyrgyzstan have also been marred by physical attacks on lawyers and ethnic Uzbek defendants, apparently by victims’ relatives or supporters. Police and other officials have refused to intervene, and only one investigation into these attacks has so far gone to court. One lawyer, Tatyana Tomina, has been attacked four times in 10 months.
“Each of the presidential candidates has promised to restore justice, fight corruption and impunity, and strengthen the rule of law,” Williamson said. “Whoever wins needs to deliver on these commitments to usher in a new era of respect for human rights for Kyrgyzstan’s people.”