A detailed report accusing Kyrgyzstan’s police of systematically abusing and extorting money from gay men appears to have provoked a backlash against the country’s LGBT community. In recent weeks, a series of protests that have parroted the anti-gay rhetoric coming out of Moscow – a moral compass for many people in the former Soviet Union – have highlighted a growing trend of intolerance and the challenges facing human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan.
The January 29 report by Human Rights Watch found Kyrgyzstan’s police were subjecting gay and bisexual men to “physical, sexual, and psychological violence; arbitrary detention; and extortion under the threat of violence, or of exposing victims’ sexual orientation to friends and family.” On occasion the abuse “rose to the level of torture,” the report noted. HRW urged Bishkek to “acknowledge the scope and gravity of the problem […] and commit to taking all necessary steps to end these abuses.”
The message was unwelcome in some Kyrgyz government quarters, which immediately denied any wrongdoing. The day of the report’s release an Interior Ministry spokesman dismissed the allegations contained in it out of hand, telling Kloop.kg they were “unfounded.” The next day, Acting Grand Mufti Maksat Hajji Toktomushev issued a fatwa against same sex relations, saying the government should be wary of “public organizations that disseminate social discord.” This week Toktomushev was elected Grand Mufti, the country’s most senior spiritual figure.
The HRW report also seems to have motivated a nationalist youth group, Kalys, to stage a protest attended by up to 70 people outside the US Embassy in Bishkek. Kalys’s leader Jenishbek Moldokmatov criticized HRW indirectly in a statement at the February 27 protest, condemning gays for “screaming” about police abuse. In a wide-ranging rant that echoed Kremlin talking points, Moldokmatov also criticized American- and EU-funded civil society projects and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). He then burned a photo of Ilya Lukash, a local ethnic-Ukrainian blogger, whom he labeled a “gay activist” who was supposedly attempting to foment a Ukraine-style revolution in the country.
Kalys’s response underscored the threat civil society groups fear from a new breed of so-called patriotic youth groups. Last year, Moldokmatov spoke of his ambition to become part of a new generation of Kyrgyz politicians. Another group that has risen to prominence recently is Mavlyan Askarbekov’s Erkin El, which last year rallied against the distribution of leaflets promoting sexual education; Askarbekov called them “destructive brochures that ruin the minds of youth.”
Kalys, Erkin El and other groups appear to thrive on political scandal, aping the public discourse of Russian anti-gay and anti-NGO politicians. Some believe they are being funded by the Kremlin.
Anna Kirey, the lead author of the HRW report, said she wasn’t surprised by the homophobic reaction. The Kalys protest, she told EurasiaNet.org by email, was probably “due to discussions in Russian media about LGBT issues.” Asked if she felt HRW should have taken a quieter, behind-the-scenes approach with the Interior Ministry, Kirey responded: “Human Rights Watch is a research organization, we document abuses and expose them and provide recommendations to improve the situation.” Protecting the human rights of all citizens, including LGBT citizens, is “the obligation of the government of Kyrgyzstan,” she emphasized.
The fact that the protest was staged outside the US Embassy surprised few observers of post-Soviet politics. In the build-up to the current crisis in Ukraine, anti-EU integration activists there linked pro-Western politics with LGBT rights. Lukash, the Bishkek activist whose photo was burned on February 27, has supported Ukraine’s pro-European integration “Euromaidan” movement with Facebook and Twitter comments. But he denies calling for revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and says he has never been a member of any LGBT group. Police have not taken action against Kalys, despite Lukash’s concerns for his personal safety following the February 27 demonstration.
Syinat Sultanalieva, a member of the board at Labrys, Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent LGBT group, told EurasiaNet.org by email that following HRW’s report, “pressure on the organization and individual activists has definitely increased. Threats to life and physical safety have been abundant.”
But she stressed she is “grateful” to Human Rights Watch for its research and for raising awareness. “The [HRW] report has spawned numerous publications by homophobic journalists and overall there is now heightened awareness in Kyrgyzstani society of the issue,” Sultanalieva said. “[W]e are aware it will cause greater pressure on us and the movement, but we are ready to withstand it.”
Kalys is trying to earn “political points at the expense of groups vulnerable to violence and abuse,” she added. “Unfortunately, it seems to be a trend lately that young people aspiring to a position of power in the country are using this and other topics as leverage to win popular support without thinking about the longer-term consequences.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist. David Trilling contributed reporting for this article.