HRW – Human Rights Watch (Autor)
In 1998, under the leadership of President Askar Akaev, Kyrgyzstan moved ever further from its popular image as a model new democracy and leader in rights reform. Police abuse, religious persecution, trafficking of women, and violations of the right to free expression made a mockery of Kyrgyzstan’s international reputation.
Several disturbing allegations of police abuse and deaths in custody raised concern about conditions in detention more generally. Torture occurred most commonly in pre-trial detention facilities during interrogation sessions, when police beat and threatened detainees in order to coerce self-incriminating statements. Prison conditions in general remained abysmal as lack of sanitation and significant overcrowding threatened the health of inmates.
There were at least two reported deaths in custody in 1998. On January 23, police in Tamga took Muratbek Sulaimanov into custody on suspicion of cattle theft, and hours later delivered his dead body to his relatives. The arresting officers denied wrongdoing, and even claimed that Sulaimanov was released in good health but then fell down the stairs; the autopsy revealed that Sulaimanov died from numerous injuries caused by a severe beating. The case went to the Jeti-Oguz court on July 24; however, as of September the verdict was not known.
One month after Sulaimanov’s death, on February 27, police in the Lenin region brutally beat seventeen-year-old Sergei Skromnov and then buried him, unconscious but alive, in ashes at the city heating plant, where he died of suffocation. An investigation into Skromnov’s death continued as of September, and officials were allegedly obstructing the investigation. In a possible instance of retaliation, one officer was dismissed from the department after giving testimony against the officers accused of the murder.
The trafficking of women and young girls from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other countries for work in the sex industry continued in 1998. Kyrgyz women and girls were commonly promised legitimate work abroad and then found themselves indebted to their traffickers for travel expenses and pressured to work in the sex industry to repay the debt. They reported that the traffickers confiscated their passports, locked them in rooms, beat them and forced them to have sex with as many as fifteen men a day. Officials from the visa and registration department in Kyrgyzstan were said to be complicit in the trafficking of women out of the country, by receiving bribes from the traffickers in return for forged travel documents. Russian border guards in Kyrgyzstan were allegedly willing to turn a blind eye to the transport of women for work in prostitution abroad.
More women reported incidents of domestic violence in 1998. It is not known, however, whether this reflected a real increase in the number of cases of domestic violence or a greater willingness on the part of victims to report it. Local women’s groups took positive steps to address the needs of abused women, maintaining shelters where they could receive legal advice, medical attention, and protection from abusive husbands or others.
In late 1997 and 1998, the government campaign intensified against orthodox or “fundamentalist” Muslims, to whom officials refer as “Wahhabis.” In December 1997 the Ministry of National Security (MNS) set up special units to control the activities of “Wahhabis” and other so-called religious sects. In February 1998, Colonel Talan Razakov, head of the MNS department on religious organizations, reportedly stated, “Regrettably, our Constitution says that every one is at liberty to choose the religion he wishes.” Apparently not viewing such constitutional precepts as limitations on the MNS, he then proclaimed, “We are taking definite measures to find, stop, and prevent the Wahhabis’ activities.”
These threats were matched by strict punitive measures against perceived fundamentalist Muslim believers. The Muslim Spiritual Board of Kyrgyzstan, a quasi-governmental body, forced the closure of the Islamic Center after accusing Center leader Sadykjan Kamalov, a former mufti of Kyrgyzstan, of being a “Wahhabi.” The MNS targeted pious Muslims from other countries, whom they considered the source of “Wahhabism.” Twenty “Wahhabi supporters,” most from Pakistan, were expelled from Kyrgyzstan in 1997. This trend continued in 1998 with the expulsion of Imam Karimov, a refugee from Tajikistan, for allegedlyspreading “Wahhabi” ideas. At least one Uzbek national was also expelled for disseminating “fundamentalist” Islamic ideas. In April and May 1998, about twenty ethnic Uighurs were arrested on charges of illegal weapons possession and possession of “Wahhabi” video tapes. MNS employees also proudly declared they had confiscated 400 copies of a religious book published in Saudi Arabia.
In a positive move, President Askar Akaev attempted to follow through on his vows to decriminalize defamation and protect freedom of the press. In November 1997, he reportedly sent parliament a draft amendment to the criminal code that removed slander, making it a civil offense. When the upper house of Parliament rejected the bill on March 10, President Akaev put the issue to a referendum to change the constitution to guarantee greater freedom of speech. On October 17, 1998, voters reportedly elected to amend the constitution to state that the “Adoption of laws limiting freedom of expression and of press is inadmissable.” In December 1997, he vetoed a media law that sought to limit the topics legally covered by journalists and to force them to compromise the confidentiality of their sources in certain cases.
In practice, however, authorities continued to harass journalists who criticized the actions of government officials. Irina Stepkicheva of Nasha Gazeta (Our Newspaper), who faced a civil suit for articles critical of the procurator general, reported that procuracy officials repeatedly threatened her and her thirteen-year-old daughter. On May 9, 1998, unknown assailants set fire to the front door of the home of Tatiana Kchmada, a reporter from Res Publica newspaper. Kchmada regarded this attack as retaliation for an exposé she had written about government corruption.
