(Brussels) – Leaders of the European Union, France, Germany, and Switzerland should raise pressing human rights concerns and seek commitments to address them from Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambaev, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kyrgyzstan leader is visiting Brussels and European capitals from March 22 to April 1, 2015.
European leaders should seek firm promises to reject two bills before the Kyrgyzstan Parliament that are wholly incompatible with respect for human rights in a democratic society. One is a blatantly discriminatory anti-gay “propaganda” bill, and the other a deeply problematic “foreign agents” bill that would limit the ability of human rights and other nongovernmental groups to continue their important work. EU leaders should also press Atambaev to release immediately the wrongfully imprisoned rights defender Azimjon Askarov, given the flawed and unfair trial that led to his lifetime imprisonment.
“Rights-violating legislation and longstanding, unaddressed abuses undermine democratic progress in Kyrgyzstan,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “European leaders shouldn’t miss this opportunity to speak out about these concerns and urge President Atambaev to call a halt to human rights abuses in his country.”
Atambaev will hold talks with several heads of state, including President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and President Simonetta Sommaruga of Switzerland. In Brussels his hosts include Martin Schulz, the European Parliament president; Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president; and Donald Tusk, the European Council president.
Askarov, a human rights defender who has focused on ill-treatment and torture by the police, has been serving a life sentence since 2010 following a trial that did not meet fair trial standards. He was convicted for alleged involvement in the ethnic violence that rocked the country’s south in June 2010. During his trial, Askarov, 63, made credible allegations that he had been tortured in custody, but prosecutorial authorities have repeatedly declined to investigate. His health has declined markedly in prison.
The highly problematic bills would seriously curb freedom of association and expression by individuals and nongovernmental groups and contravene Kyrgyzstan’s obligation to ensure nondiscrimination, Human Rights Watch said.
On February 17, 2015, the Law, Order and Fighting Crime Committee in parliament cleared the way for a second reading of the anti-gay “propaganda” bill, which aims to silence anyone seeking to openly share information about same-sex relations in Kyrgyzstan. On March 10, the same committee approved the “foreign agents” bill, which would require organizations that receive foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” The bill has not passed its first reading.
On March 19, Sapar Isakov, head of the presidential administration’s foreign affairs department, was quoted in the media as saying that Atambaev’s trip to Europe is “unprecedented” and “shows that [Kyrgyzstan’s] reforms ... and political path are supported by the EU.”
“Assertions like Isakov’s underscore just how critical it is for Europe’s leaders to set the record straight,” Rittmann said. “The European leaders need to make clear what it would take for Kyrgyzstan to be considered on the right path with its reforms.”
In April 2014, when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) granted Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament “partnership for democracy” status, the accompanying resolution expressly called on the parliament to “refrain from adopting laws aimed directly or indirectly at restricting civil society activities.”
A January 2015 resolution by the European Parliament urged the Kyrgyzstan Parliament to reject the anti-gay “propaganda” bill and in particular called on the Commission, Council and External Action Service to make clear that its adoption “could affect relations with the EU.”
European leaders should reinforce Council of Europe and European Parliament messages by expressing clear concern about pending discriminatory and rights-violating legislation, Human Rights Watch said.
Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia that has introduced a parliamentary democratic system and that has had a peaceful transfer of presidential power. Following the June 2010 ethnic violence that killed hundreds and left thousands homeless, the government instituted some political and rights reforms, such as decriminalizing libel and introducing a national torture prevention mechanism. But entrenched and long-standing human rights abuses persist.
Following Kyrgyzstan’s recent Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government made a commitment to ensure that “all allegations of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, including those related to the June 2010 violence, are thoroughly investigated and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Yet authorities have long failed to provide justice for victims of the 2010 violence or to hold those responsible to account. And the authorities have declined to investigate serious and credible allegations of torture during investigations of the violence or to review subsequent convictions marred by torture-tainted confessions.
The government has not done enough to address the longstanding problems of gender-based and domestic violence, and violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Domestic violence is common, as are abductions for forced marriage, despite legislative amendments increasing the penalties for this practice. Gay and bisexual men are at serious risk of extortion schemes and physical and sexual violence at the hands of the police, with abuses largely unpunished.
European officials should use their talks with Atambaev to urge him to ensure a more effective response to gender-based violence, Human Rights Watch said. They should also urge him to initiate and support concrete measures to address discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, including ending impunity for police abuses by ensuring that victims can seek and get justice.
“European leaders should use the Kyrgyzstan president’s visit to press him to reaffirm his country’s commitment to human rights reforms and put an end to blatant and long-standing abuses,” Rittmann said.