Skip to main content

Letter to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the Review of Kyrgyzstan

Members of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
Attn: Gabriella Habtom, Secretary of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

UNOG-OHCHR
CH 1211 Geneva 10
Switzerland

Re: CERD Review of Kyrgyzstan

February 8, 2013

Dear Committee Members,

We write in advance of the forthcoming review by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“the Committee”) of Kyrgyzstan, to highlight several areas of pressing concern we hope to see the Committee take up as part of its examination of the Kyrgyz government’s implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). These are: past and ongoing abuses in the context of the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in the south and its aftermath; the wrongful imprisonment of human rights defender Azimjon Askarov; threats and intimidation of civil society actors working in southern Kyrgyzstan; and forced returns of Uzbek refugees and asylum seekers. In highlighting these areas of concern, which implicate Articles 2, 5 and 6 of the Convention, we have taken note of the Committee’s list of themes to be taken up in the context of the review, which shows the Committee’s welcome awareness of a number of the human rights concerns addressed in our contribution.

Past and Ongoing Abuses in the Context of the June 2010 Inter-ethnic Violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan

In the years since the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence, in which 400 people were killed and almost 2,000 homes destroyed, Kyrgyz authorities have failed to provide justice for victims and to hold perpetrators to account. The courts have sentenced many people to lengthy prison terms, and threats, violence, and serious violations such as arbitrary arrest, torture, and ill-treatment have led to profoundly flawed investigations and trials, which have mainly affected the ethnic Uzbek minority. These violations continue to undermine efforts to promote reconciliation and fuel tensions that might one day lead to renewed violence (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/14/kyrgyzstan-no-justice-two-years-after-osh-uprising).

While horrific crimes were committed against both ethnic Uzbek and ethnic Kyrgyz citizens in 2010, ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan endured the majority of casualties and destroyed homes. At the time, Kyrgyz authorities failed to prevent or stop violence once it erupted, and there are strong indications that some military and police forces knowingly or unwittingly facilitated attacks on ethnic Uzbek neighborhoods.

In addition, while most victims of the June violence were ethnic Uzbek, most of the detainees—almost 85 percent—were also ethnic Uzbek. Of 124 people detained on murder charges (as of June 2011), 115 were ethnic Uzbek. Taken together with statements from victims, describing law enforcement personnel’s widespread use of ethnic slurs during detention, these statistics raise serious questions about ethnic bias in the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators. It is difficult to avoid the impression that throughout the investigations, prosecutions, and trials, appeasing the ethnic Kyrgyz majority eclipsed the need for justice and accountability. It is also difficult to avoid the impression that lack of effective investigations has made it easier to paint the ethnic Uzbeks as solely responsible for the June violence, and has given license to law enforcement and security bodies to target them for arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment.

Other monitoring bodies have drawn similar conclusions. The UN special rapporteur on torture, who conducted a mission to Kyrgyzstan in December 2011, stated in his February 2012 report that “[t]here is also alarming evidence that many criminal proceedings were marred by widely reported bias against members of certain ethnic minorities.” Speaking about Osh on the occasion of her July 2012 visit to Kyrgyzstan, the High Commissioner noted that “there is not a single Uzbek judge among the judiciary ... I have myself heard the cries for justice from members of the affected communities who have been victimized twice – while the violence was taking place, and in its aftermath ... Having three-quarters of the victims and three-quarters of the alleged perpetrators from the same group, during an episode of inter-ethnic violence, simply does not add up.”

Dozens of trials related to the June 2010 violence were seriously flawed due to violations of the defendants’ rights from the time of detention through conviction, including law-enforcement officials’ use of torture on a widespread basis in their investigations, denial of the right to representation by a lawyer of the detainees’ own choosing, or the right to consult with a lawyer in private. These trials were also marked by harassment and physical attacks against lawyers in southern Kyrgyzstan who defended ethnic Uzbek clients.

Over the last year and a half, Kyrgyz authorities have continued to target ethnic Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan, subjecting them to detention, torture, and extortion schemes without redress in connection with the June 2010 violence. For example, in October 2012, Human Rights Watch documented how courts in Osh and the Jalal-Abad region sentenced two ethnic Uzbeks to life in prison (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/28/kyrgyzstan-skewed-justice-over-2010-conflict; note: in January 2013, an appellate court unexpectedly overturned the life sentence conviction of Shamshidin Niyazaliev, who was subsequently released from prison).

