Wednesday, 21 May 2014 13:12

Addressing Torture in Kyrgyzstan

By Ebi Spahiu (05/21/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

With a growing rhetoric of militant Islamism in Kyrgyzstan and increasing records of human rights abuses against vulnerable groups, the pervasive use of torture remains one of the most pressing issues in Kyrgyzstan’s judicial system. Being the only democracy in Central Asia, and having gone through constitutional changes since the new government took over after the 2010 revolution, the country’s judiciary has yet to effectively address issues of torture that frequently affect targeted minorities and vulnerable groups. Very often the use of torture is justified by law enforcement to combat increasing threats of violent extremism. However, apart from being a political approach to fight threats of terrorism or unjustly target political dissent, torture also occurs due to a deeply flawed judicial system and law enforcement investigative mechanisms currently operating in Kyrgyzstan.

Even though the prevalence of torture remains a regional human rights issue due to the repressive regimes in most Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is the only democracy in the region although its systematic use of torture strongly resembles that of its oppressive neighbors. However, despite the climate of impunity for law enforcement officers and highly flawed judicial system, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the region that is taking measures to address this problem.

A recent event organized by the Tian Shan Policy Center at the American University on torture prevention mechanisms exposed some of the largest legal gaps and challenges the country faces on the issue of torture. The event was supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Coalition against Torture and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights based in Bishkek, and brought together representatives from civil society, the office of the general prosecutor, and members of parliament to address the realities of hundreds of torture cases that mostly go unpunished. “The system encourages law enforcement officers to use torture. The assessment is based on the quantity of criminal cases closed, which encourages the use of torture. If police officers do not fulfill this quota, they’ll be punished. It is the norm for confessions to be obtained through torture because police are not trained to conduct investigations,” says Alexandra Cherkasenko, Associate Legal Officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative in Bishkek, which provides legal support to torture victims and promotes legal reform based on international standards on torture prevention throughout Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan is a signatory state of the ICCPR (International Convention of Civil and Political Rights) as well as the CAT (Convention against Torture). Despite the international legal platforms available and recommendations for the development of mechanisms to prevent of torture, the number of charges among law enforcement perpetrators remains very low. For the first time this year, two police officers based in the southern province of Jalalabad were brought to justice and received sentences of up to 11 years in prison for having tortured minors. “The pressure from civil society is quite strong, but there is still a long way to go,” says Cherkasenko.

Apart from international agreements on the prevention of torture, recent discussions among scholars and civil society representatives have revolved around the role of regional economic and political alliances, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) between China and Central Asian states, in maintaining a prevalent climate of torture justified by the war on terror. In January 2014, a group of 11 ethnic Uyghur men were killed on the border between China and Kyrgyzstan on allegations of extremist activities. According to a statement of the border authorities reported by the Associated Press, the 11 men appeared to belong “to an organization of Uyghur separatists.” Human rights organizations, however, disputed the claim due to insufficient investigations and continuously raise their concerns over the SCO agreements and “murky” definitions of terrorism to justify repression of political dissent in the name of the war on terror, also grouped under the organization’s definition of “three evils”: separatism, extremism and terrorism. 

Following the 2010 ethnic conflict in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalalabad, inhabited by predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities, the country still faces the challenges of a corrupt and skewed judicial system whose investigations have been marred by arbitrary arrests and torture. The court proceedings and investigations into the killings of over 400 people during the conflict have failed to resolve the pains of a transitioning state. Widespread torture and targeting of ethnic minorities among other groups remains an obstacle to the highly politicized judicial processes. “In Kyrgyzstan investigations are compromised because the investigative body is still the Ministry of Internal Affairs with prosecutorial supervision. The complaints are usually made against operative officers who are also under the Ministry. These complaints are made because police officers are torturing in the context of an investigation so there is inherent conflict for both the prosecutors and the Ministry,” says Sarah King, Human Rights Program Manager at the Tian Shan Policy Center in Bishkek. 

Published in Field Reports

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (05/07/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On April 29, Kyrgyzstan’s newly nominated Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev paid his first official visit to Moscow. During his two days in the Russian capital, Otorbaev met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, and held talks with Gazprom’s Chief Executive Officer Alexey Miller and the new deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. After his official meetings, Otorbaev held a press conference with representatives of Russian media and met with Russian Central Asia experts to discuss the state of bilateral relations.

Kyrgyzstan’s entry into the Russia-led Customs Union was the main subject discussed between the Prime Ministers. In his meeting with Medvedev, Otorbaev stressed that Russia is and will remain Kyrgyzstan's strategic partner and that joining the Customs Union is a right step that will help his country tackle a number of economic and social challenges. Talking to Russian journalists, Otorbaev stated that Kyrgyzstan’s products, except for its gold, are mainly being exported to the Customs Union member states, i.e. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and that it would therefore be wrong to close the borders to those countries. In his turn, the Russian Prime Minister welcomed his Kyrgyz colleague and expressed Moscow’s readiness to be flexible and if necessary, further negotiate Kyrgyzstan’s terms of entry into the Union.

