(Bishkek) – The Kyrgyz government has proposed a draft law that would enable it to restrict citizens’ right to freedom of association and strengthen regulation and control over nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said today.
The draft Law on Non-Commercial Non-Governmental Organizations would introduce burdensome registration and operational restrictions on nongovernmental groups and require existing groups to re-register, raising concerns that authorities could use the process to force some organizations to close.
“Kyrgyzstan has been known, and praised, for its vibrant civil society,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government of Kyrgyzstan should drop these plans to limit the way civil society operates and instead honor its international obligations to support freedom of association.”
The introduction of the draft law comes amid a serious deterioration in respect for human rights in Kyrgyzstan. The government submitted it for public consideration on November 2, 2022, a week after more than 20 activists were arrested en masse in response to their critical statements on the impending transfer of an important dam to Uzbekistan as part of a border demarcation deal. The activists are currently being held in pretrial detention for two months.
The government has sought to justify the proposal as a way to ensure greater transparency on the part of nongovernmental groups as well as to protect the national interests of the state and the people.
In September, the authorities proposed amendments to the Law on Mass Media to tighten governmental control over communications, including independent bloggers. Following public and expert outcry against the changes, the Kyrgyz government agreed to consult the media about revising the amendments and to submit them to the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe on constitutional and legal reform.
The draft law on nongovernmental groups which is out for public consultation until December 2 before being introduced in parliament. Replacing the current law, which has fewer restrictions, it would require all existing and future noncommercial nongovernmental organizations, both local and international, to be legally registered and each would require the support of at least 10 Kyrgyz citizens. Foreigners and stateless people would be barred from setting up nongovernmental organizations.
The draft provides 30 days for the authorities to consider a registration application, as opposed to the 10 days in the existing law.
The draft also would authorize the State Tax Service, the Justice Ministry, the General Prosecutor’s Office, and their local representative offices to supervise groups’ activities. Groups would be required to report the sources of their income, their expenditures, and ownership of property to these agencies. The Justice Ministry and Prosecutor’s Office would be able to request and review groups’ internal documents, inspect groups’ offices at the officials’ discretion, and send their representatives to participate in internal group activities. They will have the authority to apply sanctions or liquidate a group if the inspectors decide the organization’s activities are inconsistent with its charter.
Foreign groups and their representative offices would be subject to increased scrutiny, with the authorities granted broad grounds to refuse registration or order liquidation. The amendments do not include a specified review period under which authorities have to consider the registration of foreign groups, creating an opportunity for protracted decision-making on arbitrary grounds. The Justice Ministry and the Prosecutor’s Office would have the right to prohibit activities or programming of foreign organizations if they are deemed to infringe on the country’s constitutional order and national security or on citizens’ morality or health.
These changes would impose an intolerable burden on groups’ operations, severely hindering their activities and freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said. Under international human rights norms on freedom of association, governments must avoid imposing unjustified, burdensome regulations.
Adilet, a legal clinic, and the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL), two prominent expert groups, have expressed their concern over the serious impact the draft law would have on fundamental rights and freedoms. The draft law continues the deeply concerning authoritarian trend in Kyrgyzstan in the last few years, following the 2021 laws On False Information and On Non-commercial Organizations. Legal experts also note the draft law’s similarity to the 2015 draft law on “foreign agents,” which was ultimately withdrawn.
On November 7, a group of Kyrgyz human rights organizations petitioned President Sadyr Japarov to withdraw the bill as many of its provisions contradict the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Kyrgyzstan ratified in 1994. Among other rights, the ICCPR guarantees the rights to freedom of expression and association.
The government has proposed the draft law despite benchmarks set by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in April 2014 when it granted Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament “partnership for democracy” status. PACE highlighted that “refraining from adopting laws aimed directly or indirectly at restricting civil society activities” was of key importance for strengthening democracy in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s international partners, in particular the European Union and United States, should outline to President Japarov and his administration the potential negative consequences of the legislation and urge him to withdraw it immediately.
“Kyrgyzstan should stay true to its national and international commitments to respect all human rights, including the right to freedom of association,” Sultanalieva said. “It can start by withdrawing the draft law from consideration.”