Kyrgyz law enforcement officers verify drivers and passengers' documents at a check point, after authorities declared a state of emergency in the capital Bishkek and imposed a curfew as an additional measure to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease, on the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. March 26, 2020. © 2020 REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

(Berlin) – Governments in Central Asia have failed to consistently uphold human rights obligations in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic by limiting access to information about the spread of the virus and implementing restrictions in discriminatory or arbitrary ways, Human Rights Watch said today.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have yet to acknowledge the existence of Covid-19 cases in their countries. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan all moved in March to acknowledge cases of Covid-19 and have taken important steps to limit its spread and protect their citizens, including those affected economically by lockdowns and business closures. But these governments have used restrictions put in place in response to the crisis to target journalists, healthcare providers, and activists, and have carried out quarantine measures in ways that have at times proven arbitrary and disproportionate.

“All Central Asian governments have obligations to protect their citizens’ right to health by providing accurate information about Covid-19,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “They should not use restrictions to muzzle journalists, healthcare providers, and others attempting to inform the public or protect against rights violations.”

Central Asian governments should ensure that citizens have access to timely accurate information about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19. They should ensure that restrictions responding to the pandemic are not carried out in ways that violate or undermine protection of rights.

On March 13, 2020, Kazakhstan became the first Central Asian nation to publicly confirm it had Covid-19 cases. The government declared an emergency, closing the border to foreigners, restricting internal travel, and enforcing lockdowns that were eventually extended throughout the country. Soon after, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan also announced confirmed cases and similar emergency measures. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have said current restrictions will remain in place until at least the end of April, while Uzbekistan extended the measures until May 10.

In Kyrgyzstan, neither independent media outlets nor lawyers have been granted permits to pass police checkpoints, interfering with their ability to do their jobs. In Kazakhstan, more than 1,000 people have been placed in custody for violating quarantine, in some cases in ways that clearly violated human rights. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have all threatened criminal sanctions or opened investigations into people for spreading “false information” about the virus, including doctors concerned about inadequate protective equipment.

The governments of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have responded to the global pandemic by limiting entry to the country, closing borders, and forcibly quarantining people arriving from abroad.

While Turkmenistan took steps to raise awareness about handwashing and other hygiene measures, for months state media and high-level government officials were mostly silent about Covid-19. The authorities have sought to silence medical workers and others speaking out about the impact of the virus in the country.

Tajik authorities have provided some information about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on government ministry websites, and have visited some schools, universities, and army bases to inform people about the disease. However, they have not imposed a quarantine or encouraged social distancing in any meaningful way. The government did not cancel Nowruz, or New Year, festivities in late March, and schools, businesses, and most public spaces remain open.

Under international law, everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and governments are obligated to take steps to prevent, treat, and control epidemics and other diseases. Governments are also responsible for providing timely, accurate, and accessible information to the public about the main health concerns in the community, including methods of controlling and preventing them.

“Any restrictions that governments in Central Asia enforce in response to the Covid-19 pandemic should be proportionate and solely aimed at protecting public health during the current pandemic,” Williamson said. “Human rights should be respected while the emergency measures are in place, and during any future responses to the virus.”

For detailed information about each country’s response, please see below.

 

Access to Critical Information

Turkmenistan’s extremely authoritarian government has yet to acknowledge the existence of a single case of Covid-19 in the country, despite sporadic reports of cases. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an independent group that operates from Vienna, in April spoke with sources at a center for people held in quarantine in Turkmenistan, who said that there were at least seven confirmed cases. In an April 22 briefing with United Nations (UN) officials in Ashgabat, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov said, “If there was a single confirmed coronavirus case, we would have immediately informed … the [World Health Organization] in line with our obligations.”

In February and March, the government limited entry to the country, closed the border, sporadically limited movement within the country, forcibly quarantined people returning from abroad, and conducted handwashing and other public awareness campaigns. Starting at least in late January or early February, a government agency distributed brochures in hospitals, clinics, and certain state institutions about hygiene and other practices that could prevent Covid-19.

But in March, the Turkmen Initiative said, a new print run of the brochure had dropped the term “coronavirus,” and was oriented toward general prevention of acute respiratory infections. In late March, a leaflet distributed in Ashgabat residents’ mailboxes showed six steps people could take specifically to avoid the spread of Covid-19.

