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Kyrgyzstan: Freedom of Expression in Transition

In June 2010, Kyrgyzstan’s Southern region experienced horrific inter-ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups. Some foreign voices who attempted to shed light on the tragic events had been banned from the country.

The violence left over a 400 dead and thousands displaced from their homes. Similar events between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have erupted before and appear to have been reignited by the bloody ouster of the president in April 2010.The provisional government led by Roza Otunbayeva invited Kimmo Kiljunen, a Finnish diplomat and a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to investigate the violence in the hopes of reconciling ethnic tensions. His report pointed out that the provisional government could have prevented the violence from escalating but failed to do so.

The Finnish Diplomat also concluded that when the local authorities began detaining those it thought responsible, they selectively prosecuted the ethnic Uzbek minority. One victim of these biased investigations was Azimjan Askarov, a prominent human rights activist and an ethnic Uzbek. He was tortured and eventually convicted to life imprisonment for being one of the masterminds behind the ethnic violence. The allegation was denied by Askarov and numerous international and national human rights organizations, including the UN. The Kyrgyz government felt that Kimmo Kiljunen’s report unfairly portrayed ethnic Uzbeks as defenseless victims. As punishment, the Kyrgyz Parliament voted in a large majority to ban him from the country.

More recently, in May 2013, Aleksandr Knyazev, an expert on Central Asia from the Russia’s Oriental Studies Institute, was denied entry to Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security declared that it had “certain reasons” to prevent the expert from the country where he has long resided. No further clarification as to the reasons was provided. In an interview, Knyazev explained that his public criticism of the Kyrgyz government’s inter-ethnic policy likely played a role in the ban.

One does not need to be highly visible to be banned from Kyrgyzstan. The author faced similar treatment in the junior stage of his career. No official reason was provided for his ban, but it was likely tied to his single trip to Southern Kyrgyzstan as part of a human rights project monitoring mission with Freedom House and USAID. The harsh treatment of persons hoping to reconcile ethnic tensions seems to stem from the Kyrgyz government’s unwillingness to “look objectively” at the events.

Kyrgyzstan is not the first or the only country to ban persons from entering its territories to stifle exchange of information. Its Central Asian neighbors are also guilty of the practice. The more worrying issue is that the Kyrgyz authorities are also attempting to prevent discussion of ethnic and other rights issues among its citizens. Just this year, Amnesty International reported that civil society activists working on human rights feel increased pressure from the authorities. Kyrgyzstan also backtracked on freedom of speech by adopting a new law in May 2014 that reintroduced criminal libel.

Kyrgyzstan has been in democratic transition since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It experienced two revolutions and just in 2011 had its first peaceful change of the presidential seat. On March 5, 2015, the Kyrgyz Parliament rejected a bill mimicking Russia’s notorious anti-gay propaganda law. Hopefully, the Kyrgyz authorities will continue the year and beyond in such positive manner.

Authors

Bach Avezdjanov

Program Officer, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression

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