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Threats to minority linguistic education, LGBT rights amongst free expression concerns in Kyrgyzstan

Children attend a lesson at a local school, based in a tent, in the city of Osh, 9 October 2010
Children attend a lesson at a local school, based in a tent, in the city of Osh, 9 October 2010

REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

This article was originally published on pen-international.org on 13 October 2014.

By Cathal Sheerin
Europe Researcher and Campaigner for the Writers in Prison Committee
4 September 2014


Introduction

“Freer than its neighbours,” is what is often said of Kyrgyzstan, and it's true; but being “freer” than Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and (though not strictly a neighbour) Turkmenistan, is no great boast. A wide array of domestic and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the UN, and various governments, have all highlighted widespread and persistent violations of human rights in Kyrgyzstan, including arbitrary killings by the police, the frequent use of torture in custody, harassment of NGOs and journalists, ethnic discrimination, and a corrupt judiciary and political class.

Kyrgyzstan's recent political history has been tumultuous. The country's first president, the authoritarian Askar Akayev, was ousted during the 2005 non-violent, Tulip Revolution. He was succeeded by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose presidency (2005-2010) was marred by the murder of prominent politicians, high levels of corruption, economic turmoil, mass violence and prison riots. Bakiyev's time in office ended in a bloody, public revolt, after which the former president fled to Belarus. A brief interim government was then headed by Roza Otunbayeva; she was succeeded in 2011 by President Almazbek Atambayev, whose election, according to a 2012 report by the US State Department, was “generally transparent and competitive.”

I went to Kyrgyzstan in August 2014 to research the kind of challenges that activists, writers and ordinary people face in expressing themselves freely. I interviewed human rights defenders from international and domestic organisations, journalists (both state and independent, Kyrgyz and Uzbek) and LGBT activists. Some of my interviewees wanted to remain anonymous, some were happy to be quoted.

What follows is an overview of some of PEN's key free expression concerns in Kyrgyzstan.

Free Expression Generally

“Journalists are scared to write about things like [police] extortion.” (Shohruh Saipov, independent journalist, Osh)

“Corruption is the way the government operates and the way the population survives.” (Muzaffar Tursunov, independent journalist, Osh)

Kyrgyzstan has made some significant advances in the last few years, especially in regard to its freedom of assembly legislation (which is now broadly reflective of its obligations under international standards). There is also a strong civil society, with a very active community of human rights NGOs, both international and domestic. There are serious concerns, however, regarding freedom of expression, with not every group enjoying this right equally. There are a number of forces exerting a negative influence on the country's free expression environment. One of these is Russia, whose influence increases the closer Kyrgyzstan gets to joining the Customs Union - a precursor to joining the Eurasian Economic Union (led by Russia, with Kazakhstan and Belarus as members). Another is the growing popularity of religion, and especially of a more radicalised form of Islam. The inter-ethnic conflict of 2010 that took place between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups in Osh and Jalal-Abad - leaving up to 500 dead and many thousands injured - continues to influence policy at all levels; justice following the conflict was not even-handed (the majority of both the victims and the convicted were ethnic Uzbeks), and the potential for further ethnic conflict weighs heavily on the government's mind. Kyrgyzstan's worries also include border disputes with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; recent events in Ukraine have exacerbated these frontier fears amongst some politicians, who fear a potential – however unlikely – Donetsk-style breakaway in the south.

The last 12 months have seen Kyrgyzstan imitating Russia's bad example, with one law passed and two bills introduced that are aimed at significantly curbing the right to free expression for certain groups. In September 2013, the so-called 'foreign agents' draft law was introduced; if passed, it will create a raft of extra regulations, restrictions and administrative requirements for NGOs that receive funding from outside the country and that are involved in 'political' activities. In March 2014, the Kyrgyz version of Russia's anti-gay 'propaganda' legislation was introduced as a draft law; if passed, it will provide prison sentences for those who are found guilty of 'promoting non-traditional relationships.' In May 2014, President Atambayev signed the 'false accusation' law, effectively recriminalizing defamation, as Russia did two years earlier.

