CIVIL SOCIETY FLAGS THREATS TO DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE RULE OF LAW DURING TRANSITION PERIOD
This is an update on the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Kyrgyzstan from October 2020 to January 2021. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Legal Prosperity Foundation (LPF) have prepared it as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
During the period covered by this update, Kyrgyzstan was in transition following the political crisis that emerged after the October 2020 parliamentary elections, when peaceful mass protests against the election outcome evolved into violent clashes with the police, where protesters seized government buildings and high-ranking officials resigned (see more in our special update). Sadyr Japarov, who rose to power during the crisis, won a landslide victory in the presidential election held on 10th January 2021 amid concerns about the lack of a level playing field and the misuse of public resources in his favour. Japarov also used his campaign platform to encourage voters to support a presidential governance system during a referendum held on the same day as the presidential election.
An overwhelming majority of the referendum participants supported presidential rule and a new constitution establishing such a system is now under consideration. A first draft constitution put forward in November 2020 drew heavy criticism, with its opponents warning that it would legitimise authoritarian rule and weaken human rights protection in Kyrgyzstan. Due to the criticism, plans to put this document up for a vote during the January 2021 referendum were abandoned and work on the draft constitution continues. Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has seen numerous constitutional reforms, with the current constitution having been adopted following the 2010 revolution.
Another measure criticised as inherently undemocratic was the parliament’s adoption of a law postponing new parliamentary elections until spring 2021. As a result, the current legislature will remain in office for several more months after its term formally ends and it will consider the new constitution. Although international constitutional experts concluded that this law threatened democratic principles, the Constitutional Chamber of Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court gave it the green light by deeming it constitutional.
Several pieces of legislation threatening freedom of expression and association remained under consideration, including a draft law on “manipulation of information” previously vetoed by the president and a draft law on NGOs, stalled since summer 2020. Civil society fears that these laws, if adopted, might be used as instruments of repression against those whose positions do not please the authorities. Human rights groups and labour organisations also rallied against a draft trade union law, which passed its second reading in parliament in November 2020. They criticised this law for establishing a monopoly on trade union activity and for allowing for undue interference in the activities of individual unions.
Intimidation and harassment of journalists, bloggers and other outspoken individuals were ongoing concerns. Media watchdogs continued to call for accountability for the threats and attacks targeting journalists during the election-related events in October 2020 and drew attention especially to online threats against journalists. There were also reports of increasing scrutiny and harassment of trade union activists, and a human rights defender remained under criminal investigation because of his efforts to hold security service officials accountable for torture and other unlawful methods of detention. The head of the security services pledged to end the questionable practice of pressuring social media users to apologise on camera for allegedly disseminating “false information” – a practice that flourished during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in summer 2020. The threat of repercussions nevertheless persisted against social media users critical of the authorities, in particular as the controversial law on “manipulation of information” (mentioned above) was still pending. The struggle for justice continued in the case of Azimjan Askarov, the human rights advocate who died in prison in July 2020 after being denied access to lifesaving treatment for his COVID-19 like symptoms.
A court case on defamation was still pending against two leading independent media outlets, sued for half a million USD because of their high-profile corruption investigation which implicates a former top customs official and his family. The case against them continued, although the ex-official faced criminal charges on corruption and confessed to these charges. In addition, he was designated under a US corruptions sanctions regime.
The international change.org site was blocked in Kyrgyzstan because of a petition posted on the site by a civil society activist in July 2020 calling for impeachment of the president. An appeal was pending against a September 2020 court decision that declared the petition site “extremist’’ and formalised the blocking of it.
The authorities had yet to ensure accountability for the use of violence by state and non-state actors in connection with the mass protests against the outcome of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, where one person died and hundreds were injured. In a more encouraging development, the Supreme Court overturned a lower-level court decision that had deemed lawful the actions of police during a women’s rights march on 8th March 2020. During that event, women’s rights activists were physically attacked by aggressive individuals opposing their march, and then detained, ill-treated and taken to court by law enforcement authorities.
During the reporting period, citizens actively exercised their freedom to hold peaceful assemblies on issues of concern to them, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. These assemblies included a series of so-called Sunday marches in the capital Bishkek, whose participants called for lawfulness during the post-crisis transition period, in particular with respect to the new constitution under consideration and the work of the outgoing parliament.