III. Official Responses: Old Mistrust, Ongoing Harassment

In 2005, Labrys organized a roundtable to address governmental responses to violence against lesbians and transgender men; a representative of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the police, attended and spoke. He responded to descriptions of physical and sexual violence by saying “Show us the facts you are talking about. ‘I am a homosexual; my name is such and such and it happened…’  Nobody has ever brought these issues up with the police.”46 

In fact, a gulf of mistrust separates the general public in Kyrgyzstan from the forces claiming to protect them. A survey by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe showed that a high percentage of Kyrgyzstan’s citizens did not believe police would help them in an emergency.47  In another report published in 2005, the OSCE pointed to lack of trust in the police, seen by some as a “corrupt and undemocratic institution that protects only the interests of the state authority.”48 

Domestic violence, a grave problem for many women as well as lesbians and transgender men, goes underreported because of both a culture of silence and the failure of officials and society alike to acknowledge its gravity. And this extends beyond specific issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.  When hospital officials instructed Askar to report a beating from his father to the police, he did not; his mother had taught him otherwise. “In spite of all the beatings she gets from my father, she would never go to the police… [E]veryone, they all keep silent about it.”49 

Despite Kyrgyzstan’s progressive law on domestic violence, authorities (as described below) have failed to act on many of its provisions. Shoira described how her partner’s husband abused her:  “Once he beat her really badly, and we decided to appeal to the police. So she went to the police and wrote an appeal. She wrote that her husband beat her. The police said that it was a family matter and refused to take any action.”50 

It is also clear, though, that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people—who only a decade ago still lived under the shadow of criminal penalties for (male) homosexual conduct—have particular reasons to mistrust the police. Surveys and individual cases show that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people fact official harassment. The 2004 Dutch study of lesbians and gay men found 51% of respondents reporting problems with the police because of their sexual orientation.51  Another 35% knew someone else who had experienced police violence related to their sexual orientation. The report includes individual accounts of police raping lesbians and arresting lesbians who were caught holding hands.52 

Askar told us:  “[T]he police do not help. If you pay them good money or if they are interested in something personally, then yes, they would help. But in general, if someone beats you up on a street…I personally have had problems with the police, so I do not trust them. All they do is they sit there, impudently smirking and saying, ‘So you like this pop group t.A.T.u?’”53 

Djazgul believed that police attitudes would prevent them from protecting her. “I have never reported anything, never tried to get in touch with the police. I could apply to them about the beatings from my brother. But you know what kind of people the police are, right? They will not understand me.”54  One lesbian explained to Human Rights Watch, “There are many instances of discrimination, but no one does anything because they are afraid.”55 

Advocates told Human Rights Watch of six men who raped a lesbian couple in a provincial town; when the victims went to the police, the officers allegedly refused to file the report and told them the rape was their own fault.56  In another indicative instance, Nurbek consulted a lawyer in 2005 about going to court under the country’s new domestic violence law. His filing would have been a first in Kyrgyzstan: a domestic violence claim in which the victim explicitly acknowledged sexual orientation or gender identity as factors in the abuse.  He ultimately did not do so: his attorney explained that he would have to return to his home village to file the case, putting him in direct danger.  He had also witnessed his uncle bribe his way out of prosecution for raping a young girl in his village. He feared his extended family’s ties to the police would make investigation or protection impossible: “If the case fails, the lives of me and my family will be in danger.”57 Yet Nurbek added, “Maybe I would turn to the police for something else, like being a victim of robbery, but not for sexual orientation.”58

Police misconduct is real. For instance, Damira, who had already been raped twice, was gang-raped by off-duty officers in 2005:

I was coming home at night. Our village is situated quite far from the city, so there were no more buses and taxis at that time. Usually, there would be several cars taking people to their homes for a modest fee. However, that night … there was just one car with several guys inside. They agreed to give me a ride. …