The Turkmen Initiative said that a school in Ashgabat told pupils to bring their own supply of wipes and hand sanitizer and a thermometer to prevent the spread of Covid-19. While spring holidays were extended by one week, schools have reopened. Businesses and public spaces also remain open. Local news outlets have reported about some measures being taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

These efforts contrast with the near silence, until early April, by high-level policymakers, who periodically cited government measures to fight viruses and infectious diseases, without specifying the global pandemic. During a cabinet meeting in mid-March, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov recommended burning harmala, a desert plant, to prevent infectious diseases, without mentioning Covid-19. He broke his silence only on April 3, telling the cabinet that the pandemic is a problem for the rest of the world, but not for Turkmenistan, while acknowledging that it would affect the country’s economy. According to media reports, during the April 22 briefing in Ashgabat, the health minister said Turkmenistan has 30,000 test kits and was ordering 40,000 more, that 151 people remained in quarantine facilities, and that the country had reopened its border crossings.

The authorities are going to significant lengths to prevent any information from reaching the public about Covid-19 cases within the country or difficulties medical workers might be facing in treating them. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that, in late March, even as authorities were increasing measures to prevent the spread of the virus, police in civilian clothes threatened people at bus stops and in lines at grocery stores who were talking about coronavirus.

The Turkmen Initiative reported that in mid-April, security forces detained a doctor working in a quarantine facility and questioned him for two days, after he forgot to leave his cell phone in the locker before entering the facility. The security officials did not return his phone, warned him that he could face criminal charges, and questioned his wife, including about whether she had relatives abroad who might “be interested in what goes on inside the quarantine zone.”

Earlier, Rights and Freedoms of Turkmen Citizens, an independent Prague-based human rights group that has contacts among the medical community in Turkmenistan, reported that doctors and junior medical personnel in four of the country’s five regions said they cannot bring their cell phones into work with them. A member of staff in an Ashgabat clinic told the group that doctors and nurses had to sign a nondisclosure statement. The Turkmen Initiative also said they had spoken to a doctor from Ashgabat who said that authorities at healthcare facilities are warning staff that they will be fired if they spread information about Covid-19 and other contagious diseases.

The Rights and Freedoms group also said that a person who was released from one of the quarantine facilities told them they had not been given any documents showing that they had been through quarantine, or even informed about why they were there.

Inside a tent in Turkmenistan where people serve forced quarantine for COVID-19. © 2020 Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights

Since March 16, Tajikistan has been receiving protective equipment, medication, and financial support from international donors in preparation for a Covid-19 outbreak. But it has publicly reacted with blanket denials about the spread of Covid-19. On April 1, Galina Perfilyeva, the country representative to the World Health Organization (WHO), reported that Tajikistan did not have a single case of the virus, which government officials continue to reiterate.

The Tajik government has introduced almost no measures to prevent or slow the spread of Covid-19, other than closing its borders to foreigners and sending people who arrive from abroad to 14-day mandatory quarantine. The country has posted some information on its Health Ministry website about how to prevent the spread of the disease, and conducted informational outreach at some schools and army bases, but it has not promoted these efforts broadly or consistently.

The health minister said in March that there was no need for a quarantine, citing Tajikistan’s hot and dry climate as a reason that an outbreak there was unlikely. There is no evidence that countries with such climates will be able to avoid widespread coronavirus transmission.

The government has taken an inconsistent approach toward social distancing. On March 4, the authorities ordered a halt to rehearsals for the traditional holiday Nowruz, citing both the need to limit spending and to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Then in mid-March, health officials said there was no need to close schools, universities, or kindergartens because no Covid-19 cases had been identified in the country. Rehearsals for Nowruz resumed and festivities took place as planned on March 21, resulting in large gatherings across the country that President Emomali Rahmon attended.

Mosques were shut briefly in March but reopened on March 20, only to close again on April 18. On April 17, the president told parliament that despite the fact that there were no cases “[we] should not be arrogant and sit idly by,” and recommended the public comply with hygiene measures, and that people older than 65 stay home. On April 16, he ordered his government to prepare a two-year food supply for each family in Tajikistan, citing Covid-19. All events related to Ramadan, which was set to begin on April 23, were cancelled, but schools and other public spaces, as well as businesses, remain open.

As of April 10, more than 4,000 people, including both Tajik and foreign citizens, remained in quarantine. Hundreds of people have been forced to stay in “extended quarantines” of up to 21 days. Alikhon Nuralizoda, head doctor of the regional hospital where some of these people were being held, told media outlets that it was “for their good, for the sake of their families,” but added that “no one had any symptoms of the coronavirus.”

On March 30, the president of RFE/RL, Jamie Fly, sent a letter to the Tajik authorities saying that the Health Ministry and other agencies had refused to answer questions regarding the spread of Covid-19 from the organization’s Tajik-language service.

By failing to deliver information about Covid-19 and repressing information about it, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are gravely endangering their citizens’ health.

