It doesn’t look like the AFP’s Central Asia correspondent, Chris Rickleton, will celebrate the upcoming holidays at home in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan this year. Instead, his wife and 3-year-old daughter, both Kyrgyzstan citizens, will have to travel to neighboring Kazakhstan if they want to welcome in the new year together.
On December 9, authorities denied Rickleton, a United Kingdom citizen, entry to Kyrgyzstan.
In my case, instead of the usual quick passage through passport control at Manas International Airport – neither US nor UK nationals need a visa to enter Kyrgyzstan – I was pulled aside and told I couldn’t enter. Nothing was provided to me in writing about the decision. I was then put on a plane departing Bishkek, without a chance to pack up my apartment or say goodbye to friends, as my home was in Kyrgyzstan.
People don’t expect Kyrgyzstan to arbitrarily deport international journalists or ban foreign rights workers. It’s the only Central Asian country that has come close to holding free and fair elections, and where people can generally gather to peacefully express critical opinions. The Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe granted Kyrgyzstan “Partnership for Democracy” status, and the European Union and Kyrgyzstan have begun negotiations to enhance their relations.
But Kyrgyzstan’s human rights situation has suffered multiple setbacks this year. On December 19, a national television station, NTS, had its property frozen by a court order. Local journalists and a rights defender critical of the government have been targeted with unfounded lawsuits and barred from leaving Kyrgyzstan until they pay multi-million sums (roughly US$430,000) in “damages.” A local rights defender is serving a life sentence in the face of a UN Human Rights Committee decision calling for his immediate release. This July, Vitaly Ponomarev, a Russian rights defender who has long worked on Central Asia, was denied entry at the border and banned from the country. The country’s supreme court has upheld rulings muzzling free speech.
It’s not too late for Kyrgyzstan’s government to reverse this trend. Instead of targeting critical media, Kyrgyzstan’s recently elected president and his government should ensure space for independent journalism and civil society organizations.The authorities should also welcome Chris Rickleton and others back to Kyrgyzstan.
The European Union, EU member states, and the United States, among others, should speak out against Kyrgyzstan’s assault on freedom of expression and the harm caused to the Kyrgyz people.
With these blows to free speech, keeping silent is no longer an option.