Independent journalists in Kyrgyzstan are often watched. They also face threats, law suits, beatings, and sometimes worse, with their attackers usually enjoying impunity. In Osh, I spoke to Shohruh Saipov, an independent reporter who has been threatened and beaten numerous times over the years; his brother, Alisher, also a journalist, was shot dead in 2007. In May 2014, Saipov wrote an article for the Ferghana News Agency, in which he exposed law enforcement officials' alleged involvement in extortion. The article stated that Kyrgyz security agents were demanding payments of US$500 from innocent Muslims in the south in return for not tying them up in terrorism investigations. “Journalists are scared to write about things like this,” Saipov said. It's not surprising: despite a number of sources confirming his story, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) of Kyrgyzstan is now suing Saipov for libel, claiming US$20,000 in damages. “That way,” joked Saipov, “they don't need to depend on their salaries.”

Another journalist in Osh refused to talk to me, saying that the Kyrgyz security services monitored those journalists seen speaking to foreigners.
There are some restrictions on internet freedom. In the aftermath of the ethnic clashes of 2010 the Kyrgyz Parliament issued a decree entitled, “On Information Provided by the Deputy Commissioner to Investigate Circumstances and Conditions that Led to the Tragic Events Which Occurred in the Republic Between April - June 2011 and Their Political Assessment.” The effect of this decree has been to increase restrictions on freedom of expression online, which in turn led to the temporary blocking of the website Fergana.ru in 2012. Also in 2012, the law “On Countering Extremist Activities,” was used to block access to the video “Innocence of Muslims” on YouTube, on the grounds that it propagated ethnic hatred.

Minority Linguistic Rights

“For the government, security weighs more heavily than the Uzbek language.” (Media expert, Osh)

Kyrgyzstan is home to more than 70 ethnicities. Ethnic Kyrgyz account for approximately 70 per cent of the population and ethnic Uzbeks represent roughly 14 per cent. Most of the country's educated class speak Russian, which remains the 'official' language. Kyrgyz is the country's 'state' language, although some Kyrgyz do not speak Kyrgyz at all.

In the area of linguistic rights, and especially in relation to ethnic Uzbeks (Kyrgyzstan's largest minority group), the inter-ethnic violence of 2010 is one of the key determining factors in government decision-making.

In its 2013 report on Kyrgyzstan, the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) made the following comment on minority languages in the media:

“The Committee is concerned that 'in general, the Uzbek-language media are in a somewhat lamentable situation as almost none of them have functioned since the June 2010 events' and that the use of minority languages in media has decreased in particular in the Osh region. The Committee is particularly concerned that Mezon TV has ceased to broadcast, Osh TV now broadcasts in Kyrgyz, that a number of newspapers which used to publish in Uzbek has stopped, a situation which impedes the right of persons belonging to the Uzbek minority to disseminate and receive information in their language.”

The Committee encouraged Kyrgyzstan to take measures to “ensure that minority groups, in particular Uzbeks, can disseminate and have access to information in their own languages.” It recommended that Kyrgyzstan take measures to “establish favourable conditions aimed at encouraging private ownership of media by persons belonging to minority groups, including in the Osh region.” The UN's Human Rights Committee reiterated CERD's concerns in March 2014.

But the Kyrgyz government has not been following CERD's advice in any significant way. Although the government recently recognised a need for Uzbek language media, it has provided no funding to restore it, apparently fearful of an angry uprising by ethnic Kyrgyz in the south. “For the government, security weighs more heavily than the Uzbek language,” one expert on ethnic media told me; other interviewees made the same point. Several Uzbek journalists fled (or were forced to leave) the country during the violence of 2010, and there have been more recent outbreaks of intolerance, including organised protests outside Channel 7's studios when they tried to launch in Uzbek. Currently, the slowly returning Uzbek language media only receives financial help from international groups.

I asked Abdumomun Mamaraimov, Uzbek journalist and editor-in-chief of Golos Svobody (Voice of Freedom), what he thought about the state of Uzbek language journalism. He said:

“The events of 2010 almost wiped out Uzbek journalism. Now, a few Uzbek newspapers publish only official opinion, or re-publish digested news from others. In 2012, we had funding to train and support young Uzbek journalists, but it was too difficult to find candidates – they were all scared, their parents thought it was too risky. We don't really have Uzbek journalism now.”

