Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Kyrgyzstan's President Sooronbai Jeenbekov pose after a signing ceremony in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on March 28, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Images

(Berlin) – Kyrgyzstan police detained a couple staging a peaceful protest in Bishkek on March 27, 2019, accusing them of “inciting national enmity,” Human Rights Watch said today.

Nurlan Karymshakov, 48, and Gulzana Imaeva, 38, were detained as they held up anti-Putin posters outside the Russian Embassy on the morning before President Vladimir Putin’s planned visit to the Kyrgyzstan capital. At around 8:30 a.m. on March 27, Karymshakov and Imaeva displayed posters with the words “Putin!!! Aggressor Killer Occupier,” and “No to Putin’s Torpedoes No bombs in Issyk kul,” presumably in reference to Russia’s military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

“Publicly expressing negative views of the Russian president is well within the bounds of exercising free speech, protected under both Kyrgyz and international law,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyz authorities should immediately withdraw these unfounded charges and drop the case.”

A police officer detained Karymshakov and Imaeva at approximately 9 a.m. Bishkek time, and took them by car to the Pervomaiskii police station. Zamir Jooshev, their lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that police neither registered their detention, nor informed them of their right to counsel upon their arrival, both of which constitute procedural violations under Kyrgyz law. Jooshev also said that the police did not provide his clients with food or drink during the approximately 20 hours they were in police custody.

At around 6:30 p.m., police took Karymshakov and his wife to their home and executed a search warrant. Officers confiscated their son’s laptop, three posters, and approximately a dozen pieces of paper, money they had in the house, and a rifle belonging to Karymshakov’s deceased father, who had used it for hunting, Jooshev said.

Police ordered a linguistic analysis of the posters the couple held up outside the Russian Embassy. According to expert analysis, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, “the author, showing his personal hostility, antipathy, and anger towards the President of the Russian Federation V. V. Putin, thereby ascribes false hostile actions and dangerous intentions of one nation towards another, which allows for the determination of the text under analysis as one aimed at inciting national enmity.”

The expert analysis also concluded that “generalizing and directing negative attributes to the head of a certain nation, that is, to such a nation as Russia, serves as a basis to positively answer the question of whether the text contains expressions of inciting national enmity.”

Expressing negative comments about a single person, in particular if the person is a public political figure such as the president of a country, does not amount to incitement of national enmity against the country’s people, Human Rights Watch said.

Jooshev said that the police only registered his clients’ detention around 4 a.m. on March 28, approximately 20 hours after they were detained. Afterward, they were transferred to a temporary detention center in Bishkek. In a pre-trial detention hearing that began late on March 28 and concluded after midnight, a judge at the Pervomaiskii District Court ordered that the couple be released under their own recognizance.

Jooshev said that the accusations against his clients are “completely unfounded. They were exercising their right to free speech, [expressing] their subjective view of [President Putin]. There is no crime here.”

Expression of political opinion, including negative opinions, about individual politicians, is a fundamental element of freedom of expression in a democratic society based on human rights and rule of law. In addition, under international law government officials and those involved in public affairs are required to be tolerant of a greater degree of scrutiny and criticism than ordinary citizens. Threatening activists with criminal sanctions, especially on vague “incitement” charges when there is no imminent threat of violence as a result of their actions, is a blatant violation of Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

“Karymshakov and Imaeva should never have been detained for expressing views critical of President Putin, no matter how inconvenient for Kyrgyz authorities on the eve of the Russian president’s visit,” Rittmann said. “Authorities should withdraw the criminal charges without delay and close the case.”