Human rights protections and civil liberties in Kyrgyzstan continued to decline in 2023, with systematic stifling of critical voices by the authorities. Civil society and media freedom came under severe threat, with criminal cases against leading media outlets and draft laws that would allow the expansion of state control over the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and censorship of information. A law was adopted banning “propaganda of non-traditional relations and same-sex partnerships.”
A blanket ban on protests, initially introduced in March 2022, was extended through October 2023. At time of writing, activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and politicians detained in October 2022 remained in pretrial detention, and an effective and independent investigation into the death in custody of human rights defender Azimjon Askarov in 2020 had yet to be completed.
Despite measures implemented to combat domestic violence, impunity for such crimes persists.
In February 2023, Kyrgyzstan started a three-year term as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In May, the Kyrgyz parliament proposed the “Foreign Representatives” draft law, which would require NGOs receiving foreign funding and engaging in political activities to register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign representatives.” Non-compliance could result in the suspension of activities, including banking operations, for up to six months. At time of writing, parliament had not adopted the draft law.
In May 2023, Kyrgyzstan Ombudsperson Atyr Abdrakhmatova’s term was ended, when a majority of members of parliament voted in favor of a dismissal motion after she presented her annual report to the Kyrgyz parliament. Commentators linked the move to her independent approach to human rights in the country since taking office in 2022.
In January 2023, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court acquitted Kamil Ruziev, head of the human rights NGO Ventus, of charges of forgery brought against him in 2020 by the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) in apparent retaliation for his efforts to bring to justice security service officers allegedly engaged in torture of detainees.
Freedom of Expression
In May, a draft mass media law, which would significantly restrict the ability of civil society organizations and media to operate independently, was registered for consideration in the Kyrgyz parliament. The draft law establishes vague and broadly worded prohibitions for media, and failure to respect them can lead to forced suspension and termination of media outlets and closure of websites. At time of writing, the bill was still pending before parliament.
In July, the Bishkek City Court overturned an earlier court decision to shut down Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Kyrgyz Service, known as Radio Azattyk, in response to the broadcaster’s refusal to remove a video covering the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September 2022. Kyrgyz authorities had previously blocked Radio Azattyk’s websites and froze its bank account.
On August 28, 2023, Kyrgyz authorities initiated a lawsuit to close down Kloop Media Public Foundation, an independent online news outlet, accusing it of failing to register as a mass media outlet. The lawsuit claims the outlet publishes criticism only of the government and it refers to a pretrial criminal investigation into alleged Kloop involvement in “public calls for the violent seizure of power online.”
Throughout 2023, Kyrgyz security services targeted bloggers for their social media posts, often using vague provisions of the Criminal Code such as incitement to ethnic or national hatred (article 330) and calls for disobedience to authorities and riots (article 278). One case involves 20-year-old Facebook blogger Yrys Zhekshenaliev, who was detained in August 2022 and placed under house arrest. He could face a six-year prison sentence if found guilty.
In September, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court upheld a previous court decision that expelled investigative journalist Bolot Temirov from the country in November 2022. This decision followed Temirov’s earlier acquittal on drug possession charges, which had stemmed from a controversial police raid on his independent journalism outlet, Temirov Live, in January 2022.
More than 20 individuals who opposed transferring the Kempir-Abad dam to Uzbekistan as part of a border demarcation agreement were detained in October 2022. Over a year later, they remained in detention, including under house arrest, awaiting trial. They include activists, human rights defenders, bloggers, and politicians who face charges of preparing to incite riots, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Some have spent all their time in detention facilities with poor conditions that violate international standards. In January 2023, the Kempir-Abad case was classified, which made investigation materials unavailable to the defense lawyers. Court hearings started on June 22, 2023, but were held behind closed doors. Detainees have reported ill-treatment and being denied medical assistance.
In October, Kyrgyzstan’s president signed into law amendments previously approved by the parliament, which allow the president or the court’s chairperson to review Constitutional Court decisions in specific categories of cases, including those deemed contrary to “moral values” or “public consciousness,” or cases in which “new circumstances” warrant review. These changes followed a controversial Constitutional Court decision in June permitting matronymic alongside patronymic family names. The amendments would be a departure from the previous understanding that Constitutional Court decisions are final and non-appealable.
Freedom of Assembly
On June 6, Kyrgyzstan’s security services detained approximately 30 individuals, members of the “Eldik Kenesh” political party, on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. The GKNB alleged that the group intended to incite unrest and exploit the turmoil to seize power and had recruited over 100 dissatisfied citizens over the past year, possibly with overseas involvement, to provoke street unrest.