As part of his official visit, Otorbaev met with representatives of the Eurasian Economic Commission to finalize the “road map” for Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Customs Union. As a result of these talks, the new head of Kyrgyzstan’s government stated that the road map is practically completed and expressed his hope that it will be soon approved by the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission. Only afterwards will Bishkek take further actions to finalize the entry into the Union.

At this stage, no one questions Bishkek’s accession to the Russia led Customs Union. Agreements have been reached, the road map is being finalized and Bishkek's preferences are being met. But despite of all these developments, opposition politicians and experts continue to express their concern over Kyrgyzstan’s membership. For them, the Customs Union is primarily a political project and a part of Moscow’s continuous effort to strengthen its influence over the former Soviet Republics or in its zone of “privileged interest,” as Medvedev once described it.

During his Moscow visit, Otorbaev also met with key representatives of the Russian business community and held talks with Gazprom CEO Miller, whose company has recently purchased the KyrgyzGaz Natural Gas Corporation for US$ 1. Miller reconfirmed his Company's full responsibility for the timely supply of gas to Kyrgyzstan. Besides its business activities in the country, Gazprom intends to engage actively in supporting and implementing social programs in all the country’s regions. In turn, Otorbaev expressed his government’s full support for Gazprom and all other international companies willing to invest and do business in Kyrgyzstan.

It should also be mentioned that Russia’s state oil company Rosneft recently refused to purchase a majority stake in Manas International Airport. Shortly before this announcement, Kyrgyzstan’s United Opposition Movement held its first rally and heavily criticized the government's deals with foreign companies to sell the country’s strategically important assets.

In his address to the population, President Atambayev blamed the opposition for damaging Kyrgyzstan’s investment climate and stated that the country has no other choice. “Those screaming that no shares can be given to Rosneft, they in fact want to put an end to the future of Manas,” said Atambayev. Indeed, with the U.S. shortly leaving the Airbase, the Kyrgyz government is preoccupied with replacing the financial loss, which is according to all estimates a substantial share of the country’s budget. Otorbaev’s visit to Moscow is yet another effort to assure that Kyrgyzstan is a safe place for Russian investments.

Kyrgyz experts and analysts express varying opinions of selling the country’s strategic assets to companies owned by a foreign government in return for promises of investment, modernization, and development of natural resources. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Marat Kazakpaev, “to abstain from these developments Kyrgyzstan should improve its investment climate and attract private foreign investors. The fact that both Gazprom and Rosneft are state owned companies and are purchasing our country’s strategic assets gives a political connotation to the situation. This is not business, but politics,” stated Kazakpaev.

Published in Field Reports
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 07:46

National Opposition Rallies in Kyrgyzstan

By Arslan Sabyrbekov (04/23/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On April 10, Kyrgyzstan’s recently created National Opposition Movement conducted its first rally in the capital Bishkek, as well as smaller supporting rallies in the cities of Jalalabad, Osh and Karakol. The number of participants in Bishkek ranged from 1,000 to 1,200 people, including a number of media representatives. In the provinces, the number varied from 200 to 500 demonstrators.

The demonstration took place in Bishkek’s Gorky Park in a relatively peaceful manner, despite the detention of several dozens of demonstrators. According to the chief of Bishkek city Police, Melis Turganbaev, and Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman Bakyt Amanbaev, more than 200 rally participants were detained because they gathered outside of the aforementioned park. They were released several hours later. Also, in an interview to local journalists, Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman criticized state television channels for the biased coverage of the rally by portraying the demonstrators in a negative light. The Ombudsman stated that “all the citizens have inherent rights to peacefully hold rallies and demonstrations, where they can openly declare their opposition to any decisions taken by the country’s authorities and their voices must be heard.”

During the protests, prominent leaders of the National Opposition Movement delivered their speeches to their audience and put forward their demands to the country’s political leadership. The demands ranged from renegotiating the agreement over the Canadian-run Kumtor Gold Mining Company, the president’s resignation and the dissolution of the current Parliament, changing the sentence of the arrested former speaker of parliament Akhmatbek Keldibekov, and several other demands. The movement’s leader, the independent MP Ravshan Jeenbekov, said that “the fundamental objective of the rally is to raise public awareness of the president’s full control of the country and his continuing efforts to establish a fully authoritarian form of government in Kyrgyzstan.” The opposition leader added that the rally was also conducted to call on the president and the country’s top political leadership to stop selling the country’s crucial assets to the Russian Federation. Kyrgyzstan’s government recently reached a preliminary agreement with the Russian state oil company Rosneft to transfer its majority shares in Manas International Airport in exchange for assistance to create an international hub. This, according to the rally participants, heavily undermines the country’s economic as well as political independence.

At exactly the same time as the united opposition was holding its first public rally, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev met with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller. The sides signed a final document according to which the world’s largest extractor of natural gas will take over Kyrgyzstan’s KyrgyzGaz natural-gas corporation for US$ 1. During a press conference, Alexei Miller termed the deal “historic” and stated that “all debts of the Kyrgyz state company will become Gazprom's responsibility, the prices for gas for consumers in Kyrgyzstan will be decreased, and all projects and programs, including social ones, related to the company will be outlined and implemented with the Kyrgyz government’s involvement.”

