Any hope that authorities in Kyrgyzstan might show leniency toward jailed activist Azimjan Askarov was squashed on January 24, when a court reinstated his life sentence. Rights advocates expressed dismay at the verdict, calling it a violation of Kyrgyzstan’s international commitments.
A Turkish cargo plane crashed outside the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, early on January 16, killing at least 37 people and destroying dozens of homes.
According to preliminary and unconfirmed information, the Boeing 747-400F crashed on a cluster of homes in the Dacha-Suu complex next to Manas International Airport at around 7:29 a.m. as it was coming in to land.
Officials said 37 people have been killed, but with recovery work still ongoing it will be some time before a final figure is confirmed. There are believed to be several children among the dead.
Deputy Prime Minister Muhammetkaly Abulgaziyev has said that the accident may have been caused by pilot error and that 11 airplanes had landed safely in the past day despite heavy fog. Abulgaziyev said that the plane tried to land on two occasions and at one stage damaged the landing strip illumination.
“This crew has flown [to Manas airport] 3-4 times. They know the landing strip at Manas airport. The visibility was 400 meters. That is why the flight controller at Kyrgyzaeronavigatsiya gave them clearance to land. The conditions were suitable for landing. So the provisional explanation is that the crash was due to crew error,” Abulgaziyev was quoted as saying by local media.
While officials have said the conditions were good enough for the cargo plane to land, an aircraft carrying President Almazbek Atambayev to Bishkek from China on January 15 was diverted to the small Tamchy airport in the Issyk-Kul region because of the weather. Motorists driving around Bishkek on the eve of the crash reported being able to see only a few meters ahead because of the fog.
A court in Kyrgyzstan has set a precedent alarming to freedom of speech advocates by ruling against a political activist in a defamation suit for a post he wrote on Facebook.
Bishkek’s Oktyabrsky district court on January 5 ruled that Mavlyan Askarbekov should publish an apology on his Facebook page to member of parliament Dastan Bekeshev and leave it online for the duration of one month.
The start of this episode dates back to July, when Askarbekov penned an attack against the visually impaired MP for what he said was his undue interference in the activities of the Kyrgyz Association for Blind and Deaf People.
“When I spoke [at an association meeting], Bekeshev started insulting me and had me kicked out. He did not respond to my questions about the legitimacy of his actions and did not let me say a word,” Askarbekov wrote in his original post.
Askarbekov is a well-known figure in youth nationalist circles and first came to prominence in the wake of the April 2010 uprising.
In August, Bekeshev filed a defamation suit against Askarbekov, saying the activist needed to be “reined in” over his false accusations.
Opposition activist Adil Turdukulov called the court’s ruling unlawful.
“This [lawsuit] is a continuation of a systemic policy of suppression of freedom of speech. It is no accident that it was Bekeshev who the filed lawsuit, when it was he that previously proposed bringing in additional controls over online media and social networks,” Turdukulov said.
Kyrgyzstan has made an about-face on a recently introduced law requiring foreign visitors to register within five days of arrival.
The change of tack followed weeks of indignant protest from people working in the tourism industry, who warned that the rule would cause job losses and damage the economy.
On December 19, the government is due to approve a list of 90 countries whose citizens will not require visas or immediate registration, as had been the case prior to the changes of rules in November. The rule applying to citizens of Western European and North American countries, as well as Australia, South Africa and a few South American nations, will be for registration within 30 days.
Citizens of a handful of nations with bilateral agreements with Kyrgyzstan will be allowed to remain in the country without registration for periods of up to 90 days.
The difficulties that foreigners experienced trying to stay within the new rules brought in on November 5 were well covered by some local media, who showed how government registration offices were struggling to cope even with its existing workload, registering Kyrgyz passports and birth certificates.
The state registration service provided foreigners with information about new rules only in Russian, which was also the only language used for the forms, creating a major barrier for many unwitting tourists from the get-go. Visitors also told reporters that border officials failed to inform them of the new rules upon arrival, leaving them even more adrift.
Voters in Kyrgyzstan backed amendments to the constitution that will see the prime minister given greater powers, and introduce language defining marriage as being specifically between a man and a woman.
Kyrgyzstan has introduced new migration rules for visiting foreign citizens that limit unregistered stays in the country from 60 to five days.
The rule is intended to combat illegal migration, although there are concerns that it could harm the country’s fledging tourism sector.
The law, which was proposed by the Interior Ministry in May and received backing from parliament, will come into force on November 4.
Almost all foreigners will be required to register within five days or face a $145 fine. The only country exempt from the rule is Russia, which has signed a bilateral agreement with Kyrgyzstan requiring its citizens to register only for stays longer than 30 days.
It is not yet clear that the government departments responsible for registering foreigners are even going to be able to cope with the sudden increase in foreigners requiring registration given that they already struggle to cope with large amounts of Kyrgyz citizens applying for passports, birth certificates and other local documents.
And of course, there is also serious concern this new situation will simply give rise to more corruption, since many might prefer to part with cash instead dealing with inefficient Kyrgyz bureaucracy.
An explanatory note with the newly adopted regulation explains that the move was prompted by anxieties over illegal migration.
“Foreign citizens open various private companies, joint ventures and other organizations, and bring in their compatriots, violating established procedures,” the note reads. “Foreign citizens working in the republic mostly do so without work permits, therefore they are violating the migration laws of the Kyrgyz Republic.”