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

While the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan acknowledged the arrival of Covid-19 and enforced social distancing and other preventative measures, each country has limited freedom of expression in ways that undermine citizens’ right to access critical information.

On March 22, Kyrgyzstan declared an emergency. Three days later it imposed restrictions in several areas most affected by the spread of Covid-19, including the two largest cities, Bishkek, the capital, and Osh in the South. It established a commandant’s office to enforce a curfew and to set up police checkpoints in the two cities.

On March 30, the commandant’s office said that non-state media outlets would not receive accreditation for the duration of the emergency, meaning they would not be able to pass police checkpoints. Human Rights Watch spoke with three journalists who said this meant they were unable to move around the city to investigate government claims about efforts to combat the pandemic. The journalists also said they submitted questions to government officials for online briefings, but that their questions were answered selectively, if at all. The measures especially affected television stations, whose reporters rely on access to studios, equipment, and on-the-scene footage in order to broadcast.

These restrictions do not appear to apply to state-controlled media. The independent group Media Policy Institute reported that state-controlled television bulletins included up-to-date footage of medical facilities and interviews with officials, as well as live broadcasts of official briefings. The different treatment of state and independent media undermines the government’s claim that restrictions were to protect journalists’ health and safety. Only on April 20 did the commandant’s office announce that it would start the accreditation process for journalists.

Some governments in the region have used laws regulating the spread of disinformation to target those who criticize government responses to the crisis.

In Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch found that the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) either posted or distributed among media outlets photographs and personal information of at least 27 people it accused of “spreading knowingly false information” about the virus. In most cases, the agency said that the person was released after apologizing to the public, but that the agency “reminds people that spreading false information provides for criminal liability.”

These actions raise serious human rights concerns. Kyrgyzstan has no criminal liability for disinformation, libel, or slander, only for falsely reporting a crime. But there are concerns that criminal sanctions are being threatened to suppress information about the spread of Covid-19 and government efforts to combat it, including from healthcare workers. When one doctor posted online about the poor quality of masks at his hospital, his social media accounts were deleted and a video later surfaced in which he apologized for spreading false information and retracted his criticism. Suppression of this kind of information is particularly disconcerting in light of the reported rapidly rising rates of infection among Kyrgyzstan’s healthcare workers.

In Uzbekistan, similar offenses have been used to target people sharing information about Covid-19. Uzbek authorities said they identified 13 people who had disseminated false information on social media, four of whom would face prosecution. The authorities said they were investigating an additional 33 social media accounts that were “causing panic.”

On March 26, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev amended the Criminal Code to include new charges for distributing false information about the spread of Covid-19 and other dangerous infectious diseases with hefty fines or up to three years in prison for violations. Uzbek authorities opened a criminal investigation into a city official in Kokand who allegedly disseminated information about two cases of Covid-19 in the city. The investigation is ongoing.

In Kazakhstan, the authorities have used existing laws to suppress freedom of expression among activists and journalists. A judge sentenced a man to 10 days in custody for “actions provoking violation of the public order during the emergency situation” after he uploaded a video to Facebook showing long lines of people waiting to register for benefit payments at a bank. On April 11, journalists were detained by the police while interviewing doctors at a hospital in Atyrau region and charged with “violating the emergency situation.” On April 18, a political activist, Alnur Ilyashev, was detained on charges of “spreading knowingly false information during an emergency situation” and placed in custody for two months pending charges.

Another activist, Arman Shuraev, was detained on accusations of spreading false information on social media, though he was released pending charges. Other activists and individuals have been similarly detained and charged with violating quarantine or spreading false information, even though their only message was criticism of the government’s response to the crisis.

Adil Soz, an independent freedom of speech monitor, said of these and other detentions in Kazakhstan, “It is difficult to interpret what is happening right now [with regards to these arrests] as anything other than the oppression of disagreeable opinions through fear of imprisonment.”

Arbitrary and Disproportionate Enforcement of Quarantine or Isolation

In Kazakhstan, quarantine measures have been implemented in ways that are arbitrary and disproportionate. As of April 16, more than 5,000 people had been charged with administrative offenses for violating quarantine, and 1,626 of them had been sentenced to time in custody. The legitimacy of these arrests is not always clear.

Human Rights Watch spoke to Lyailya Islamova of Aktobe, who chose to self-isolate before the government imposed any quarantine measures there. After she jokingly posted on social media that she had gone out for a coffee and thereby “violated quarantine,” the police detained her and a judge sentenced her to three days in custody. A judge sentenced one activist in the city of Shymkent to 35 days in custody for allegedly violating emergency measures after he filmed himself passing through a police checkpoint on his phone and broadcast it on social media.

