Human Rights Developments
The Kazakstan government generally observed the rule of law in 1996 and, indeed, took dramatic action in response to serious problems in its penitentiary system. However, its 1996 record continued to be marred by persistent abuse in detention, abysmal prison conditions, attacks on the media, and varying degrees of harassment of leaders of the ethnic Cossack and Uighur communities.
After almost a year=s hiatus in which democratic electoral processes were suspended, in January President Nursultan Nazarbaev finally restored democratic rights by reinstating the parliament, which he had illegally suspended in March 1995 and replaced with unilateral rule by the president and his Cabinet of Ministers.
Also heartening was the Kazakstan government=s response to the entrenched problem of appalling prison conditions and serious mistreatment of detainees. According to the local newspaper Karavan-Blitz (Almaty) of June 4, some 2,500 inmates died in Kazakstan jails last year. Kazakstan was also vilified in a July report by Amnesty International for holding fourth place in the world for the number of executions and for shocking mistreatment of inmates. The government pledged to initiate a Astage-by-stage transition@ from death to life sentences, proposed a ten-year program to bring jail conditions up to international standards, and issued an amnesty in July that, according to local monitors, resulted in the release of several thousand inmates from among a total prison population of 78,000, and the reduction in sentence of unknown more. Sadly, the amnesty was justified publicly by citing the dropping crime rate rather than the necessity to reduce human rights abuse.
Parts of the media had to battle for their independence in court this year. Although Kazakstan enjoyed broad press freedom, the independent Kazakstan-American Bureau on Human Rights alleged that independent journalists were increasingly persecuted by the state, such as being charged with slander for expression of critical political opinions. The group also charged that a new censorship regime had been introduced by the State Radio and Television Committee. The independent Kazakstan newspaper Dozhivem Do Ponedel=nika was forcibly closed this year, and in May, the procurator=s office threatened closure of the widely read Russian newspaper Komsomol=skaia Pravda unless its publishers issued a statement of regret for having published the provocative views of Russian nationalist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The newspaper complied, and threats of charges were dropped. At the same time, in September a Radio Liberty stringer won damages from local officials who detained him illegally on his way to cover the visit of a Chinese dignitary.
Two cases of imprisonment and abuse of Cossack leaders in late 1995 and 1996 set an ominous tone for ethnic relations. On October 28, 1995, Nikolai Gunkin, ataman (leader) of the Semirech=e Cossack Host, was arrested in Almaty on his way to register as a candidate in the elections to the lower house of parliament. On November 21 he was sentenced to three months of imprisonment under Article 183-1 of the Criminal Code (Aorganizing an unsanctioned meeting,@ which he claimed was a peaceful religious procession in January 1995). Two weeks before his sentencing, unidentified assailants broke into the home of Gunkin=s defense attorney, Ivan Kravtsov, and assaulted his wife, Iraida, who had to be hospitalized. Kravtsov withdrew from the defense the following day. Gunkin alleged that, once in detention, he was attacked by prison guards and that they threw cold water on him to force him to end a hunger strike.
In an eerily similar case, on August 20, 1996, Nina Sidorova, head of the Russian Center and advocate for the rights of Cossacks, was arrested on charges of resisting police authority and contempt of court. She, too, was arrested months after her alleged crime, and only when she made a political claim (attempting to register her group as a social organization). In statements received by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Ms. Sidorova claimed she was repeatedly beaten by guards and, prior to meetings with visitors, was shut in a small dark space, an experience she found so traumatizing that she ultimately refused to see anyone from the outside. On September 11, her defense attorney, middle-aged Maria Larshina, was beaten with a heavy object by an unknown man loitering outside her home, requiring her to be hospitalized. On September 22, Ms. Sidorova was released on bail pending trial, a concession to international pressure.
The Right to Monitor
Monitoring generally took place unimpeded. The May 31 law on social organizations reaffirmed in principle government support for such groups as human rights organizations.
The Role of the International Community
The OSCE monitored parliamentary elections in December 1995 and protested violations of the electoral process. The European Commission opened an official representative office in Almaty on April 12 and the European Union became the single largest donor to Kazakstan. Following President Nazarbaev=s suspension of parliament in 1995, the European Parliament decided to withhold assent for the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement which was signed by the E.U. and Kazakstan in 1995. The agreement is conditioned on the parties= respect for human rights and democratic principles as set out in OSCE documents.