The government in Kyrgyzstan has collapsed after weeks of sniping between coalition members over contentious constitutional reform plans.
The Social Democratic Party (SDPK) declared in a statement on October 24 that it is leaving the four-party coalition.
Objections to amending the 2010 constitution had been voiced most strongly by the left-leaning Ata-Meken party, which all the while resisted pressure for it to initiate the breakup of the ruling coalition.
In an illustration of the seriousness of its disagreement with Ata-Meken, SPDK accused the party of being in cahoots with the deposed leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
“We cannot be in one coalition with those that, as it turns out, share common interests with the Akayevs and Bakiyevs, and who follow their instructions. With those who oppose the interests of the country. It became especially obvious during the constitutional reform,” the party claimed in official statement.
There is no immediate evidence that Ata-Meken have engaged in any dialogue with either of the country’s former leaders.
The outgoing coalition was formed by four political parties soon after the parliamentary elections in October. It constituent parties included the SPDK party of President Almazbek Atambayev, the mostly pro-government Kyrgyzstan Party, the agrarian issues-dominated Onuguu-Progress and Ata Meken. Two other parties, Bir Bol and Respublika-Ata Zhurt, remain in the opposition’s ranks.
The initiative to tinker with the current constitution has been steadily gathering pace since July. Backers of the fix have proposed around 30 amendments, which are due to be put to the population in a referendum in December.
Lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan narrowly passed a draft law on October 5 to criminalize the religious consecration of marriage rites for minors.
If the legislation is approved by President Almazbek Atambayev, clerics officiating such ceremonies could face jail terms of between three and five years, as could parents of the couple.
The vote in parliament marks a volte-face by MPs, who had provoked outrage in May when they rejected proposals to criminalize a ritual known as ‘nikah.’ The changes to the law specifically relate to religious marriage rites, as opposed to nuptials registered with the state. The legal age of marriage in Kyrgyzstan is 18, although that can be lowered by special dispensation.
Supporters of the new law in parliament did not mince their words.
“Let’s call things by their names and not hide behind nice words about national traditions and rites. People under the age of 18 are considered children according to our legislation, so forcing them into marriage or other actions is pedophilia. I ask each man in this room to imagine their daughters while voting. But while you can defend [your daughters] from early marriages, many of our children from poor families don’t have such an opportunity,” Natalia Nikitenko, a member of parliament with the Ata-Meken party, said during a discussion of the bill.
But some MPs resisted the bill on the grounds that it is against what they say is the spirit of Kyrgyz traditions, others questioned whether the law would help bring offending clerics to heel. Social-Democratic Party MP Dastan Bekeshev argued that it would be impossible to find evidence of the illegal rite taking place.
A court in Kyrgyzstan’s Chui region held a hearing on October 4 on whether the case of jailed activist Azimjan Askarov should be reopened for fresh investigations.
Once again defying the demands of a UN Human Rights Committee, the court rejected pleas to release Askarov from custody pending further developments.
Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek, was given a life sentence in September 2010 after being found guilty of inciting a crowd to murder police officers on June 13 that year during deadly inter-communal riots in the southern Kyrgyzstan town of Bazar-Korgon. He has always steadfastly maintained his innocence and pleaded in court to be subjected to a lie detector examination.
The case has grown increasingly toxic over the years and has placed authorities in the impossible position of having to either placate the international community — much of which has argued Askarov was unjustly jailed in a marred trail — or risk stirring the ire of ferociously nationalistic sections of the population.
As in all previous court procedures involving the Askarov case, relatives and colleagues of a policeman purportedly killed at the activist’s instigation were present, angrily raising objections at numerous stages. Askarov too was present in the court, looking weary and sporting a white beard.
In his opening argument, a lawyer for Askarov, Nurbek Toktakunov, said the court should abide by a UN Human Rights Committee request for Askarov to be released. The committee argued in April that Kyrgyzstan had grossly flouted the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights in its treatment of Askarov and said the activist was denied the right to properly prepare for his trial and criticized the manner of his initial detention.
“The collegium of Chui regional court has a superb opportunity to fulfill the decision of he UN committee and let Askarov,” Toktakunov said.
Kyrgyzstan’s president struck a sour and far from statesmanlike note during independence day celebrations on August 31 by using a public address to condemn his critics and promote contentious changes to the constitution.
In a series of vitriolic verbal broadsides delivered on a stage in the center of Bishkek, Almazbek Atambayev found time to lash out at a number of the erstwhile political allies with whom he helped grab power from former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the 2010 revolution. He reserved particular animus for Roza Otunbayeva, who served as interim president after Bakiyev’s overthrow, prompting her to storm off the stage in disgust.
The president’s choleric disposition was brought on by a statement issued on the eve of independence day by the members of the 2010 interim government that pleaded with the government to desist from pursuing amendments to the constitution. Plans currently taking shape envision a referendum in the fall on the amendments, which would see the office of the prime minister broaden its powers — a measure that many suspect is designed to bolster the position of elites surrounding the one-term president. Another particularly controversial change would enshrine vaguely defined “supreme state values” that critics fear would dilute the value of individual human rights in deference to concepts like “love of the Motherland,” “respect for the elderly” and “the accommodation of tradition and progress.”
Atambayev spared no bile for the members of the interim government, which Otunbayeva led.