In May, civil society activist Ondurush Toktonasyrov, who had previously been detained numerous times for his peaceful protests, was arbitrarily detained by law enforcement and questioned as part of a criminal case against him on trumped up charges. Toktonasyrov is accused of inciting racial, ethnic, national, religious, or interregional hatred for Facebook posts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and on internal political events of Kyrgyzstan. In August, the investigation was completed, and his trial was pending at time of writing.
Violence against Women and Girls
Cases of violence against women and girls remain underreported, and survivors face multiple barriers to accessing services and justice. These include insufficient shelter space and other essential services, dismissive responses by authorities, stigma, and attitudes that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and practices, including by police, judicial officials, and government and religious leaders. In the first eight months of 2023, the Interior Ministry registered 8,502 domestic violence complaints.
In January, Miss Universe contestant Altynai Botoyarova was shamed and pressured into making an apology on social media after using the platform to call attention to gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan. On International Women’s Day in March, protesters in Bishkek demanded more action by police and courts on gender-based violence. In September, parliamentarians called for harsher measures on domestic violence after a woman’s ex-husband brutally attacked her with a knife, despite her having reported him to police numerous times for rape, physical violence, and threats.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
In August 2023, President Sadyr Japarov signed into law a bill on “introducing amendments into legislation on protection of children from harmful information” that deems information about “non-traditional sexual relationships’’ harmful to children’s health and development, effectively criminalizing any discussion of LGBT people. Distribution of such information is subject to fines ranging from the equivalent of US$25 to $250.
In July, members of parliament submitted for public consideration a new anti-discrimination law aimed at preventing, stopping, and eliminating all forms of discrimination by state bodies and private companies against citizens on the basis of race, language, disability, ethnicity, and age. However, the draft law excludes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories.
In early May, Kyrgyzstan dissolved the Country Coordinating Mechanism (CCM), the national committee responsible for HIV strategy and UN Global Fund allocation. Parliament members objected to the allocation of funds for HIV prevention among men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender individuals, citing cultural norms and fears the projects would lead to advocacy for same-sex marriage. The decision affects HIV prevention programs, endangering the health of members of affected communities.
Starting in January 2023, Kyrgyz authorities increased monthly social benefit payments to adults and children with disabilities by anywhere from 50 to 100 percent depending on the degree of disability. From June 2022 the services of personal assistants have also been extended to adults with first-degree disabilities from childhood.
In August, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection presented a draft resolution that seeks to align sociomedical examinations used for disability assessments with standards in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, marking the state’s further transition from a medical model of disability support to a social one. However, despite this progress, there are still few accessible rehabilitation centers available for girls and women with disabilities and few shelters available for survivors of family abuse and domestic violence.
Conflict at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border
Following the armed conflict in September 2022 between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan forces, in which at least 37 people, including 5 children, were killed, bilateral relations remained tense, although negotiations continued in 2023 on demarcation and other border-related issues. Both countries committed apparent war crimes in the conflict, leading to the deaths of civilians and the destruction of civilian property, including schools, according to a research report by Human Rights Watch published in May. Also in May, both governments committed to end the use of military drones to patrol the border. The use of such drones in the conflict led to civilian deaths, according to the Human Rights Watch report.
Key International Actors
On July 13, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing concern over the decline in democratic standards and human rights in Kyrgyzstan and urging Kyrgyz authorities to repeal the “false information” law and review draft legislation concerning “foreign representatives,” “mass media,” and “protecting children from harmful information.”
A delegation of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee visited Kyrgyzstan in August 2023 in the context of intensifying relations with Central Asian states following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ahead of the expected signature of an EU-Kyrgyzstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
President Japarov met with European Council President Charles Michel on the sidelines of the second high-level EU-Central Asia dialogue at level of heads of state in Kyrgyzstan in June 2023.
United States President Joe Biden met President Japarov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 19, part of the first-ever US summit with presidents of the five Central Asian countries.
On May 5, the European Union noted the dismissal of the Kyrgyz Ombudswoman Atyr Abdrakhmatova as a negative development and encouraged Kyrgyz authorities to abide by the country’s international human rights commitments.
In November, during its annual Human Rights Dialogue with Kyrgyzstan, the EU expressed concern about growing restrictions on the freedom of expression and the continuously shrinking space for civil society. The EU noted that legislation aimed at controlling so-called foreign representatives could impact cooperation activities supported by the EU and other international donors in Kyrgyzstan.
In September, the education ministry submitted for public discussion a draft resolution to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration.