Six months after being elected president and taking power in the first peaceful transition between democratically elected leaders in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbai Jeenbekov is this week making his first official visit to Europe as head of state.
This will be an important trip for Jeenbekov. Just weeks after he assumed office, the European Union and Kyrgyzstan initiated negotiations for an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to establish closer ties and give Kyrgyzstan an elevated status in its dealings with the EU. On Thursday, Jeenbekov will be received by EU leaders, including its top diplomat Federica Mogherini, as well as the presidents of the EU Commission, the Council, and the European Parliament.
When it comes to democratic development, Kyrgyzstan is said to stand apart from its Central Asian neighbors. But as Jeenbebov seeks to establish his international reputation and consolidate his government’s ties with Europe, it would be shortsighted for EU leaders to gloss over glaring human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan boasts a vibrant civil society, but that reputation is marred by the wrongful life imprisonment of human rights defender Azimjon Askarov. The UN Human Rights Committee, affirming that his jailing violates international law, called for his immediate release two years ago, yet he remains behind bars. The EU should press for Kyrgyzstan, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to release him immediately.
Kyrgyz citizens can and do express critical opinions, whether in city squares, social media networks, or in parliament. Yet over the last year unjustified defamation lawsuits seeking millions of Kyrgyz Som from media outlets, journalists, and human rights defenders have had a chilling effect on free speech. This is compounded by criminal investigations against journalists reporting on sensitive topics and arbitrary bans on foreign human rights defenders and media workers.
The EU should make it clear to Jeenbekov that closer ties will be linked to withdrawing unfounded lawsuits against the media, allowing even the most critical journalists and human rights defenders to operate freely, and letting banned journalists and human rights workers back into the country. Human Rights Watch’s researcher on Kyrgyzstan has been banned from the country since December 2015.
Failing to do so would be at odds with the spirit of the EU’s plans for an enhanced partnership, and more importantly, Kyrgyzstan’s development as a country that respects human rights.