(Berlin) – The Kyrgyz authorities should immediately halt the recent backsliding on human rights and take steps to protect freedom of speech, association, and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 8, 2014, Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record will come under scrutiny during the annual EU-Kyrgyzstan human rights dialogue, as well as by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which will decide whether to grant Kyrgyzstan “partnership for democracy” status.
In recent months, officials have stepped up homophobic rhetoric and moved to introduce legislation that would criminalize the dissemination of information about homosexuality or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues. A Bishkek court banned peaceful protests in several central locations in Kyrgyzstan’s capital until May 1 to prepare for an April commemorative event. And authorities failed to take any meaningful action when activists were harassed and threatened, prompting one to leave the country, fearing for his safety.
“Kyrgyzstan likes to claim it is a regional leader on human rights, but recent worrying developments fly in the face of Kyrgyzstan’s rights obligations,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kyrgyzstan’s international partners should publicly express their concern and tell Kyrgyz authorities that they need to reverse course.”
On March 26, parliament published a draft bill that would impose criminal and administrative sanctions for distributing information about homosexuality or LGBT issues in a way that creates “a positive attitude toward nontraditional sexual orientation.” The provisions in the bill would violate Kyrgyzstan’s constitution as well as international human rights law on nondiscrimination, freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
Two PACE rapporteurs who are reviewing Kyrgyzstan’s bid for elevated status criticized the bill and urged Kyrgyzstan to withdraw it. The LGBT Intergroup of the European Parliament also urged the sponsors to withdraw it. In Kyrgyzstan, though, a single member of parliament is the only official who has publicly spoken out against the bill.
In recent months activists have been harassed and targeted in the media and through public protest. These incidents have coincided with greater attention to the rights of LGBT people following publication of the Human Rights Watch report “They Told Us We Deserved This” in February about police abuse of gay and bisexual men, and with renewed calls for a “foreign agents” law for Kyrgyzstan, including in an article published by the government-owned newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana (The Word of Kyrgyzstan), on March 14.
The draft “foreign agents” law was proposed in September 2013. It would require domestic nongovernmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely worded “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.” After public outcry, parliament took no action, but the bill has not been officially withdrawn.
In the weeks following the publication of the Human Rights Watch report, a local LGBT activist who was involved with the report release became the target of harassment and threats, including death threats, in social media networks. He filed a complaint in February 2014 with the State National Security Committee, which responded that investigating the situation was not in its mandate. The activist plans to file another complaint with the Internal Affairs Ministry.
More recently, a group of provocateurs harassed representatives of the US-based rights organization Freedom House in Osh, a town in southern Kyrgyzstan. Although the Freedom House team travelled to Osh to discuss a range of human rights issues, on April 2 a crowd of approximately 30 people gathered outside the hotel where Freedom House staff were staying, while several individuals held up posters with anti-LGBT slogans and calling NGO workers “perverts."
The crowd also targeted a prominent local human rights defender by name, holding up a poster that stated: “Tolekan Ismailova – enemy of the family – get out of Kyrgyzstan.” In 2012, Ismailova experienced similar harassment after her human rights group Bir Duino (One World) organized a viewing of a documentary film about gay Muslims. She does not work for Freedom House.
A Freedom House staff member told Human Rights Watch that rather than disperse the crowd, police at the scene urged Freedom House staff to leave, saying that the police could not “guarantee their safety.” Leaders in the crowd demanded that Freedom House not raise LGBT rights in their meetings and also spoke against USAID projects, the same Freedom House staff member said. The crowd followed the Freedom House delegation to their meetings in Osh over the next several hours, prompting the Freedom House team to cut their trip short.
Ilya Lukash, a well-known civic activist who maintains a blog on political issues, told Human Rights Watch that in February, various people started to harass and threaten him on social networks and in the media. The threats came after he participated in protests in solidarity with Ukrainians demonstrating at Maidan Square in Kiev, including organizing a flash mob to honor protesters who had been killed in January, and after he spoke out against Kyrgyzstan joining the Eurasian Customs Union with Russia.
In late February, the nationalist group Kalys staged a protest in front of the US Embassy, where members burned Lukash’s photograph as part of their protest against the US “intervening in internal issues of Kyrgyzstan” and “propaganda for homosexuality.” Lukash did not file a formal complaint, and police did not take any initiative to investigate the incident. Lukash told Human Rights Watch that following the Kalys protest, groups of aggressive men harassed him in public, saying they “should follow him home and beat him,” which made him fear for his safety. Soon afterward, Lukash left Kyrgyzstan.
On March 29, a court in Bishkek banned all public assemblies in the Ala Too Square and other central locations in the capital from March 31 to May 1 to prevent “destabilization of the socio-political situation by destructive forces.” The order apparently was in connection with the four-year commemoration of the April 2010 uprising, which ousted a former leader. The court ruled that meetings could be held at an alternative location, Gorkii Square, which is a more remote location.
Local human rights groups responded quickly, criticizing the decision as unconstitutional and in violation of Kyrgyzstan’s law on peaceful assemblies, and calling on the authorities to reverse the ban. On April 2, the prosecutor general appealed the court’s decision. The ban remains in effect pending appeal.
“Activists have been threatened and harassed in recent months, while authorities have stood by, doing little to protect them,” Williamson said. “By proposing ‘foreign agent’ and ‘LGBT propaganda’ bills, and imposing a temporary ban on peaceful assembly in the city center, authorities have created a hostile atmosphere, threatening the important work of rights organizations and activists across Kyrgyzstan.”