(Bishkek, March 20, 2023) – Twenty-two civil activists, bloggers, journalists, and politicians who disagreed with the government over a border issue and are currently in pretrial facilities in Kyrgyzstan should be immediately released and their due process rights upheld, Human Rights Watch said today.
The detainees were initially placed under arrest for 48 hours on October 23, 2022, accused of fomenting “mass unrest” after disagreeing with the impending transfer of jurisdiction over an important dam, Kempir-Abad, to Uzbekistan as part of a border demarcation deal. They have spent nearly five months behind bars in facilities unsuitable for long-term detention, even though international law provides that pretrial detention should only be used as an exception, and for as short a time as possible.
“These citizens, who were exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, should not have been placed in pretrial detention in the first place, far less still be there,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should be released immediately, and if at the end of an effective investigation there is credible evidence that they have committed a criminal offense, guaranteed a fair trial.”
In January and February 2023, three detainees among an original group of 25 were transferred to house arrest due to their deteriorated health. On February 17, the Bishkek district court extended the pretrial detention of the remaining 22 activists until April 20.
All of the detainees were charged with preparation and organization of mass unrest on the basis of “evidence obtained from a special investigation,” which appears to be a series of edited and excerpted wiretapped conversations between some of the detainees. The audio-montage was apparently constructed to show some detainees calling for a government overthrow because of the contentious border agreement. On January 18, all of their criminal cases were classified as “secret,” making independent monitoring impossible. The detainees face 5 to 10 years in prison if found guilty.
Since October, the courts, on three occasions, have extended their pretrial detention by two months – the maximum allowed for such detentions under Kyrgyzstan’s Criminal Procedural Code. The courts accepted the prosecutors’ claim that continued detention was necessary, as the expert assessment of evidence obtained during warrantless searches of the activists’ houses and seizure of their personal property, including electronic devices, had not concluded. No tangible progress has been made in the criminal investigations.
The “Kempir-Abad case,” as it has become known, is rife with procedural violations incompatible with the country’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said. It has also shown the authorities’ lack of humanity toward detainees who had existing health conditions or have developed them due to substandard conditions in the detention facilities. The detainees are not allowed visits by their relatives, including children, who have only been able to get a glimpse of them through bars during one of the three court hearings on their detention extension.
Conditions in the pretrial detention facility are reportedly worse than in regular prisons, as the facility is not intended for long-term stay. According to a March 12 Facebook post by a daughter of a detained human rights defender, Rita Karasartova, detainees are allowed only 40 minutes a day to walk in a five-by six-meter room with metal bars for a roof. On December 14, 19 detainees, including four women, went on a hunger strike for two weeks to protest detention conditions, leaving them in a weakened and debilitated state, their lawyers said.
Several detainees’ health has sharply deteriorated during detention, including a former judge of the Constitutional Court, Klara Sooronkulova, who on February 20 was transferred to a hospital for surgery. On March 14, she was required to return to a pretrial detention facility, despite not completing rehabilitation,
On March 17, relatives of the detainees held a protest under the slogan of “For Justice and Freedom” calling for their release, among other demands. There have been several other protests by the detainees’ relatives in the months since their detention, with a protest in January resulting in detention of 27 relatives, all of whom were released the same day.
Both national and international organizations have expressed concern about a lack of tangible progress in the investigation and lack of accountability for the continued procedural violations in the case. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on October 26 reminding the Kyrgyz authorities that the “Kempir-Abad case” detainees should be presumed innocent and that pretrial detention should be an exception, in line with international human rights norms and standards.
The UN Human Rights Committee categorizes detention as punishment for the legitimate exercise of the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party, as arbitrary and impermissible.
Kyrgyzstan’s international partners should urge the Kyrgyz authorities to release the wrongfully detained activists and guarantee fair trials.
“The ‘Kempir-Abad case’ is a litmus test for the humanity and fitness of the Kyrgyz authorities to remain a respectable partner in the global community of states,” Sultanalieva said. “They should uphold their international human rights obligations and immediately release all of those detained, ensuring effective and timely completion of investigations in each of their cases, and provide redress and compensation for those wrongfully kept in detention.”