(Berlin) – Kyrgyz President-elect Sooronbai Jeenbekov should demonstrate from the outset that he intends to put human rights front and center when he takes office in December, Human Rights Watch said today. Jeenbekov’s government should reverse the human rights backsliding that accelerated in the months leading up to the presidential election, reaffirm the importance of an independent media, and respect the important role of independent groups and activists.

Kyrgyzstan’s Central Election Commission announced preliminary results on October 17, giving Jeenbekov 54 percent of the vote to 33 percent for Omurbek Babanov, a businessman who was his leading opponent.

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. © 2017 REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

“A competitive presidential election took place in Kyrgyzstan, but concerns expressed by election monitors, including about media restrictions, underscore the continued need for reforms,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The president-elect should set out how he intends to guarantee human rights in his domestic policies when he takes office.”

In an October 16 preliminary statement on the presidential election, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) election monitoring mission noted that even as the election “contributed to the strengthening of democratic institutions by providing for an orderly transfer of power from one elected president to another,” they had “received credible reports of widespread abuse of public resources and pressure on voters, as well as of vote-buying.”

The observers also said there were “numerous and significant problems…during the vote count and the initial stages of tabulation,” and noted that “elections were held concurrently with several criminal cases against opposition politicians or others supporting one of the main candidates.”

The OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Désir, on October 17 condemned an assault on three journalists in the southern city of Osh on election day, saying that the authorities should investigate and bring those responsible to justice. The observation mission had also noted that “an increasing number of defamation cases with excessive damages claimed by the incumbent president and Mr. Jeenbekov and awarded against media and journalists before and during the campaign had an adverse effect on an open debate of matters of public concern.”

The president-elect should publicly acknowledge these and other concerns and pledge to address them as a signal that he is committed to upholding Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Jeenbekov, a former prime minister and member of the majority party in parliament, will be confronted with other significant human rights concerns, which he should also make clear he intends to remedy, Human Rights Watch said.

These include the deteriorating environment for media freedom and human rights activism, and the wrongful imprisonment of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov. The new government should move promptly to free Askarov from his life sentence, to carry out a ruling of the UN Human Rights Committee, in accordance with Kyrgyzstan’s international obligations. The government should also stop bringing unfounded lawsuits against media that criticize the government, and instead ensure that both journalists and human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan can work without fear of reprisal or harassment.

The incoming president should also make it a priority to address the longstanding issue of ill-treatment and torture in places of detention. He should oversee the rigorous enforcement of laws criminalizing torture and end the culture of impunity for torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement.

The new president should also work to eliminate the country’s persistent domestic violence and violence against women. Following the adoption of a strengthened law against domestic violence earlier in 2017, Jeenbekov’s government should commit the resources to ensure adequate protection, support, and access to justice for survivors of abuse. The president-elect should also give appropriate attention to improving interethnic relations in the south and take steps to provide justice to victims of the 2010 ethnic violence and its aftermath.

Another challenge facing the new administration will be ensuring respect for human rights in the context of fighting terrorism and extremism. Over the past year, the government stepped up counterterrorism measures, arresting dozens of people for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials. Some detainees have alleged they were arrested based on false testimony or evidence planted by the police, and that they were tortured or otherwise abused in police custody. Jeenbekov should ensure that law enforcement agents do not violate rights in the context of fighting terrorism and extremism in Kyrgyzstan.

Jeenbekov has said that he will continue his predecessor’s policies and that his task is “to preserve what has been achieved [and] strengthen what has been started.”

“Strengthening what has been started means building on areas of human rights progress, and in equal measure, bringing an end to rights-violating practices,” Rittmann said. “Jeenbekov has an important opportunity to address head-on existing human rights problems, and to set a meaningful human rights agenda for his time in office.”