In April, Kazakstan government officials signed a pact with Chinese counterparts in Shanghai to strengthen their common borders. This was formalized by a July 5 joint declaration in which China and Kazakstan pledged, among other things, that Athey are opposed to national separatism in any form and they will not permit any organizations and forces to engage in separatist activities in their respective territories against the other side.@ Because the Chinese government often paints its ethnic Uighur minority as separatist-minded saboteurs, this is undoubtedly an implicit reference to Kazakstan=s Uighur population, which shares language and culture with Uighurs in neighboring regions of China. The commitment ensured that Kazakstan, among other signatory countries, would turn a blind eye to the AStrike Hard@ crackdown against Uighurs the Chinese had embarked on several months before throughout China. The campaign reportedly led to hundreds of illegal arrests. The agreement prompted Kazakstan authorities to prevent Uighurs from staging a public rally during the Chinese president=s visit in July, in violation of their right to freedom of assembly.
Human Rights Developments
The continued government crackdown on independent or critical media, freedom of speech and association, and an alarming consolidation of power for President Askar Akayev marked a distressing trend for human rights in Kyrgyzstan in 1996. Additional causes for concern included the continued use of the death penalty, squalid prison and detention center conditions, and police brutality.
President Akayev won the December 24, 1995, presidential election with more than 70 percent of the vote. However, his victory came amidst allegations of constitutional illegality that elections had been called prematurely and that three out of six presidential candidates had been unfairly excluded from the electoral process on the grounds that they had not collected the required 50,000 signatures mandated by unreasonable >oblast= (regional) proportions.@
Freedom of speech and of association also came under fire on December 22, 1995, when Topchubek Turgunaliev, deputy chairman of the political party Erkin Kyrgyzstan, and Dzhurmagazi Usupov, chairman of the Ashar movement, were arrested for the distribution of leaflets critical of President Akayev prior to the presidential election. They were charged under article 128, section 2, article 129 and article 68 of the Criminal Code of Kyrgyzstan for slandering and insulting the president in printed and written forms and intentionally inciting national dissent. Having spent four months in pre-trial detention, each man was given a one-year suspended sentence.
Rysbek Omurzakov, a journalist for the Res Publica (Bishkek) newspaper was arrested on April 12, 1996, and sentenced to two years of imprisonment under article 128, part 3 (libel with accusations of treason or other state crime). Unofficial sources suggest that the arrest was also made in connection with distributing leaflets critical of President Akayev. Following an appeal on August 6, 1996, Omurzakov had his two-year prison sentence suspended ostensibly after the court took into account his character and the fact that he has a family to support but likely as a concession to public outcry over his arrest.
The February 10, 1996, referendum on a draft law on constitutional change was approved by more than 94 percent of the electorate. This violated the 1993 Kyrgyzstan constitution, which prohibits constitutional change by referenda. The referendum was also objectionable because it gave the president unilateral power to appoint all top ministers except the prime minister.
The Kyrgyzstan government in 1996 continued to implement the propiska (residence permit) system which, in conjunction with an internal passport, is required in order to obtain permission to leave the country. This system arbitrarily restricts freedom of movement, both internally and internationally, in direct contravention of article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kyrgyzstan is signatory. In April, in a clear violation of freedom of expression and of association, the Kyrgyzstan government banned the ethnic Uighur society, Ittipak, for three months on the grounds that it was allegedly carrying out separatist activities that ran counter to the interests of the Chinese people. Kyrgyzstan law does not treat separatist activities as a criminal act; rather, the suspension was the result of an interstate agreement to quell separatist activities, reached in April between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Tajikistan, and the Chinese government. The Ittipak society was barred from campaigning in the press and media or from organizing any meetings, demonstrations or other mass activities in Kyrgyzstan, in violation of its right to freedom of speech, association, and assembly.
The year 1996 was proclaimed AWomen=s Year@ in Kyrgyzstan. President Akayev accordingly granted an amnesty to numerous female prisoners on March 8 (International Women=s Day) and appointed a female vice-premier. However, in contrast to the fanfare, AWomen=s Year@ was not marked either by the introduction of any specific legislation to give support or protection to women who face domestic violence and job discrimination, or the enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws, most notably the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Kyrgyzstan is a signatory.
Kyrgyzstan in 1996 did not sign the Second Optional Protocol of the ICCPR on abolishing the death penalty; it retained the measure for fifteen peacetime and two wartime offenses and continued to pass the death sentence in 1996. According to one Kyrgyz human rights group, juveniles are among those being put to death.
The Right to Monitor
There were no reported violations of the right to monitor.
The Role of the International Community
The European Union
The European Union was silent on specific human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan. In addition to its substantial aid through the TACIS and ECHO programs, it was preparing to implement, pending ratification by all E.U. member states, the signed Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the E.U. and Kyrgyzstan. The PCA cites respect for human rights and democratic principles as an essential element of the agreement. The European Parliament approved the PCA in November 1995.
The United States
U.S. government aid was expected to be over US$50 million in 1996, reportedly in recognition of Kyrgyzstan=s stability and democratic reforms. The U.S. government sent observers to the trial of Topchubek Turgunaliev and Dzhurmagazi Usupov and prepared a strong and comprehensive analysis of Kyrgyzstan=s human rights record in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995.