(Berlin) – A blogger in Kyrgyzstan who wrote about corruption on social media is facing charges of inter-regional incitement, Human Rights Watch said today. The blogger, Aftandil Zhorobekov, was detained on November 24, 2019 by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) and held in pretrial detention until being placed under house arrest on December 5, with the charges against him still standing.
The national security agency said that Zhorobekov, the 34-year-old administrator of a Facebook page called “BespredelKG” – “lawlessness” in Russian – had posted “knowingly false and provocative information meant to discredit the current authorities,” which “resulted in the agitation of hateful feelings” among visitors to the page. Incitement carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The Kyrgyzstan authorities should drop the charges against him.
“The authorities in Kyrgyzstan are using bogus incitement charges as a pretext to punish Zhorobekov for his controversial posts about government figures,” said Laura Mills, a Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “His arrest sets a dangerous precedent that anyone could be held criminally liable for criticizing public figures, or for the offending speech of others.
A court-issued warrant published by media outlets said that Zhorobekov first attracted law enforcement attention for a post in which he accused the president and his allies of corruption. Separately, the national security agency sent media outlets various screenshots pertaining to the case, which included snapshots of posts about Kyrgyz politicians as well as comments posted by visitors to the page.
Law enforcement agencies’ repeated references to Zhorobekov’s writing about government figures underscore concerns that, since the claims of incitement are unsubstantiated, their real intent is to muzzle a critical voice. Politicians in Kyrgyzstan regularly target critical journalists or media outlets with damaging lawsuits, but defamation appropriately carries no criminal punishment. In this case, the authorities are holding Zhorobekov criminally liable for the actions of others – those who posted offensive comments on his Facebook page.
The charges against Zhorobekov violate Kyrgyzstan’s human rights obligations, including as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects freedom of expression. The ICCPR allows for certain restrictions on expression, including in response to “incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” But any laws restricting freedom of expression must comply with the principle of legal certainty, in that they are sufficiently clear and precise to ensure people are able to reasonably foresee the consequences of their actions and regulate their conduct in relation to the law. Restrictions can also only be imposed to the extent that they are a proportionate and necessary response to protect the interest at stake. The misuse of incitement charges against Zhorobekov to achieve an ulterior, impermissible motive – that of silencing a critic – fails to meet these criteria.
The charges against Zhorobekov demonstrate how Kyrgyzstan’s broad definition of incitement can be used to chill freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. In March, the authorities detained a couple who held up posters condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin outside the Russian Embassy in Bishkek and charged them with inciting national hatred, though the charges were later dropped. A teacher accused of incitement for anti-Russian comments online was acquitted in May.
Zhorobekov’s family said that they were unaware of any previous expression of concern from the authorities regarding the content on his social media pages. They said his apartment was searched in the days after his arrest.
“The ability to express critical opinions is fundamental to freedom of expression,” Mills said. “The authorities in Kyrgyzstan should immediately drop the criminal charges against Zhorobekov, lift his house arrest, and ensure the statute on incitement isn’t used abusively again in the future.”