In the field of education - despite the Constitution and the State Languages Act guaranteeing the right of minorities to be taught in their own languages - there is a dearth of provision for Uzbek language speakers. CERD expressed concerns regarding this in the aforementioned 2013 report:

“The Committee is concerned at the lack of qualified teachers, translators, textbooks and teaching material in minority as well as in the State languages. The Committee is particularly concerned at reports that since the June 2010 events, many schools in Osh and Jalal-Abad have changed the language of education from minority languages into Kyrgyz, and that some of them do no longer benefit from State funding enabling them to ensure classes in minority languages. The Committee is also concerned at information on a decision of the State party according to which the high school testing will be conducted in Kyrgyz, thus creating a discrimination with regard to minority children who were educated partially in minority languages and do not have proficiency to be tested in Kyrgyz; such a situation may prevent their admission to universities or access to the labour market on equal footing with members of the majority.”

Since national university entrance exams were introduced in 2002, students have had the option to take them in Kyrgyz, Russian, or Uzbek. Last year the university entry test was given in three languages: 1,784 students took the test in Uzbek, 18,035 in Russian, and 32,958 in Kyrgyz. Then, in September 2013, the government discarded the Uzbek language version of the test without public debate. This blow to Uzbek-speaking students is part of a worrying trend. Until 2010, higher education in Uzbek was available at two institutions in the south; both are now closed. Osh, where approximately half of the population is ethnic Uzbek, had 20 Uzbek schools four years ago; by 2013, fourteen of them had been converted to Kyrgyz or Russian schools.

The drive to promote the Kyrgyz language seems to be connected to this idea of a renewed, unified Kyrgyz national identity (which, in itself, is partly fuelled by security fears). In 2013, the Kyrgyz parliament passed two language laws: one required all legal documents to be produced only in Kyrgyz; the other allowed local government to function in Kyrgyz alone (if it wanted to). In the same year, the national government began providing free Kyrgyz classes. One international expert in Bishkek told me that politicians were now keen to display their Kyrgyz identity, often beginning meetings with a few words in Kyrgyz. However, they soon slip back in Russian because “Most of them aren't comfortable communicating in Kyrgyz.”

LGBT Rights and Free Expression in Kyrgyzstan

“This law will legitimise attacks on gay people.” (Human rights defender, Bishkek)

“There are very few people in the country who are out publicly; and if you are out, you are subject to harassment.” (Dastan Kasmamytov, LGBT activist, Bishkek)

The LGBT community is the most vulnerable in Kyrgyzstan, with no strong political allies and very little public support. Homophobia is rife throughout public life and manifests itself in a variety of ways, ranging from politicians denouncing their opponents as 'gay', to the 'corrective' rape of transgender, lesbian and bisexual women. This year, Kyrgyz homophobia is likely to be enshrined in law.

In March 2014, a draft bill entitled “On Introducing Additions to Some Legislative Acts of the Kyrgyz Republic” was introduced in the Kyrgyz parliament. It is almost a carbon copy of Russia's 2013 anti-gay law, criminalising the so-called “propaganda” of “non-traditional” relationships. In almost all of my interviews, human rights defenders and LGBT activists commented on the virtually identical wording of the two pieces of legislation; one journalist, Muzaffar Tursunov, joked that Kyrgyz politicians “take their laws off the internet, replacing the word 'Russian' with 'Kyrgyz.'” The Kyrgyz bill, however, is much harsher than its Russian predecessor, and provides criminal penalties of up to 12 months in prison.

What effect is this law expected to have? One human rights defender said that it would give “official approval” to attacks on LGBT people. It will certainly subdue the already reticent LGBT voice. A media expert in Bishkek said that it would make Kyrgyz media space more restrictive and that education and health care provision would also suffer. Most thought that it would lead to an increase in homophobic violence. According to Labrys, the oldest LGBT organisation in Central Asia, it already has.

The LGBT community in Kyrgyzstan faces challenges and threats that no other group in the country has to deal with. I asked a number of LGBT activists in Bishkek to tell me about the risks a person runs just by being LGBT in Kyrgyzstan. Syinat Sultanalieva, the former head of advocacy at Labrys, told me that extortion by police officers was one of the biggest problems for LGBT people, especially for gay and bisexual men. “Not many people are 'out' in Kyrgyzstan,” she told me, “so most lead a double life.” This leaves them open to entrapment by police officers who post fake profiles on gay dating websites and threaten to 'out' the respondents to their families or colleagues if they don't pay up. Insults and assaults are also common. All of the LGBT activists I spoke to told me that transgender people suffered most discrimination: often making a living as sex workers, they are generally denied adequate health care and are most exposed to the practice of 'corrective rape.' Though homophobia regularly rears its head in the press, the LGBT community has no voice in mainstream media to defend it; LGBT writers are generally restricted to anonymous blogging for fear of attack. When they organise rallies, well-organised reactionary groups will start a counter-protest aimed at intimidating or beating the LGBT activists into silence.

