Security services in Kyrgyzstan have filed charges against a human rights group in a high-profile case that a leading watchdog calls “absurd.” The charges are widely seen as an excuse to implement Russian-style legislation that would sharply curtail the activities of foreign-funded non-profits.
The State Committee on National Security (GKNB) charged two staff of the Human Rights Advocacy Center, an anti-torture campaigner in Osh, on November 20 with “inciting interethnic hatred,” a source with intimate knowledge of the case told EurasiaNet.org. One was told that the former director of Freedom House’s Kyrgyzstan office would also be charged.
The GKNB had outlined its case in a September criminal complaint, stating that an opinion survey distributed by the Advocacy Center posed a threat to national security and could reignite interethnic conflict in the country’s volatile south. The Advocacy Center project was funded by Freedom House, which receives some of its funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
“The case implicating Freedom House, our partner, and USAID is utterly absurd. Not only is the investigation baseless, but we are worried that it is part of a larger trend of repressive measures targeting civil society, and that this is only the beginning of a crackdown reminiscent of the rest of the region,” Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House, told EurasiaNet.org by email. “It is profoundly disappointing to see a country like Kyrgyzstan turn its back on its democratic promise.”
The source with knowledge of the case told EurasiaNet.org that the US Embassy has received assurances from President Almazbek Atambayev’s office that the case had been dropped, but now the GKNB has also summoned a local USAID employee for questioning.
Responding to a EurasiaNet.org query, a US Embassy spokesperson noted "concern" at the harrassment of Freedom House and its local partner, but declined to discuss pressure on USAID.
In recent months, legislators in Bishkek have again pushed a so-called “foreign-agents” bill that appears to have been cut and pasted from a 2012 Russian law that has curtailed the activities of donor-funded NGOs there. Kyrgyz NGO leaders say they fear the restrictive new bill will force them to shut down, or at the very least make it impossible to operate.
Among activists in Bishkek there is a debate: Is Kyrgyzstan’s leadership inspired by Russia’s legislation? Or is Moscow pushing Bishkek? It is widely believed that Russia’s security services have infiltrated the Kyrgyz security apparatus. Moreover, some legislators are so uncritically pro-Russian that many think they are taking orders from the Kremlin.
The source with intimate knowledge of the case believes Kyrgyzstan will try to shut down foreign-funded NGOs altogether and kick out USAID, as Russia did in 2012. “This is the beginning of the end. This has been building for awhile,” the source said. The Advocacy Center and Freedom House are just scapegoats, the source added. “Russia wants these groups to leave. They’re going to push. It may take a year or more, but they [Russia] are aiming to get them cleared out.”
EurasiaNet.org has seen a copy of the written accusations that the GKNB handed to one of the Advocacy Center employees charged on November 20. It suggests the GKNB is manipulating the facts.
Earlier the GKNB had collected complaints from 30 citizens of the city of Osh. The Advocacy Center and Freedom House pointed out that the survey was not conducted in Osh, but rather in surrounded regions and towns. Now, the November 20 charge sheet concedes the survey was conducted in those surrounding regions, but regardless says it has knowledge of 20 people asked the offending questions.
The complaint also names USAID. [Editor’s note: The Advocacy Center has received funds from the Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan. Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan and EurasiaNet.org are separate entities operating under the auspices of the New York-based Open Society Foundations.]