The Akaev government continued to display intolerance for political opposition members. In January, police arrested political activist Kubanichbek Apas when he returned to Kyrgyzstan from Russia, where he had relocated due to repeated government harassment. Apas returned to visit his wife and children and was promptly arrested on outstanding charges of criminal libel and insulting the honor and dignity of the president. Shortly after his arrest in January, he was released under a 1997 amnesty law.
What appeared to be an easing of the treatment of jailed opposition activist Tobchubek Turgunaliev took a turn for the worse in August 1998. Coinciding with U.S. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in November 1997, Turgunaliev was allowed to return from a remote settlement colony to his home in Bishkek to serve the remainder of his four-year sentence for embezzlement. In May, the Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three years. In August, however, local authorities informed Turgunaliev that he would have to spend his nights at penal colony #35 in Bishkek. This followed his participation in a peaceful rally to protest the eviction of independent newspaper Asaba from its long-held office space in a building of the Ministry of the Interior.
On September 22, authorities from the Ministry of National Security in Bishkek arrested Nazarbek Nyshanov, chairman of the newly-formed Patriotic Block, a coalition of opposition political parties, for alleged embezzlement. Nyshanov was held in a pre-trial detention facility and reportedly denied access to an attorney.
The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR), the largest human rights organization in the republic, reported that the municipal procuracy of Bishkek launched an investigation into the group’s use of grant funds after the President’s administration allegedly ordered the chief procurator to find any grounds for jailing the committee’s chairman, Ramazan Dyryldaev. As of September 1998, the investigation continued. Dyryldaev believed this punitive action was taken in order to halt the activities of the organization, which has been outspoken in its defense of the rights of journalists and opposition politicians.
Jalal-Abad police arrested three members of the Jalal-Abad branch of the KCHR—Tynybek Batyraliev, Albert Korgoldoev, and Abdunazar Mamatislamov—on September 23 and interrogated the men during the night. In the morning, at an emergency session of the Jalal-Abad Municipal Court, Judge Asanbayev tried Batyraliev and Korgoldoev, found them guilty of violating article 163 of the civil code, public order, and sentenced the two human rights activists to fifteen days in prison. The men had reportedly been distributing flyers and putting up posters encouraging people to attend a public meeting in opposition to the upcoming constitutional referendum. On October 7, following international protest over the arrests, authorities released Batyraliev and Korgoldoev. As of mid-October, Mamatislamov continued to be held in police custody, facing criminal charges for alleged embezzlement. Police also arrested a fourth human rights activist in Jalal-Abad, Edgar Parpiev, on September 24, after finding him in possession of one leaflet calling for the public meeting. The Nooken regional court sentenced him to fifteen days of administrative arrest.
In September, on the heels of the arrests of the KCHR activists and just weeks before the constitutional referendum scheduled by President Akaev, the Chamber of the Ministry of Justice revoked the registration of the KCHR. The KCHR was then denied the right to monitor the voting on the referendum. The group’s registration, granted in June 1996, was annulled at the request of the procurator general’s office, which claimed that several members were absent from the founding meeting. Under Kyrgyz law, only a court, not an administrative body, has the authority to revoke the registration of a public association.
Harassment of KCHR activists continued into October. In Bishkek, an officer from the Ministry of Interior approached Azimhan Niyazbekova on the street at night and threatened that she would be physically harmed unless she halted her human rights activities.
The international community continued, for the most part, to accept at face value statements in support of human rights from President Akaev, who benefited from the country’s liberal democratic image cultivated in the first years after independence; it largely ignored the true state of worsening human rights.
As in 1997, in 1998 the European Union continued to shower Kyrgyzstan with direct aid and technical assistance, amounting this year to 21 million ecu ($14.5 million). The E.U. ignored ongoing violations of human rights in Kyrgyzstan; instead it stressed the need for cooperation in preventing narcotics trafficking, which inspired the visit of German President Roman Herzog to Kyrgyzstan in February.
Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
The OSCE focused greater attention than in the past on human rights in Kyrgyzstan. A November 1997 OSCE-sponsored seminar on human rights provided an open forum for frank discussion of Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record. The Chairman-in-Office included Kyrgyzstan in his April 1998 visit to the region, as did the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) special representative for Central Asia, in March. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities twice visited Kyrgyzstan, in December 1997 and June 1998, to oversee a survey of inter-ethnic relations in the south. In June he participated in a seminar for regional governors on “Managing Inter-Ethnic Relations.” ODIHR technical assistance projects for Kyrgyzstan include training programs on elections and on the rule of law. In July, the Permanent Council decided to establish a new OSCE center in Bishkek.
The United States continued to criticize the Kyrgyzstan government’s pressure on political activists and its use of criminal libel charges to suppress freedom of the press. The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 impartially chronicled the mounting toll of abuse, and an investigation by the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe found signs of creeping authoritarianism. However, no meaningful consequences resulted, and U.S. aid appropriations continued to grow (from an estimated $24 million for fiscal year 1998 to $31 million requested for fiscal year 1999).