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Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov speaks to President of the European Council Charles Michel during their talks in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, June 3, 2023. © 2023 AP/Vladimir Voronin

(Bishkek, June 9, 2023) – The Kyrgyz parliament should reject a highly repressive draft law that would interfere with the activities of nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. The law would require organizations to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign representatives” if they receive funding from abroad and engage in political activity.

On May 19, 2023, parliament members registered Making Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Kyrgyz Republic for consideration, known as the draft law on “Foreign Representatives.” Failure to register under the law could result in suspension of the organization’s activities, including its banking operations, for up to 6 months or until it is registered. This requirement is clearly intended to discredit and stigmatize groups that receive foreign funding and could have a chilling effect on the country’s civil society at a time when it is already under attack.

“The draft law is incompatible with international human rights obligations, restricting freedom of association and expression, as well as introducing in some cases criminal liability for nongovernmental organizations and their staff members,” said Syinat Sultanalieva, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The draft law poses a serious threat to Kyrgyzstan’s vibrant civil society and should be withdrawn.”

The draft law’s vague and overbroad definition of political activity as “actions aimed at changing state policy and shaping public opinion for these purposes” poses a particular risk for civic activism in Kyrgyzstan, where increasingly freedom of association and freedom of expression have come under attack in the last year. These measures threaten to silence the voices of organizations that play a crucial role in promoting human rights, democracy, and social justice in Kyrgyzstan.

The draft law was initially submitted for public consideration in November 2022 by Nadira Narmatova, a government-aligned member of parliament, but later withdrawn. In May, 32 other members joined Narmatova as co-signers and it was resubmitted. They evidently disregarded concerns raised by experts and lawyers during the public consideration period.

The draft law also introduces the designation of foreign nongovernmental organizations – a concept new to Kyrgyzstan, defined as any nongovernmental organization established abroad that operates in Kyrgyzstan through its branches and representative offices. Such organizations must now also be registered.

The draft law expands reporting requirements for all nongovernmental organizations, both foreign branches and “foreign representatives.” They would annually be required to provide information about staff including their names and position, remuneration of each staff member, financial assets, and any property the group owns.

The draft law would grant the government significantly enhanced oversight powers, with representatives of the Justice Ministry allowed to participate in the internal activities of nongovernmental organizations to determine if they are consistent with the organization’s founding purpose. The ministry would also have the right to bar organizations operating in the country from receiving funds from foreign sources.

The draft law also introduces criminal liability – from a fine to up to 10 years in prison for establishing or participating in a nongovernmental organization that is found to be “inciting citizens to refuse to perform civic duties or to commit other unlawful deeds.”

National and international organizations in Kyrgyzstan have warned that the draft law is incompatible with the country’s international human rights obligations. In its Urgent Interim Opinion on the draft law published in December, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe underscored the risk of “stigmatizing certain organizations carrying out legitimate work, including advocacy and participation in public affairs, and potentially of triggering mistrust, fear and hostility against such organizations.” It described the draft law as needing “substantial and fundamental changes amounting to a complete redrafting” and urged the initiators not to pursue it further.

Legal experts have also noted the draft law is similar to the previous “foreign agents” bill that was introduced in 2013 and registered for parliamentary consideration in 2015. That bill passed the first reading with an overwhelming majority vote but was ultimately withdrawn because of pressure from civil society and the country’s international partners. Both the 2013 and current drafts were found to be similar to the Russian “foreign agents” law of 2012.

The draft law contradicts Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Kyrgyzstan is a party. While certain limitations of the rights to freedom of expression and association are permissible under international law, they must be provided by a clear and accessible law and be necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim. The current draft law does not meet this test and would impose undue restrictions on these rights, Human Rights watch said.

The right to seek, receive, and utilize resources from national, international, and foreign sources is an inherent part of the right to freedom of association. This has been established by numerous international and regional human rights mechanisms, including the UN Human Rights Committee, the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR by its States parties.

Kyrgyzstan’s international partners, in particular the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations, should publicly express their concern about the negative consequences of the legislation and urge President Sadyr Japarov not to sign it into law should it pass the parliament.

The draft law is also inconsistent with Kyrgyzstan’s commitments to uphold its international human rights obligations at home and abroad, made in February 2023 when it became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“If passed, this draft law will have a chilling effect on Kyrgyzstan’s civil society organizations, limiting their ability to advocate for human rights, provide social services, and contribute to the development of a robust and inclusive society,” Sultanalieva said. “Kyrgyzstan’s international reputation will suffer as a result.”

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