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(Berlin) – Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Agency (GKNB) on March 27, 2015, searched the Osh office of Bir Duino, a well-known human rights organization and the homes of two of its lawyers, Human Rights Watch said today. The group is well known for its work on religious extremism and torture cases in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The searches were in connection with a criminal investigation involving Umar Farooq, a freelance journalist from the United States who was in Kyrgyzstan working on several stories. During the search the GKNB confiscated computers, flash drives, and other equipment that contained legal documentation in criminal cases the two lawyers, Valeryan Vakhitov and Husanbai Saliev, had been working on.

“It is appalling that the GKNB would have such disregard for attorney-client privilege that it would seize confidential legal materials,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The investigation appears to be less about fighting extremism and more about targeting lawyers who take on sensitive cases.”

On March 26, GKNB officers detained Farooq, alleging that he possessed “extremist” material, and opened a criminal investigation on charges of “calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order” and “possession of extremist materials.” He was accused of working in Kyrgyzstan without proper authorization. Farooq denies any criminal wrongdoing, and told Human Rights Watch that police officers had planted the three DVDs that were found in his bag.

The two investigators who carried out the searches had been reprimanded in 2014 for overreach and for violations while carrying out an investigation, in cases in which Vakhitov and Saliev had represented clients facing criminal charges brought by the GKNB.

The security services should immediately return what they confiscated so that Vakhitov and Saliev can continue their important human rights work, Human Rights Watch said. The government should hold the investigators and others responsible for seizing the equipment and confidential legal material to account and desist from further harassment and intimidation. Under Kyrgyzstan’s Law on Lawyers and Lawyers’ Activity, materials relating to a specific criminal case may only be confiscated from the lawyer working that case when the lawyer is facing criminal charges.

Neither Saliev nor Vakhitov has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, suggesting that the GKNB is using the pretext of the Farooq criminal investigation to retaliate against the lawyers and obstruct their work, Human Rights Watch said. The equipment seized contains confidential materials pertaining to other cases as well, making the case material vulnerable to unlawful access by the GKNB.

In a March 28 statement, Bir Duino expressed concern that it “considers the actions of the GKNB as pressure on Kyrgyzstan’s human rights defenders and in particular, on lawyers for their human rights activities.”

An Osh court on March 28 ruled that Farooq should be deported, finding that he was working as a journalist in Kyrgyzstan without accreditation. He was transferred to Bishkek and put on a flight out of the country early the next morning.

In a statement released on March 27, the GKNB’s press service said that it found in Farooq’s possession “copies of investigation documents of criminal cases recently brought against a leader of the religious-extremist-organization ‘Hizb ut-Tahrir’ and other members of terrorist groups, as well as DVD-discs with video materials of a religious-extremist and terrorist nature, with calls to ‘jihad’ and interreligious discord.”

In the statement, the GKNB said that Farooq had received case materials from Vakhitov and that Saliev’s business card was in Farooq’s belongings. As a result, the agency said, it had requested a warrant to search Vakhitov’s and Saliev’s homes and offices.

The day after the GKNB searched their office and homes, Vakhitov and Saliev filed a complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor General against the “unlawful actions of GKNB officers,” in particular for violating the Criminal Procedural Code and the Law on Lawyers and Lawyers’ Activity.

In an open letter dated March 28, Kyrgyzstan’s Bar Association also called on the prosecutor general to “take the most stringent measures provided in law against the GKNB officers who violated guarantees of the independence of the legal profession and integrity of lawyers under article 57 of the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic and article 29 of the Law on Lawyers and Lawyers’ Activity.”

The German leaders, with whom President Almazbek Atambaev is meeting this week in the final days of his 10-day European tour, should raise concern over these developments and urge him to address these serious violations of the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and the right to a legal defense, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch had also urged European leaders to raise other pressing human rights concerns, including discriminatory and rights-violating legislation and the case of Azimjon Askarov, an imprisoned human rights defender.

On March 23, Atambaev told journalists in Vienna that Kyrgyzstan faces an extremist threat and requested military aid from Austria and other EU countries.

“President Atambaev may have grounds to ask for military assistance to fight legitimate extremist threats,” Rittmann said. “But that should be no excuse for harassing well-known human rights lawyers and interfering with attorney-client privilege.”

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