We, the undersigned organisations call on the authorities in Kyrgyzstan to immediately release and drop the charges against people arrested without credible reason in the past week after speaking out against a controversial draft border agreement with neighbouring Uzbekistan. We believe that the criminal cases initiated against them constitute retaliation for their legitimate criticism of government policies and their civic engagement on this issue. Instead of persecuting critical voices, the authorities should safeguard open discussion on this and other matters of public concern.
On 23-24 October 2022, Kyrgyzstani law enforcement authorities arrested close to 30 people, among whom are civil society activists, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders. They have all criticised a government-negotiated draft agreement with Uzbekistan on the demarcation of parts of the border between the two countries, which have previously been un-delimitated. They have, in particular, objected to what they consider an unacceptable transfer of the territory of the Kempir-Abad water reservoir to Uzbekistan in exchange for other land. While the government has argued Kyrgyzstan will be able to co-manage the water reservoir with Uzbekistan, critics fear that the agreement might jeopardise access to water for local communities.
Those arrested face charges of preparing mass riots (under articles 36 and 278 of the Criminal Code) and risk five to ten years’ imprisonment if found guilty. Following remand hearings, most of them were placed in pre-trial detention for up to two months, while one person was placed under house arrest for health reasons. On 27 October, one more critic of the government’s plans for Kempir-Abad was arrested on similar charges. At the time of writing, the remand hearing in his case has yet to take place.
The mass arrests were marked by numerous procedural violations, as documented by the Ombudsperson’s office and NGOs. Based on its monitoring, the Ombudsperson’s office found that law enforcement officials intimidated and behaved rudely towards some of those arrested and prevented activists and their family members from video recording the actions of law enforcement officials. It also concluded that detainees were not provided with adequate information about the charges against them and that they did not receive copies of the decisions to initiate criminal proceedings against them prior to the remand hearings. It further documented violations of the terms for considering the lawfulness of their detention and violations of the guarantees for the independence and immunity of lawyers representing them.
NGOs have, among others, raised concerns about the failure of the remand court to duly consider and justify the use of pre-trial detention as a measure of restraint against most of those arrested, e.g., with account of their family situation and age. For example, some detainees such as well-known human rights defenders Rita Karasartova (who heads the Institute of Public Analysis) and Klara Sooronkulova (who is also a former Constitutional Court judge and Reforma Party leader) were both remanded to custody, although they have under-age children. Women activists Asiya Sasykbaeva and Gulnara Dzhurabaeva were similarly placed in pre-trial detention despite their advanced age (71 and 63 years, respectively).
The Kyrgyzstani Ministry of Interior has claimed that those under investigation were involved in preparing and organising riots aimed at the ‘’illegal seizure of power’’, although they are only known to have peacefully expressed their opposition to the draft border agreement, demanded transparency of the decision-making process on this issue and peacefully associated with others to challenge the government’s plans for Kempir-Abad. The government has dismissed criticism of the draft border agreement, which was pushed forward in an expedited process, during which citizens received limited information and no genuine dialogue took place with civil society or local communities despite some meetings having been organised.
The mass arrests began shortly after some of those detained set up a public committee for the protection of Kempir-Abad on 22 October 2022. That same day President Japarov lashed out against those opposing the border deal on Kempir-Abad, calling them ‘’provocateurs’’ and accusing them of misrepresenting facts and seeking to ‘’create conflict’’ and ‘’cause an uprising’’ over this issue for their own political interests. He said ‘’we will not permit that’’. In combination with the rushed nature of the arrests carried out, these circumstances reinforce our concerns that those arrested were targeted in retaliation for their criticism of the government-negotiated border agreement.
The accusations levelled against the suspects in this case are supposedly backed by recorded excerpts from the conversations between some of those arrested, which were circulated on the internet. However, human rights defenders pointed out that the recordings appear to have been cut, edited and presented so as to make it sound as if the speakers were discussing plans to overthrow the government, although they were only talking about holding peaceful rallies. The Ombudsperson’s office criticised the dissemination of this kind of incriminating information about detainees, saying it was an attempt to form a negative public opinion towards them, which violates the principle of the presumption of innocence and puts pressure on courts.
Those arrested have denied the charges and accused the authorities of choosing intimidation instead of dialogue in their handling of the Kempir-Abad issue. For example, Perizat Suranova — one of the women activists arrested – communicated this message in an appeal from custody.
The recent mass arrests form part of a widening crackdown on dissent seen during President Sadyr Japarov’s time in office. In recent months, a growing number of journalists, bloggers and activists have been subjected to surveillance, searches of their homes, detention, interrogation and criminal prosecution in apparent retaliation for posting and sharing information on issues that are sensitive to those in power. The authorities have attempted to tighten control over media, including through a new draft media law recently put forward and have increased efforts to prevent the dissemination of allegedly ‘’false’’ information on the internet. This week, the website of the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was blocked for two months because of the publication of allegedly ‘’incorrect’’ information about the hostilities at the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in September 2022.
The mass arrests of critics of the draft border agreement have been widely condemned by civil society actors. For example, the Kyrgyzstani NGO Coalition for Equality stated that the arrests indicate that ‘’there is currently no place for dissent’’ in Kyrgyzstan, stressing that citizens should be able to express their opinion and position regarding the management of state affairs without facing persecution. Calls for the release of those arrested were also voiced during peaceful protests held in Bishkek and Osh on 24 October 2022. These rallies took place without interference; however, disruptions in internet access were reported during the protests.
The UN Human Rights Office called on the Kyrgyzstani authorities to ensure that those arrested are ‘’fully afforded their due process and fair trial guarantees under international law’’ and stressed that they have the right to be presumed innocent and that pre-trial detention should only be used as an exceptional measure when reasonable, necessary and consistent with international standards. The office also stated that there should be ‘’meaningful information-sharing’’ and ‘’effective consultation with the local population’’ on the Kempir-Abad issue.
Based on the above, we urge other representatives of the international community to also raise concerns about the recent developments in Kyrgyzstan and to insist that the authorities of the country:
Respect their international obligations on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly and refrain from using criminal prosecution as a tool of retaliation against those who criticise and oppose government initiatives, such as the border agreement with Uzbekistan now under consideration.
Ensure strict compliance with due process and fair trial guarantees set out by national and international law in the criminal cases related to the Kempir-Abad issue. This should entail that pre-trial detention is replaced with an alternative measure of restraint especially in cases involving women activists, activists with young children and elderly activists during the ongoing investigation; that the suspects are granted unhindered access to lawyers, held in humane conditions and protected from abusive treatment; and that all those against whom criminal cases have been initiated without reasonable cause are cleared of charges and promptly and unconditionally released.
Allow the Ombudsperson’s office and civil society organisations to carry out monitoring of the developments related to these criminal cases without obstruction and implement the recommendations issued based on this monitoring.
Ensure that citizens have access to transparent and comprehensive information on the issue of the status of the Kempir-Abad reservoir and that they are granted effective opportunities to have a say on this and other issues directly affecting them.
Signed by the following organisations:
Public Foundation “Golos Svobody” (Kyrgyzstan)
Lawyers for Human Rights (Kyrgyzstan)