Human Rights Watch and other international monitoring bodies have repeatedly called on the Kyrgyz government to immediately enact a zero-tolerance policy for violations during detention, and promptly and objectively investigate all allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and other violations of detainees’ rights.

Enclosed for your reference, please find the summary and recommendations of our June 2011 report “Distorted Justice: Kyrgyzstan’s Flawed Investigations and Trials on the 2010 Violence”, detailing the findings of our research carried out in October and December 2010. The report is based on 40 interviews with ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek victims and witnesses, lawyers, human rights defenders, and community activists, as well as local government officials, law enforcement and military personnel, and military and civilian prosecutors in southern Kyrgyzstan. It can be accessed in full here: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/06/08/distorted-justice-0.

Recommendations for steps the Kyrgyz authorities should be urged to take:

  • Initiate a formal review process of all cases connected to the violence in the south.
  • Conduct new investigations and trials in all cases in which there have been serious violations, especially in cases where defendants alleged they had suffered ill-treatment or torture.

The Wrongful Imprisonment of Human Rights Defender Azimjon Askarov

Azimjon Askarov is an ethnic Uzbek human rights defender from southern Kyrgyzstan currently serving a life-sentence on politically motivated charges after years of reporting on police abuse, including in the context of the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence. He is director of Air, a Bazar-Kurgon-based human rights organization, and is active in the Jalal-Abad District Human Rights Network “Justice.” For several years his work has focused extensively on documenting prison conditions and police ill-treatment of detainees and Human Rights Watch believes his wrongful prosecution to be linked to his ethnicity and human rights work.

On June 15, the Bazar-Kurgan police detained Askarov, accusing him of participating in a June 12 clash that resulted in the killing of an ethnic Kyrgyz policeman (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/06/17/letter-prosecutor-general-ibraev-urging-release-azimjon-askarov).After his arrest, authorities denied Askarov unimpeded access to a lawyer of his choosing. Only a week later, on June 22, was his lawyer finally able to meet with Askarov, however, a deputy prosecutor denied his lawyer’s request for a private conversation with his client. At that meeting, Askarov showed his lawyer bruises on his left side and lower back, which the lawyer photographed. The lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he believed the bruises were marks of severe beatings that Askarov suffered shortly after he had been detained (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/06/23/kyrgyzstan-ensure-safety-due-process-detained-activist).

On three occasions after Askarov’s arrest, but before his case went to court, angry groups, which allegedly included relatives of the police officer who was killed, threatened and physically attacked Askarov’s lawyer. Local authorities did not respond to these threats and attacks, even though they took place on the premises of government municipal and law enforcement agencies.

At trial, the court heard numerous witnesses for the prosecution, but none for the defense. Defense lawyers felt they could not endanger witnesses by calling them to the stand, as their safety could not be guaranteed either from the volatile mobs outside or the hostile and unchecked gallery in the courtroom. Also during the trial, the victim’s relatives and supporters threatened and struck Askarov’s lawyer, shouted threats and insults at the defense team, and beat defendants’ relatives, who were outside the courthouse. Police were present, but they took no action. The trial judge refused all defense motions to move the trial to an alternative location, where the safety of the defendants, lawyers, and witnesses could have been better assured (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/09/01/kyrgyzstan-ensure-safety-fair-trial-rights-defender).

On September 15, 2010, a Bazar-Kurgon court sentenced Azimjon Askarov to life in prison, despite his allegations of torture that were never investigated and a trial seriously marred by violations of fair trial standards (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/09/15/kyrgyzstan-free-human-rights-defender-ensure-fair-retrial. On December 20, 2011, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court upheld Askarov’s life sentence, failing to assuage concerns that he was imprisoned in retribution for his human rights work (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/12/20/kyrgyzstan-verdict-fails-justice).

Recommendations for steps the Kyrgyz authorities should be urged to take:

  • Immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov pending a full investigation into his allegations of torture and review of his case.

