(Bishkek) – Kyrgyz authorities should immediately repeal restrictions that prohibit any gatherings in front of the Russian Embassy in Bishkek, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also cancel fines imposed on three human rights defenders detained on March 17, 2022, who were peacefully protesting outside the Russian Embassy.
The ban, which also applies to the parliament, government buildings, and the central square from March 11 to April 11, 2022, was imposed by a Bishkek district police department. Pervomaiskiy District Court upheld the ban on March 16, ruling that all gatherings during this period should be held at an alternate location in the city.
“The Kyrgyzstan authorities apparently want to keep protesters out of the public eye by barring them from prime locations,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People have a right to peacefully express their concerns even if it makes the authorities uncomfortable.”
The ban is disproportionate by preemptively banning assemblies in those prime locations, regardless of their nature, Human Rights Watch said. It is incompatible with respect for freedom of assembly, as protected by Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations, and its own constitution.
The decision has never officially been made public. It came to light later on March 11, when plain-clothes police detained two activists, Dinara Erkimbayeva and Lesya Khmet, who were picketing outside the Russian Embassy.
When confronted by police for allegedly violating the ban, the activists asked to see the court’s decision, but the police officers were unable to produce it. Instead, the police took Erkimbayeva and Khmet to the Pervomaiskiy district police center and accused them of disobeying police orders but did not follow through with formal charges.
Erkimbayeva and Khmet’s lawyer, Dmitry Kabak, told Human Rights Watch that they appealed the district court’s decision, but the Bishkek City Court rejected it on March 16. On March 17 the activists appealed to the Supreme Court and are awaiting a hearing date. Also on March 17, three other human rights defenders, Aziza Abdirasulova, Dinara Oshurakhunova, and Ondurush Toktonasyrov, held a picket outside of the Russian Embassy to protest the unlawful restriction of freedom of assembly and to express solidarity with Ukraine. The police detained them and took them to the district court to be charged with hooliganism and disobeying police orders, in violation of articles 126 and 128 of the Code of Offenses respectively.
On March 18, Pervomaiskiy district court found Oshurakhunova not guilty of hooliganism, but all three were found guilty of disobeying police orders and each fined 3000 Kyrgyz soms (approx. $US 30). They plan to appeal, their representative said.
The district police called in their lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, for questioning. The police told him he was being charged with hooliganism for allegedly speaking ill of the judges on the court. The district court found him guilty on March 24 and sentenced him to five days in detention. He is appealing the conviction.
The country’s constitution forbids any restrictions on freedom of assembly, including any interference with the date, duration, and place of assembly, except as provided for by law. The Law on Peaceful Assemblies provides that a gathering can only be banned on the basis of a court finding that it has an unlawful purpose such as war propaganda or incitement of ethnic, racial, or religious hatred, or is a threat to national security, public order, or to the rights and freedoms of other people.
In line with standards under international human rights law, the Law on Peaceful Assemblies, also requires that any restrictions, such as those related to time, location, or size of gatherings must be for a legitimate purpose, proportionate to that purpose, and demonstrably necessary to achieve their goal. However, the district court issued its decision upholding a blanket ban on all meetings in front of the Russian Embassy and other political buildings, without doing the required analysis to justify such a broad ban, Human Rights Watch said.
The Ombudsperson of Kyrgyzstan, Atyr Abdrakhmatova, expressed her opinion that the ban is incompatible with the constitution and Kyrgzstan’s international obligations, in particular article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as interpreted by the UN Human Rights Committee.
The committee, in its General Comment No. 37, warned against bans on assemblies taking place near courts, parliaments, or other official buildings, and noted that any “restrictions on assemblies in and around such places must be specifically justified and narrowly circumscribed.” The committee has underscored that “peaceful assemblies should not be relegated to remote areas where they cannot effectively capture the attention of those who are being addressed, or the general public.”
On March 23, Dastan Bekeshev, a member of parliament, posted screen shots of the district court’s decision on his public Telegram channel. The court referred to an official note of protest submitted by the Russian Embassy to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 5, concerning anti-war demonstrations since February 24, the date Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started, and alleged complaints by residents near the Embassy about protests. The court imposed the ban on grounds of public order but does not set out the legal rationale to justify the ban that is so broad as to cover all peaceful meetings outside the Russian Embassy, parliament, government buildings, and the central square.
The ban should be repealed, the convictions of Oshurakunova, Abdirasulova, Toktakunov, and Ondurushev vacated, and the fines canceled, Human Rights Watch said.
“This unjustified ban on all peaceful assemblies in front of the Russian Embassy is not just about the right to freedom of assembly, but also the right to freedom of expression,” Sultanalieva said. “Kyrgyz authorities should repeal the ban and not try to impose other restrictions which are incompatible with their domestic and international human rights obligations.”