When asked what they thought was the motivation for introducing this anti-gay legislation now, LGBT activists, human rights defenders and journalists pointed to the same three influences: Russia, religion, and the resurgent, conservative, specifically Kyrgyz, national identity (which interprets homosexuality as a decadent foreign import) that the government is trying to promote.

Although there is no evidence of direct pressure from Russia to introduce anti-gay laws, it is – as the aforementioned wording of the Kyrgyz draft bill suggests – abundantly clear that Kyrgyz lawmakers are following Russia's bad example. Kyrgyzstan is expected to join the Customs Union at the end of 2014, and some journalists I spoke to suggested that the anti-gay draft law and the so-called foreign agents bill (also mimicking Russian legislation) were being pushed by lawmakers looking to curry favour with Russia. One media expert in Bishkek pointed to the wide accessibility of Russian TV in Kyrgyzstan, meaning that Kyrgyz TV viewers have already been softened up by rampantly homophobic broadcasts from Russia.

The same media specialist also felt that the growing influence of a radical form of Islam was creating an environment in which anti-gay sentiment could flourish. This view was shared by the majority of my interviewees. Ten years ago, it was unheard of that a Kyrgyz politician would speak publicly about God, but today's lawmakers – following President Atambayev's lead – make open professions of faith during political speeches. Possibly for fear of harassment, most domestic human rights groups don't speak out on LGBT issues, and those that do – such as Bir Duino - risk the ire of the Grand Mufti and a visit from the KGB.

In 2012, Bir Duino tried to screen a documentary called 'I am Gay, I am Muslim,' at their international human rights film festival. Following an official complaint by the Grand Mufti, KGB agents were sent to Bir Duino's Bishkek office. There, the KGB threatened Tolekan Ismailova (Bir Duino's chairperson) and confiscated the film. “They told me that I was an extremist,” Ismailova told me. “They said, 'If you show this, you'll end up in jail for six years.'” Afterwards, Bir Duino was the target of threats from radicalised Islamic groups. The director of the documentary received death threats, and the film was never publicly shown in Bishkek. Other human rights defenders told me similar stories of harassment.

In January 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on homophobic violence in Kyrgyzstan, which found that Kyrgyz police officers extorted, threatened, arbitrarily detained, beat, and sexually abused gay and bisexual men. Dastan Kasmamytov, a young, Kyrgyz LGBT activist, was invited to take part in the press conference to launch the report in Bishkek:

“I spoke to my parents and I said 'I have to do this.' Previously, it was mostly Russian-looking people coming out publicly, so I felt it was very important to do this in Kyrgyzstan where there is so much prejudice and no visible, Kyrgyz gay people. But I didn't expect the burst of hatred, both online and in real life. The following day the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa saying that gay people must be killed. There were also attacks on LGBT activists. Two anti-gay protests took place, one in front of the US embassy, blaming America. The protesters burned a picture of one of the Euromaidan activists and said that he was LGBT, although that wasn't true; he had to leave the country because of the threats against him.”

The conflation of Euromaidan, the US and LGBT is illustrative of a strategy adopted by some who wish to foster this renewed, conservative Kyrgyz identity. Commenting on this phenomenon, Kasmamytov neatly tied the anti-gay propaganda bill to the foreign agents draft legislation:
“They are trying to connect western values to homosexuality and they think we're destroying the traditional values of the Kyrgyz nation. So, they've collected all these things (homosexuality, foreignness) into one, creating an enemy, and the solution is the foreign agents bill.”

Azimjon Askarov

“Askarov's case is not an ethnic issue; it's a human rights issue. He's a victim.” (Muzaffar Tursunov, independent journalist, Osh)

“If Askarov is released, a lot of judges and police will be prosecuted.” (Abdumomun Mamaraimov, Editor in Chief, Voice of Freedom)

The case of the imprisoned ethnic Uzbek journalist, Azimjon Askarov, brings together so many of PEN's concerns relating to minority linguistic rights, free expression and corruption. Askarov has spent his career exposing wrong-doing by law enforcement officials and is currently serving a life sentence. He was arrested in June 2010 during the inter-ethnic clashes in Osh and Jalal-Abad and charged with organising mass disorder and complicity in the murder of a Kyrgyz police officer. He was convicted on 15 September 2010.

