The highest court in Kyrgyzstan has set an unusual precedent by ruling to allow a new legal appeal for a rights activist whose imprisonment has sown dangerous ethnic, diplomatic and political tensions.
Security was tight in Kyrgyzstan’s capital on July 11 as the Supreme Court began its review into the criminal conviction of an ethnic Uzbek rights activist jailed in 2010.
Clusters of police officers stood at intervals of 10 yards around the building as authorities sought to ensure the hearing was not interrupted by public unrest. Few members of the public seemed to be aware of what was going on, however.
The hearing on Azimjan Askarov’s case is being held at the behest of the UN Human Rights Committee, which in April pressed Kyrgyzstan to release the rights activist.
In September 2010, Askarov was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June that year. Askarov denies all charges. His supporters say he was singled out for arrest and prosecution because of his advocacy work highlighting police abuse.
Observers attending the hearing, who included reporters, representatives of European diplomatic missions and local and international human rights activists, had to pass through several stages of security screening before being allowed into the big, light courtroom. An English-speaking interpreter was made available by the court to assist foreigners in attendance.
The UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds for Askarov to appeal for reconsideration of a final and non-appealable decision of the Supreme Court under Article 41 of Kyrgyz Constitution and request revision of his case.
Proceedings started shortly after 10 a.m., around half an hour later than planned. Chief justice Kakchekei Esenkanov explained that the court was waiting for representatives of Askarov’s alleged victims.
Labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan have complained over the years that they were made to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get work papers in Russia. Now, authorities in Kyrgyzstan are bracing to subject foreign laborers to their own onerous red tape.
The National Migration Service said in a statement on June 23 that under a new rule being considered, would-be foreign laborers may have to prove basic knowledge of the Kyrgyz language. The elementary proficiency standard would require learners to prove working knowledge of around 900 Kyrgyz words.
Although this fact is not specifically spelled out, the proposal is clearly aimed at Chinese laborers, whose presence in Kyrgyzstan is object of much popular grumbling.
The language test would not be applicable to ethnic Kyrgyz people and relatives of Kyrgyz citizens. The waiver would also apply to “famous artists, scientists and the other people that want to contribute to the economic, social and spiritual development of Kyrgyzstan, as well as highly qualified specialists required by the Kyrgyz economy.”
This fits within broader attempts to protect the domestic labor market. Earlier this year, authorities aired proposal to limit the number of foreign workers in any local company to 20 percent of the total workforce.
RFE/RL’S Kyrgyz service has reported that the government sets aside 13,000 work permits for foreign citizens and that 85 percent of that number is claimed by Chinese citizens.
Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court says it will hold a hearing into the case of jailed rights activist Azimjan Askarov on July 11, possibly setting the stage for a climbdown in a saga that has drawn broad international condemnation.
The court said in statement on June 22 that the fresh review comes at the request of Askarov’s lawyers, who have cited newly discovered evidence.
The news comes amid growing fears about Askarov’s health. In September 2010, Askarov, who is an ethnic Uzbek, was sentenced to life imprisonment for what Kyrgyz authorities say was his role in inciting the mob killing of a police officer amid ethnic unrest in southern Kyrgyzstan in June of that year. Askarov denies all charges.
In April, the UN Human Rights Committee pressed Kyrgyzstan to release Askarov, piling more pressure onto a government that has reacted intemperately to criticism from multiple quarters.
Askarov’s flawed trial was followed up by a catalog of physical abuse in prison, according to international activists.
In 2012, the Swiss-based International Commission of Jurists wrote in a report that Askarov has “described multiple occasions of severe and continuous beatings, including with a gun, punches and kicks, threat of death, threat to relatives, insults, and lack of basic necessities such as toilet facilities.”
Kyrgyz and international human rights organizations have repeatedly claimed Askarov was targeted for prosecution because of his history of human rights activism, which highlighted the violations and abuses of police officers.
The UN Human Rights Committee’s complaint created grounds for Askarov to solicit for reconsideration of a final and non-appealable decision of the Supreme Court under Article 41 of Kyrgyz Constitution and request revision of his case.
When China’s top diplomat visited Kyrgyzstan last month, he heard some bold proposals.
Why, Foreign Minister Wang Yi was asked by Kyrgyz economic officials during his visit to Bishkek on May 22, did Beijing not consider relocating 40 or so manufacturing operations from China to Kyrgyzstan?
Earlier this week, the recently appointed acting head of police in Kyrgyzstan’s capital pledged to clear the city of sex workers within a matter of days.
