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Kyrgyz president urged to release activist, reject repressive draft bill

European Union (EU) leaders should forcefully raise concerns about human rights abuses in Kyrgyzstan during President Almazbek Atambaev's visit to Brussels on September 17, 2013, and get specific commitments to address them, Human Rights Watch and Front Line Defenders said today.

The EU should press Atambaev for the immediate release of the wrongfully imprisoned rights defender Azimjon Askarov. EU leaders should also seek a promise from the Kyrgyzstan leader to call a halt to the rampant courtroom violence that plagues the country's justice system, and to reject a problematic draft bill that would seriously restrict the work of nongovernmental groups.

“The Askarov case is perhaps the clearest illustration of the grave injustices that followed the outbreak of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan three years ago,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should press Atambaev, once and for all, to call on the authorities to reopen the case, have the conviction set aside, and investigate Askarov's allegations of torture.”

Askarov, a prominent rights defender whose work focused on ill-treatment and torture by the police, has been serving a life sentence following his deeply flawed trial and conviction for alleged involvement in the ethnic violence that rocked the country's south in June 2010. During his trial, Askarov, 62, made credible allegations that he had been tortured in custody, but prosecutorial authorities have repeatedly declined to investigate. His health has declined markedly in prison.

During his trip to Brussels, Atambaev will hold talks with several high-level EU officials including Catherine Ashton, the vice-president and high representative for foreign affairs and security policy; European Parliament President Martin Schulz; European Commission President José Manuel Barroso; and European Council President Herman van Rompuy.

The deeply troubling legislative proposal was published on September 6 by two members of parliament. It would seriously curb independent advocacy and other work by nongovernmental groups by placing new, draconian limits on freedom of association, said Human Rights Watch and Front Line Defenders.

The bill, which heavily borrows from Russia's notorious “foreign agents” law, would similarly require organizations in Kyrgyzstan that receive foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents.”

“President Atambaev needs to hear – loud and clear – that a 'foreign agents' law has absolutely no place in Kyrgyzstan,” said Mary Lawlor, director at Front Line Defenders. “An active civil society is an essential component of any functioning democracy.”

In a disturbing trend, the proposed “foreign agents” law is not the first legislative initiative in Kyrgyzstan this year that has sought to curb the activities of nongovernmental groups. In late January, a draft law on money laundering was introduced by the State Financial Intelligence Unit under the prime minister's office that would have placed undue financial controls on nongovernmental organizations. The groups successfully intervened, however. They organized a public hearing, and then formed a working group with representatives of the unit, who ultimately agreed to remove the discriminatory provisions.

“EU leaders should encourage President Atambaev to speak out against discriminatory legislative initiatives that would gravely undermine freedom of association in Kyrgyzstan,” Lawlor said.

Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia that has ushered in a parliamentary democracy and has had a peaceful transfer of presidential power. Following the June 2010 ethnic violence that rocked the southern part of the country, with hundreds killed and thousands left homeless, the government instituted some political and rights reforms, such as decriminalizing libel and introducing a national torture prevention mechanism.

Despite these positive steps, authorities have been violating fundamental human rights, particularly in the south. Over the last three years, authorities have failed to provide justice for victims of the 2010 ethnic violence or to hold those responsible to account.

Another key concern is widespread torture and ill-treatment by law-enforcement officials during their investigations into the 2010 violence. Human Rights Watch and others, including the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, who visited Kyrgyzstan in December 2011, have documented these abuses. Prosecutorial authorities in Kyrgyzstan often decline to investigate serious and credible allegations of torture.

Only a handful of June 2010-related cases are still in court. But the deeply hostile courtroom environment and repeated violent attacks on lawyers and defendants persist. These problems and the impunity for those who violently disrupt trials have marred many of the June 2010-related trials.

The Kyrgyz authorities should stop turning a blind eye to these courtroom attacks, and instead intervene to stop them and hold those responsible for the violence accountable, Front Line Defenders and Human Rights Watch said.

Similarly, the authorities should ensure that every credible allegation of torture is fully and impartially investigated in a manner capable of bringing those responsible to account.

“Torture and violent attacks put the weakness of Kyrgyzstan's law enforcement and judiciary on clear display,” Rittmann said. “EU leaders should urge President Atambaev to put an end to these blatant abuses.”

Gender-based violence and violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are also longstanding problems that the Kyrgyz government has not effectively addressed. Domestic violence is widespread, as are abductions for forced marriage, despite recent legislative amendments increasing the penalties for this practice. Gay and bisexual men are at serious risk of extortion schemes and physical and sexual violence at the hands of the police in abuses that go largely unpunished.

EU officials should use their talks with Atambaev to urge him to provide leadership in ensuring a more effective response to gender-based violence and bride-kidnapping. He should also be urged to support and initiate concrete measures to address discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, including ensuring that victims can seek and get justice, Front Line Defenders and Human Rights Watch said.
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