Threats and Intimidation of Civil Society Actors, Impeding Human Rights Work in Southern Kyrgyzstan

Several of Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent human rights leaders have received threats in connection with their investigations into the June violence and its aftermath, raising concern about deliberate attempts at obstructing documentation of human rights violations affecting the ethnic Uzbek community. For example, in late June 2010, Tolekan Ismailova, director of Citizens Against Corruption, a Bishkek-based human rights nongovernmental organization, fled the country for several months with her family after the Osh prosecutor’s office falsely accused her and Aziza Abdirasulova, director of Kylym Shamy, another Bishkek-based human rights NGO, of distributing inaccurate information about a police operation in Nariman, a town in southern Kyrgyzstan, that followed the outbreak of violence in Osh. A few days after this accusation, Ismailova’s neighbors in Bishkek reported that strangers had come to the neighborhood to inquire about her family and where she lived.

Aziza Abdirasulova also received numerous threats following the outbreak of violence and her work in the south. In August 2010, for example, angry residents of Bazar-Kurgan threatened to kill one of Abdirasulova’s children if their mother monitored Azimjon Askarov’s trial.

In October 2010, two unknown men threatened the program coordinator of Spravedlivost (Justice), based in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, for providing free legal assistance to defendants in cases related to the June violence.

In May 2011, the Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission (KIC)—commissioned by President Roza Otunbayeva in 2010 and headed by Kimmo Kiljunen, a former member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—published its findings that the government failed to prevent and stop the June 2010 violence. The same month, the Kyrgyz parliament adopted a resolution barring KIC Chair Kiljunen from entering the country, alleging he had provided partial information about the June 2010 violence.

To date, civil society actors working in the south face undue harassment. On November 17, national security agents temporarily detained an analyst from the International Crisis Group (ICG), an international NGO, during a routine research trip to the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, and subjected him to a search and interrogation. The agents confiscated his research and other materials and denied him access to a lawyer. Several days after the analyst was detained, the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) issued a press statement saying that the analyst was under investigation on charges of inciting inter-ethnic discord.

In the days and weeks following, security agents subsequently summoned for questioning five human rights defenders and others solely for meeting with the analyst during his trip to the south (see http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2012/europe/kyrgyzstan-crisis-group-condemns-harassment-by-security-service.aspx).

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the authorities’ interference with human rights work in the south is aimed at obstructing efforts to document and bring to light continuing abuses affecting the ethnic Uzbek community.

Recommendations for steps the Kyrgyz authorities should be urged to take:

  • Kyrgyz authorities should immediately cease undue interference in the work of civil society activists in southern Kyrgyzstan, and re-commit to allowing human rights activists and others to work without harassment or fear of unlawful arrest or reprisals.

Forced Returns of Uzbek Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Kyrgyzstan has undertaken important efforts to host hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and other countries. However, in recent years these efforts have been marred by the government’s failure to fully implement its obligations under international and national law regarding the protection of asylum seekers and refugees, particularly with respect to asylum seekers and refugees who fled from Uzbekistan.

Since 2005, more than a dozen asylum seekers and refugees have been forcibly returned or extradited to Uzbekistan, despite the risk of torture there, and Kyrgyz authorities have failed to investigate and hold accountable those officials who have been complicit in such forced returns and extraditions (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2008/12/09/letter-president-bakiev-ensuring-refugee-rights). Also of concern is the lack of public information about whether investigations into “disappearances” of asylum seekers from Uzbekistan were conducted and, if so, what the results were.

In an ongoing case concerning a former Imam, Khabibullo Sulaimanov, currently in the custody of the GKNB in Bishkek, not only have the authorities failed to respect the prohibition on torture by issuing an extradition order for his return to Uzbekistan, but as of February 5, 2013, when an appellate court began review of his case, the GKNB has not granted permission to either the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or to the Ministry of Youth, Labor and Employment to register Mr. Sulaimanov’s asylum claim (see https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/02/04/kyrgyzstan-stop-extradition-uzbekistan).

Recommendations for steps the Kyrgyz authorities should be urged to take:

  • Cease any involuntary returns and extraditions to Uzbekistan, where individuals are at risk of torture.
  • Fully comply with international standards and Kyrgyz legislation on refugee protection, including by ensuring that every asylum seeker is registered as such, regardless of the legality of his or her entry and stay in Kyrgyzstan.

We hope the above information and reference materials linked to from this letter will help inform the Committee’s assessment and contribute to its recommendations to the Kyrgyz government. We thank you for your attention and consideration to these concerns and wish you a productive session.

Sincerely,

Hugh Williamson                                                                                Juliette de Rivero
Executive Director                                                                              Geneva Office Director
Europe and Central Asia Division                                                   Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country