During our conversation it became clear that they were working in the police (militsia). Later on, when they were trying to pick up prostitutes, they showed their police identification documents. The prostitutes refused to go with them and we kept driving. … As it was at night, and around us were just mountains, I was afraid to leave the car. I had to hope for their decency. After some time they stopped the car … And after that they raped me, taking turns. At sunrise one of them (who did not participate) showed me the direction, gave me 10 soms [about $US 0.25], and told me if I told anyone what happened they would find me and I would be the one to suffer.59

Incidents between 2005 and 2008 also suggest that police and authorities, while harassing a range of civil society groups, have been moved by prejudice to target organizations that defend lesbian, gay, and transgender people’s human rights.

OASIS—a group working on behalf of gay men, men who have sex with men, lesbians, and transgender people—was not able to register as a non-governmental organization (NGO) with the authorities for three years.   They had to redefine their mission to stress HIV/AIDS prevention and could only register with the help of another established NGO. Labrys officially registered as an NGO in 2006, but had to suppress references to lesbians in its official papers because, a staffer says, “of the stigma still attached to homosexuality. When people see the word 'lesbian' their relationship [to the group] might immediately change and officials may find thousands of ‘real’ reasons for not registering or complicating many things.”60 

Despite Labrys’ official status, in December 2005 a Bishkek policeman paid a threatening call on its office, demanding to see its documents, as well as the IDs of all those present. Labrys suspects that when a neighbor complained about lesbians and transgender people visiting the building, a police officer saw a pretext for extortion.61 In February 2006, Nurbek’s enraged father threatened bodily harm to Labrys’s members, as well as damage to its property. Labrys had to close its office temporarily, but—remembering the previous police harassment—did not report the threat to authorities.62  

Police again visited Labrys in early June 2006 to ask about its work; staff told them that the organization served women victims of domestic violence. Two days later, on June 4, police raided the office, which doubled as an emergency shelter for violence survivors. Six lesbians and transgender men were living in the shelter, and immediately telephoned Labrys staff. A staff member told Human Rights Watch:

They were very, very scared. They asked us to come over right away. They had decided not to open the door to the police, so the police were threatening them. The police accused the people inside the apartment of not wanting to open the door because they were hiding criminals. They shouted threats – “We will rape you; we will kill you! Open this door!” …

I finally arrived with another staff person. We opened the door and let the police in. …They asked me questions: “What kind of organization is this?  What do you do?” We had pictures of transgender foreigners on the wall.  They said, “Now we see what you do.” They requested to see our official documents. They had no right to do this, but I didn’t know that at the time.63 

On April 8, 2008, police carried out another warrantless raid on Labrys, while the group was hosting a dinner for two Kyrgyz partner organizations and three visiting international groups—COC (Cultuur en Outspannings-Centrum) and HIVOS (Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries) from the Netherlands, and Gender Doc-M from Moldova. The officers demanded to see the organization’s registration documents, statutes, and rent statements. After threatening to arrest anyone who resisted or failed to produce identification, they gained entry to a locked private office and rifled desks and files. Later, the district police chief arrived and said the officers would leave only if Labrys promised to submit its administrative and financial documents to the police station the following day.64

All this happened as Kyrgyz authorities were showing growing hostility toward civil society groups in general.65  However, the fragile state of lesbian, gay, and transgender organizing in Kyrgyzstan—the fear those communities feel of exposure and government repression—means that harassment may have a disproportionate effect in inhibiting their work and outreach. 