Askarov maintains that he took no part in the violence of 2010, and that he spent most of his time documenting it: he took photographs, made extensive notes and went to the local morgue to identify bodies. He also wrote that he witnessed Kyrgyz police officers shooting ethnic Uzbeks.

The evidence against Askarov is widely considered by human rights NGOs to be trumped up; many believe that he was targeted by law enforcement because of his reporting and that he should be unconditionally released. His trial (at which he was openly beaten) was declared unfair by the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. After his conviction, an official investigation commissioned by the government's own human rights ombudsman concluded that the Askarov was not at the scene prior to the police officer's murder and, therefore, that he had played no role in the killing.

Askarov, 61, has not always been a journalist. A practical, creative man, he studied art at university and, for the first 15 years of his adult life, worked as a house painter and decorator. He only turned to journalism in the mid-90s, contributing to the regional news websites Golos Svobody (Voice of Freedom) and the Ferghana News Agency. He quickly made a name for himself exposing wrongdoing by the authorities. Askarov's former editor, Abdumomun Mamaraimov, told me:

“He was the only person fighting against corruption in our law enforcement. He uncovered at least five killings by police officers. He published this information independently or passed it on to Voice of Freedom. I know that at least one prosecutor and 10 police officers were fired because of Askarov's reports; to the police, he was public enemy number one.”

There is a lot of evidence pointing to Askarov's innocence, and he certainly did not receive a fair trial, so why is he still in jail? One answer is that the authorities have again opted for security over human rights. The government's fear that his release might spark outrage amongst ethnic Kyrgyz, leading to further violence, is an explanation I heard frequently in Kyrgyzstan, both from journalists and human rights defenders. Askarov has also become a political case, with President Atambayev's opponents in the south using it against him. Even in Bishkek, NGOs risk harassment if they campaign on Askarov's behalf: in 2013, a group of unidentified men barged into Bir Duino's human rights film festival and tried to stop a planned screening of a documentary about Askarov; a couple of months afterwards, someone broke into the NGO's office and stole its files on the imprisoned journalist.

Some journalists and human rights defenders offer another explanation as to why Askarov is still in prison – they say it's because he knows too much. According to Bir Duino's Tolekan Ismailova, “Lots of law enforcement officers and politicians are scared of him because of the roles they played in the 2010 conflict; he has a lot of evidence.”

His old editor, Abdumomun Mamaraimov, states plainly: “If Askarov is freed, a lot of judges and police officers will be prosecuted. They'll do anything to oppose his release.”

According to an October 2012 report by the international NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Askarov's medical condition markedly deteriorated during his imprisonment. Following an examination of his medical records in January 2012, PHR experts concluded that Askarov showed clinical evidence of traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder that were consistent with his complaints of being tortured in custody.

In 2011, Askarov won People In Need's Homo Homini Award, “in recognition of a dedication to the promotion of human rights, democracy and non-violent solutions to political conflicts.” In 2012, he was the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists' International Press Freedom Award.

Conclusion

The logical question is, 'How can an international association of writers such as PEN have a positive impact on freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan?' There's no neat answer. The closer Kyrgyzstan draws to an increasingly 'unfree' Russia, the more the aforementioned growing suspicion of foreign influence takes root, the harder it becomes for international NGOs to persuade. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country, riddled with corruption and fearful of internal and external conflicts. And like many other countries (often much richer ones, with far less potential for instability), it tends to view security and human rights as an either/or situation; security generally wins.

Most of the human rights defenders and journalists I spoke to felt that organisations that invested financially in Kyrgyzstan, or which provided other kinds of funding, had the greatest potential to push for positive change. However, almost every interviewee also stressed the value of the kind of campaigns and advocacy work that PEN does - high profile campaigning, public statements, trial attendance, prison visits, working with civil society groups, publishing reports and making submissions to the UN's Universal Periodic Review. Many of the journalists and activists I spoke to wanted PEN to carry out this kind of work in Kyrgyzstan.

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