Samat Kurmankulov’s department went a step further on June 16 by suggesting city residents organize their own raids on brothels and take photographs of prostitutes and hand them in to the police. The police described its proposal as being a form of “public control.”
Bishkek police spokesman Olzhobai Kazabayev did not specify how the public should identify the prostitutes.
Prostitution is not technically a criminal offense in Kyrgyzstan, but sex workers are nonetheless habitually targeted for harassment by police and self-appointed moral guardians. Kurmankulov said there was still grounds for pursuing prostitutes through the law, however.
“We have to detain and punish them under the hooliganism statute. We have had some results in this. In the space of one day, 25 people providing paid sexual services were brought in to police station entered into police records,” he told news website Zanoza.kg.
In December 2014, a group of traditional felt hat-wearing men with the nationalist-patriotic Kyrk Choro movement raided a karaoke club and made women working there file out, accusing them of prostitution. Filming them on camera, they also grabbed few Chinese men in the establishment and accused them of corrupting the morals of young Kyrgyz women.
A draft bill in Kyrgyzstan aimed at marginalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual communities has once again hit the buffers, raising faint hopes of a reprieve for the country’s embattled sexual minorities.
On May 24, a parliamentary subcommittee proposed holding up the bill for a fresh second reading — an unusual move since progress to a third and final review for legislation is typically a formality.
Kyrgyzstan’s anti-LGBT bill was first proposed in May 2014 and closely mirrored a law approved by Russia’s State Duma the year before. But in addition to the fine for the dissemination of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” envisioned by the Russian law, the Kyrgyz bill also proposed jail terms of up to one year for those who “promote homosexual relations” through the media or among children.
The head of the committee on rule of law, order and fighting crime, Janybek Bakchiev, said that although the bill had already passed through two readings in the previous session of parliament, another second-tier examination was required.
“Considering that this [new session of] parliament has not yet discussed this bill — and I think this is a very ambiguous issue important for society — it deserves to be discussed by the MPs of the current parliament,” Bakchiev told the committee. His suggestion was unanimously approved by the committee.
Bakchiev did not elaborate on the specific motivations for further scrutiny, however.
After two years of tortuous debates in parliament, civil society in Kyrgyzstan has cause for celebration.
A contentious bill, modeled on a similar piece of legislation in Russia, that would in an earlier form have seen internationally funded nongovernment group designated as “foreign agents” was rejected by Kyrgyz deputies on May 12.
Out of the 111 members of parliament present, 65 voted against the bill, which was undergoing its third and final reading.
The legislation was first presented in 2014 by Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, two deputies that have since left parliament, and has proceeded in fits and starts ever since.
In the days preceding parliament’s final decision on the bill, rights groups mounted a lively campaign of opposition. On May 11, around a dozen activists rallied in front of parliament, urging deputies to reject the bill.
Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Bir Duino human rights organization, which gathers information on cases of torture and corruption, said at the protest that the bill was “discriminatory and inhumane”.
“A group of MPs started promoting this bill and we could see that the hand of the Kremlin was behind this,” Ismailova told Kloop.kg. “The discrimination concerns those NGOs that monitor corruption and the activities of parliament.”
But on May 12, some deputies came out in their strongest opposition yet to the legislation. Janar Akayev, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SDPK), suggested the bill would dent Kyrgyzstan’s democratic credentials.
In an apparent climbdown, a parliamentary committee in Kyrgyzstan has hastily rushed through a watered-down version of Russian-inspired legislation that would have seen many nongovernmental groups billed as “foreign agents.”
The Human Rights and Constitutional Legislation Committee spent less than a minute discussing the revised bill at its usual weekly hearing on April 12.
The draft law was first proposed in 2014 by former deputies Tursunbai Bakir Uulu and Nurkamil Madaliev, only to then make its way through parliament at snail’s pace. The overhauled version is hard to recognize from the original and will be considered at a plenary hearing of parliament on April 14.
While the previous draft bill proposed to label both Kyrgyz and foreign-based non-profit organizations that engage in any deemed to be “political activity” and receive outside funding as “foreign agents,” this term has now been quietly dropped.
The new document instead proposes the term “foreign non-commercial organization” to describe entities founded outside Kyrgyzstan that do not pursue profit-making purposes. Foreign government will not be allowed to found such groups.
And rather than requiring the submission of onerous and time-consuming paperwork to the Justice Ministry, as required in the original draft bill, the non-commercial organizations will now just have to publish an annual report online containing a breakdown of expenditure and display who is providing funding.