Some government officials have actively opposed human rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. One said: “It is necessary to struggle with homosexuality. It is one of those negative consequences of the western civilization that gradually comes to us together with elements of democracy … Therefore we should not permit the spread of this phenomenon in Kyrgyzstan. Non-traditional sexual orientation offends the honor and dignity of men and women, and the historically developed intra-family relations of the Kyrgyz.”66

Others have simply denied that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a pervasive problem.  A staffer from the Office of the Ombudsman, which plays a critical role in protecting the rights of all Kyrgyzstan’s people, attended a 2005 Labrys roundtable—a strongly positive step—but asserted that existing rights protections were fully sufficient: “I believe that the rights of homosexuals are protected by the national law in spite of the absence of clauses concerning this particular discrimination issue.”67 

Silence is not enough, though.  The government must take active steps to overcome both pervasive fear and the continuing patterns of harassment by police and other officials, if lesbians and transgender men are to have meaningful access to legal protections. Victims told Human Rights Watch such action was urgently needed. Elmira, whose mother had physically abused her for years, said, “I don’t want to ask the police for protection from my mom because I don’t trust them. But I do want a governmental agency to tell my mom that she can’t beat me. Then, I could live my life.”68

46 Quoted in Timurkhan Djedilbayev and Anna Dovgopol, “Roundtable,” Labrys Magazine, vol. 1, February 2005.

47 “Executive summary of the report on social research results of public opinion in Pervomaisky district and the staff of Pervomaisky district police organization (ROVD) of Bishkek city,” OSCE, 2004. On file with Human Rights Watch.

48 OSCE Centre in Bishkek, Concept Paper, “Kyrgyz Repub lic: Police Reform Strategy,”, (accessed April 8, 2006).

49 Human Rights Watch interview with Askar, Bishkek, November 1, 2005.

50 Human Rights Watch interview with Shoira, Bishkek, July 7, 2007.

51 Dennis van der Veur, “Kyrgyzstan: The county of human rights…but not for homosexuals!” a HIVOS/COC Netherlands report, August 2004, pp. 47-51.

52  An earlier study of barriers to HIV/AIDS prevention programs for men who have sex with men, conducted in 1997 by the WHO and UNAIDS, found that 11% of respondents cited police intolerance as a major obstacle to accessing prevention programs. See Robert Oostvogels, “Assessment of Men who have Sex with Men in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan,” prepared for Republican AIDS Center, August 25, 1997, on file at Human Rights Watch.

53 Human Rights Watch interview with Askar, Bishkek, November 1, 2005. t.A.T.u. is a Russian singing duo whose two leads have sometimes suggested they are lesbians.

54 Human Rights Watch interview with Djazgul, Bishkek, August 8, 2007.

55 Human Rights Watch group interview with Labrys members, Bishkek, October 29, 2005.

56 Ibid.

57 E-mail from Nurbek, February 14, 2006.

58 Human Rights Watch interview with Nurbek, Bishkek, July 26, 2007.

59 Labrys interview with Damira, November 2005, on file at Human Rights Watch.

60 Email from Anna Dogvopol, April 10, 2007. The group plans to re-register as an organization openly working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

61 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Labrys members who asked not to be named, March 12, 2007.

62 Email from Labrys, February 28, 2006.

63 Ibid.

65 In early 2006, Minister of Justice Marat Kaipov launched criminal charges against several NGOs working on human rights and democracy, and announced investigations of all NGOs operating in Kyrgyzstan that received foreign funding. In March 2006, the then ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu proposed, in a letter to Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, a ban on foreign NGOs working in Kyrgyzstan, as well as on domestic NGOs receiving foreign funding. Approximately 7000 NGOs operate in Kyrgyzstan, and with little domestic funding available, most could not operate without funding from foreign donors, including the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and private foundations. The government ultimately rejected these initatives, but physical attacks on civil society activists also became a feature of Kyrgyz political life.  

66 Tursunbek Akun, former chairman of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights and later national ombudsman, quoted in E. Nurubayev, “Gay problems of Kyrgyzstan,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, reprinted in Dennis van der Veur, “Kyrgyzstan: The county of human rights…but not for homosexuals!” a HIVOS/COC Netherlands report, August 2004, p. 53.

67 Timurkhan Djedilbayev and Anna Dovgopol, “Roundtable,” Labrys Magazine, vol. 1, February 2005.

68 Human Rights Watch interview with Elmira, Bishkek, August 8, 2007.