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Kyrgyzstan

Key Developments

» The government continues to deny justice to Azimjon Askarov.

» Authorities unblock critical news website, but do not repeal censorship measure.

While President Almazbek Atambayev urged the state council in March to enforce rule of law and guarantee the protection of human rights, he demonstrated little political will to bring about such changes. Authorities showed no intent to revive the Uzbek-language media that thrived in southern Kyrgyzstan prior to the June 2010 conflict, in which clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. Broadcasting in the largest minority language remained limited--only one broadcaster produced news in Uzbek. While access to the independent regional website Ferghana News was restored by most Internet service providers, the Kyrgyz government failed to repeal the June 2011 ban that recommended the outlet be blocked in connection with its coverage of the 2010 conflict. As a result, fear remained that authorities could legally block the website at any time. In May, Atambayev signed a vaguely worded anti-extremism bill that his critics said could be used to target free expression on the Web. Three years after the 2010 ethnic conflict, injustice continued to impair press freedom and human rights. The Kyrgyz leader publicly declared his commitment to revisit the case of imprisoned reporter Azimjon Askarov, but no action followed: Prosecutors failed to investigate the case even after new evidence emerged in Askarov's defense.



  • 14

    Months-long ban lifted
  • 42

    Months in prison
  • 4

    Protest a documentary on Askarov
  • 2

    Amendments threaten online speech
 

Internet users were finally able to freely access the Moscow-based independent regional news website Ferghana News more than a year after Kyrgyz authorities ordered Internet service providers to block the website domestically.

Facing a court battle, as well as domestic and international protests over the ban, Kyrgyz authorities restored access to the critical outlet in April, but failed to repeal a parliamentary resolution recommending the blocking of the website.


Timeline of events:

June 2011:

Kyrgyz lawmakers investigate the June 2010 ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan, and, among other measures, recommend that the government block domestic access to Ferghana News.

February 2012:

KyrgyzTeleCom, the largest Internet provider in Kyrgyzstan, as well as other Internet service providers, block access to Ferghana News, citing an order from then-Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov.

November 2012:

Ferghana News disputes the censorship order in court.

March 2013:

A district court in Bishkek sides with the government and drops Ferghana's lawsuit.

April 2013:

Ferghana's lawyer, Nurbek Toktakunov, appeals the ruling at Bishkek City Court; two days later, authorities restore access to the website.
 

Kyrgyz journalist and human rights defender Azimjon Askarov was imprisoned on June 15, 2010, and sentenced three months later to life in prison on charges that included incitement to ethnic hatred, calls to mass disorder, and complicity in a police officer's murder. He has spent three and a half years in prison despite calls for his release by local human rights and press freedom groups, including CPJ.

Askarov had reported on the deadly clashes in the June 2010 conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced. His articles, which were published on regional news websites such as Golos Svobody and Ferghana News, had covered investigations into the police torture of inmates, politicized criminal prosecutions, and human rights violations. His work resulted in the demotion of abusive law enforcement officers.

CPJ special report, based on interviews with Askarov, his lawyers, and witnesses, found that no independent witnesses or material evidence were presented in court to support the charges against him. The report also found that Askarov was convicted after a judicial process that was marred by torture, lack of evidence, and fabricated charges.

CPJ urged Kyrgyz authorities in February to reopen Askarov's case based on new evidence that had emerged in statements by defense witnesses. Authorities had not done so in late year. In October, Kyrgyz Supreme Court denied his lawyer's request to investigate Askarov's torture in custody, Ferghana News reported.

 

At a September press conference, four so-called political experts--Zholbors Zhorobekov, Bolot Toktobayev, Aida Zheyenaliyeva, and Tamara Ganiyeva--protested the screening at a Bishkek human rights film festival of a documentary about Askarov. The four said they supported the verdict against Askarov, accused the filmmakers of bias and intent to stir public discontent, and urged the festival organizers to drop the film from the program.

The festival organizers' plans to screen the film in other cities were thwarted after local residents also protested the Askarov documentary. Although the organizers said the film was not intended for widespread release, the protesters threatened regional authorities with riots and forced them to ban the festival altogether.

 

After President Atambayev in May signed amendments to laws on electronic communications and combating extremism, press freedom advocates expressed concern about potential abuse of the legislation.

Under the new amendments, Kyrgyz courts and law enforcement agencies are granted power to prosecute individuals accused of spreading extremism via e-mail or online commentaries, and shut down or block websites accused of carrying extremist content.

The concern stemmed in part from recent abuse of anti-extremism legislation by Kyrgyzstan's law enforcement agencies, including biased court rulings against ethnic journalists and critical news outlets being accused of inciting ethnic hatred leading up to the June 2010 conflict.




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