It is unclear how people’s health is protected while in detention. A human rights defender in the city of Uralsk said those serving custodial sentences for administrative offenses are held in cells with four to six people with no possibility of social distancing. The activist also said that detention facilities had no medical isolation wards. Governments should be decreasing the number of people in detention to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19, not detaining people for quarantine or curfew violations.

In at least two cities in Kazakhstan, officials bolted shut entryways to entire residential buildings where Covid-19 cases were confirmed. While in at least one case the locks were removed after criticism from activists and the country’s human rights ombudsman, in the Pavlodar region media outlets reported that at least 11 entryways had been sealed off, and residents locked inside were dependent on volunteers bringing private donations of food. Other cities cordoned off entryways or entire buildings in slightly less extreme ways, such as stationing police officers outside. News outlets reported that the authorities did not explain the measures or how long they would last.

It is difficult to justify bolting shut an entire building or preventing residents from leaving a building when specific people or households have been infected by Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said. Such steps are neither proportionate nor strictly necessary for preventing Covid-19 transmission, and on the contrary may increase the risk of transmission among residents.

In Uzbekistan, people who are diagnosed with Covid-19, are suspected to have the disease, or arrive from abroad are quarantined, in the case of those arriving from abroad, for at least 14 days. The authorities seize their electronic devices, including mobile phones, and bank cards for the duration of the quarantine. The country’s deputy justice minister said that these items may be contaminated and are needed to track others who have had contact with the quarantined person. Given that personal items can be easily disinfected and contacts for tracing of the virus given voluntarily, these conditions are unnecessary and excessive.

Custodial sentences handed down for breaches of Covid-19 measures have also been harsh in Uzbekistan. On April 7, three bloggers sentenced to 15 days in detention, in addition to a 1,115,000 Uzbek som (approximately US$115) fine, for violating quarantine measures and for petty hooliganism after they filmed a video next to a monument in Tashkent without masks on.

Another blogger was sentenced to seven days for petty hooliganism after Uzbek authorities said they found photos and videos on Instagram showing that the blogger had allegedly “neglected sanitary and epidemiological requirements” and mocked the “work carried out [by state agencies] on quarantine days.”

Uzbekistan significantly increased existing criminal punishments for offenses such as violating quarantine or refusing to submit to medical examinations or treatment, including up to seven years in prison if such actions are deemed to lead to the death of another person, and up to 10 years for multiple deaths.

On April 1, Kyrgyzstan’s government imposed new fines and other measures for quarantine violations. People charged with “deliberate or negligent violation of sanitary-epidemiological norms” leading to the infection of others with Covid-19 can now be criminally prosecuted and punished with exorbitant fines or prison terms of up to five years. At least three people are already being criminally investigated under this statute.

Broad and vague laws creating criminal sanctions for the negligent spread of Covid-19 are not a legitimate or proportionate response to the threat posed by the virus. Criminalization of exposure and transmission of Covid-19 might also have negative public health consequences, as increased stigma as a result of criminalization could deter testing.

Access to Justice

In Kyrgyzstan, limitations placed on people’s movements during the emergency extend to lawyers, creating serious barriers to justice for those in detention facilities. Because lawyers cannot move freely through police checkpoints, they are often unable to attend court hearings or otherwise represent clients. Lawyers called on the authorities to halt court hearings early on in the emergency, but the Supreme Court only yielded to those demands on April 6. Even now, two lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they are unable to respond when a client is arrested or detained because of the restrictions.

“During the emergency situation, serving police officials have practically unlimited power,” Sardar Bagishbekov, of the organization Voice of Freedom, said. “Lawyers are either not allowed through the checkpoints, or it is done selectively.”

Since the beginning of the emergency, prisons and other places of detention in Kyrgyzstan have been totally closed to lawyers as well as to monitors from the National Center for the Prevention of Torture, which Kyrgyzstan established to help prevent ill-treatment as part of its obligations as a party to the protocol to the International Convention Against Torture. On March 25, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, which oversees compliance with the treaty, issued guidance to all parties to the protocol stating clearly that such official monitors “should continue exercising their visiting mandate during the coronavirus pandemic, albeit the manner in which they do so must take account of legitimate restrictions currently imposed on social contact.”

The committee noted that preventing torture is an absolute obligation, even in times of emergency, and that monitors could not be completely denied access to detention sites, suggesting adopting methods which include enhanced confidential electronic and video communications with detainees. Activists have said that barring the monitors could lead to an increase in torture.

The WHO also stated that Covid-19 cannot be used to prevent international or national anti-torture bodies from conducting inspections.