Immigration officials in Kyrgyzstan on December 2, 2015, refused to allow a Human Rights Watch researcher to enter the country and told her she had been banned. Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher and Bishkek office director, has been declared “persona non grata,” according to a refusal-of-entry order. Shortly afterward, she was placed on a flight out of Bishkek.

The order, which Human Rights Watch has seen, indicated that Rittmann violated Kyrgyzstan’s migration law, but did not include any additional details. There are no credible or justified grounds for the decision to ban Rittmann, and Human Rights Watch sees the authorities’ actions as direct interference in the organization’s ability to carry out normal human rights monitoring in Kyrgyzstan.

“Banning a Human Rights Watch researcher from Kyrgyzstan is unprecedented, unexpected, and a deeply disturbing sign,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities in Kyrgyzstan should immediately lift the ban and allow Rittmann to return to Bishkek and continue working without harassment.”

The ban sends a highly regrettable and negative signal as Kyrgyzstan, the only parliamentary democracy in Central Asia, portrays itself as committed to improving its human rights record and to allowing human rights groups to operate. In November, Kyrgyzstan voted in favor of a United Nations resolution on the important role that human rights defenders play “in building and maintaining sustainable, open and democratic societies.”

The decision to ban Rittmann also comes ahead of Kyrgyzstan taking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in January 2016. Human Rights Watch has been working on human rights in Kyrgyzstan since the mid-1990s and has held constructive dialogue with the authorities in Kyrgyzstan on human rights issues, most recently regarding the publication, in October 2015, of new findings on domestic violence in the country.

However, since Human Rights Watch opened an office in Bishkek in 2012, the organization has faced serious difficulties getting work permits for Bishkek-based international staff, including for Rittmann.

In June 2015, the authorities denied Rittmann’s application for work permit renewal on the grounds that the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) considered it “inappropriate” to issue her the permit. No further explanation was given.

Rittmann, a United States national, has lived in Central Asia for many years and has been based in Bishkek, most recently since 2012.

Following the ban on Rittmann, Human Rights Watch is seeking clarification from the authorities about the grounds for the decision and possible steps that could be taken for the ban to be lifted.

Although Kyrgyzstan boasts active and outspoken nongovernmental groups and the government has a record of engaging with UN human rights mechanisms, Kyrgyzstan has previously banned or prevented human rights workers from entering the country, for the most part in 2008 and 2009, under former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was ousted in April 2010. Many of the bans were reversed later that year. 

Human Rights Watch is committed to continuing to monitor human rights developments in Kyrgyzstan.

“Kyrgyzstan’s quest to prevent human rights scrutiny sends a dangerous signal about its intentions,” Roth said. “We hope that wiser heads prevail and that Human Rights Watch is soon allowed to resume its normal work in the country.”