June 4, 2015 Update

On June 4, the “foreign agents” bill, which threatens freedom of association in Kyrgyzstan, passed its first reading in parliament by a vote of 83 to 23.  To become law the bill must be approved in two more votes in parliament and signed by the president.

(Bishkek) – Kyrgyzstan’s parliament should resolutely reject a “foreign agents” bill when it goes to a first reading, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 19, 2015, the parliamentary human rights committee voted to send the bill to parliament for consideration, and the first reading could be as early as this week.

The “foreign agents” law, if adopted, would require domestic nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely worded “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” Such inappropriate and unjustified interference would be incompatible with the right to freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.

“This bill blatantly flouts Kyrgyzstan’s national and international human rights commitments and will only stigmatize nongovernmental organizations doing important work in Kyrgyzstan,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “When the ‘foreign agents’ bill goes to a vote, parliament should reaffirm Kyrgyzstan’s commitment to fundamental freedoms, and resolutely reject it.”

The draft law borrows heavily from a similar “foreign agents” law adopted in Russia in 2012, which has been used to crack down on independent groups.

Kyrgyzstan’s draft law was proposed by three members of parliament in September 2013 and officially registered for consideration in May 2014. The draft law appears aimed at restricting and curtailing the activities of nongovernmental organizations and others working on a wide range of issues, including human rights.

The draft law would impose burdensome reporting requirements on nongovernmental organizations, and create criminal liability for the leaders of nongovernmental organizations “whose work incites citizens to refuse to fulfill their civic duties or commit other unlawful acts.”

The stipulation that foreign-funded nongovernmental groups engaged in “political activities” must register as “foreign agents” would stigmatize such groups and could lead to a public perception that they are spies. Further, “political activities” is a formulation so vague that it could include any organized activity relating to public life. The bill would also grant authorities the right to suspend nongovernmental organizations that have not registered as “foreign agents” for up to six months without a court order.

The draft law contravenes Kyrgyzstan’s constitution as well as its international human rights obligations to protect freedom of association and expression, Human Rights Watch said.

Multiple local, intergovernmental, and international groups have spoken out against the draft law. At a public parliamentary hearing on November 24, 2014, held by the chairperson of the human rights committee, representatives of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union Delegation in Kyrgyzstan opposed the bill’s adoption, saying it does not comply with international human rights standards.

A Justice Ministry representative said at the hearing that the ministry doesn’t have the capacity to carry out such a law. The government administration office, under the prime minister, also issued a negative opinion.

In January, during Kyrgyzstan’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council, many governments made recommendations to uphold freedom of association. The Kyrgyz government had a mixed response to the recommendations, accepting some, including one to “ensure that any legislation on NGOs is in line with international human rights law,” but delaying an answer to other recommendations specifically urging it not to adopt the “foreign agents” bill.

In October 2013, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) and the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe, issued an interim joint opinion that the draft law “represents an interference into several fundamental rights, in primis the right to freedom of association and the right to freedom of expression of associations and individuals in the Kyrgyz Republic.” They recommended against adopting the bill.

The draft law also contravenes reform expectations set for Kyrgyzstan in April 2014 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) when it granted Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament “partnership for democracy” status. PACE highlighted that “refraining from adopting laws aimed directly or indirectly at restricting civil society activities” was of key importance for strengthening democracy in Kyrgyzstan.

“This ‘foreign agents’ bill is a grave affront to the many local nongovernmental organizations working to improve Kyrgyzstan, as well as to the government agencies that benefit from their cooperation and consultation,” Rittmann said. “The members of parliament should recall their responsibility to review legislation in light of Kyrgyzstan’s constitution and international standards, and stop this bill in its tracks.”