It’s been four years since a Kyrgyz president visited Germany, a period of change and some progress.
In October 2017, Kyrgyzstan held competitive, peaceful elections ushering in a new president. The country has started negotiations to upgrade relations with the European Union. Parliament rejected a “foreign agents” law in March 2016 that would have undermined freedom of expression. No doubt Chancellor Merkel and other German leaders will use President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s visit on April 15 and 16 to recognize the progress Kyrgyzstan has made.
But while acknowledging these positive steps, German leaders need to keep up the pressure on Jeenbekov to tackle other entrenched human rights issues.
Take Azimjon Askarov, the human rights defender who was wrongfully imprisoned for life after the June 2010 ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. Askarov, now nearly 70, is languishing in prison. The UN Human Rights Committee found in 2016 he had been arbitrarily detained and tortured and called for his release. His continued imprisonment tarnishes any recent progress Kyrgyzstan has made.
On torture and ill-treatment, impunity remains the norm. Sardar Bagishbekov, the head of the local anti-torture human rights organization, Golos Svobody, told Human Rights Watch that “despite the government’s stated zero-tolerance approach to torture, everyday practice shows that torture is common and continues.”
And even where Kyrgyzstan has taken steps forward, such as ushering in a strengthened domestic violence law in 2017, authorities need to do more to combat domestic violence, early marriage, and bride kidnapping. Crisis center workers in Kyrgyzstan told Human Rights Watch this month that despite stronger legislation, enforcement remains weak and harmful attitudes regarding violence against women persist.
The last time Merkel hosted a Kyrgyz president, I was living and working in Kyrgyzstan as Human Rights Watch’s Bishkek office director. Since then, authorities banned me from entering Kyrgyzstan. Other independent human rights monitors and international journalists have similarly been banned, without clear explanation.
Jeenbekov is sure to seek Germany’s support for his country’s social and economic development. German leaders should remind him that just as human rights are interdependent and interrelated, respect for rights and the rule of law is indivisible from sustained bilateral cooperation.