The first rally of the recently created National Opposition Movement got a mixed reception from the Kyrgyz wider public and the local experts. According to Bishkek-based political analyst Shairbek Juraev, “in a democratic state, every political and social movement has a right to demonstrate, publicly deliver their ideas and there is nothing wrong with it, but there is a firm belief in our society that each demonstration shall lead to a revolution or a complete overthrow of the regime.” Regarding the movement’s demands, Juraev added that all of them are not groundless. Kyrgyzstan is indeed facing a number of socio-economic problems. The issue of the Kumtor Gold Mining Company and Manas International airport should be solved in the best interest of the country by holding public debates and discussions involving all the political forces. It remains a challenging task for the current political leadership to seek that involvement with the opposition forces who demand the immediate resignation of the current political elite.

While the opposition leaders claim that the rally was conducted in a fairly peaceful and democratic manner, the country’s recently nominated Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev stated that the rally inflicted economic damages amounting to at least 100 million Kyrgyz soms. On the day of the rally, local entrepreneurs feared looting and closed their shops and businesses.

Published in Field Reports

By Jamil Payaz (04/02/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

On March 25, Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev resigned following the dissolution of the parliamentary coalition, which was triggered by the withdrawal of the Ata Meken party on March 18. Ata Meken accused Satybaldiev of, inter alia, corruption issues while he headed a state agency that reconstructed Osh and Jalal-Abad after the ethnic clashes in 2010. Ata Meken’s leader boasted later that his party got rid of the government with which the public was dissatisfied.

There are various speculations as to the motives of Ata-Meken’s decision. Many consider the action as an attempt by the party to resurface on the political scene ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2015. The party won the lowest number of seats in parliament in 2011, despite the popularity of its leader Omurbek Tekebaev, who authored the Constitution introducing what is considered the first semi-parliamentary system in Central Asia. Equally important, the party has also been struggling to recover its reputation after its opponents branded it as a party of “marauders,” claiming its members raided the properties of the former president’s family. 

Over the last year, Tekebaev has aggressively exploited the issue of the Kumtor gold mine to attack Satybaldiev’s government. Eloquently using populist rhetoric, he contended that Kyrgyzstan should own at least 67 percent of the shares held by the mine’s operator Centerra, claiming that the government took too soft a stance in the negotiations and urged not to be afraid of renouncing the existing agreement. However, Ata Meken was less enthusiastic about supporting Respublica, the party of Tekebaev’s rival former Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov, when it tried for several months to gather MP signatures to call for a vote of no confidence in Satybaldiev in relation to largely the same issues.   

It is not clear what Ata Meken gained from exiting the coalition in the long run since President Atambaev, through his SDPK party, suggested that Vice Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev be appointed Prime Minister of the future cabinet. Although nominally an Ata Meken member, Otorbaev has abstained from political intrigues and was firmly moving ahead with strategic projects buttressed by the president, including the creation of a Bishkek-based parity enterprise with Centerra, accession to the Russia-led Customs Union, the sale of KyrgyzGaz to Gazprom, and the tentative decision to sell half the shares in Manas International Airport to Russia’s Rosneft. Following his appointment as acting Prime Minister on March 26, Otorbaev reaffirmed his commitment to the deal reached between his predecessor and Centerra, and no deviation is expected from the course President Atambaev has taken. Therefore, it remains to be seen how Tekebaev will react to these controversial issues closer to the elections. They are likely to become politicized further, especially due to increasing fears among the public that the transfer of state assets to Russian companies undermines Kyrgyzstan’s independence.      

Former Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov argues that the five factions with a relatively equal number of seats in parliament will produce only a technocratic government, which will be further crippled by the need to respect the views of the coalition faction leaders and the president. Although supported by the President, Satybaldiev had no united team, as the coalition factions have divided among themselves the ministerial posts, as well as state agencies. President Atambaev has called on the factions to stop this practice, which he said leads to “political corruption.”         

SDPK has invited all five factions to enter a coalition, but MPs believe that the same factions, SDPK, Ar Namys, and Ata Meken, are likely to form a new coalition. Respublica unequivocally wants to bring back its leader Babanov to the post of Prime Minister, despite the fact that size of the party’s parliamentary faction has shrunk. A dozen of its members have organized into MP groups, with some even revoking their party membership and expressing interest in joining SDPK or other parties outside parliament. Currently, it has 12 seats as opposed to the initial 23. 

In fact, all factions except for SDPK have become smaller with the creation of a number of MP groups, such as Onuguu (Progress), Democrats, Bir-Bol (Stay United), and Yntymak (Harmony). The other opposition party, Ata Jurt, is facing internal obstacles to join the coalition, since three of its MPs were stripped of their mandates after spending a year in prison and two have been arrested on charges of corruption. It thus seems that SDPK's attempt to form a broader coalition is not likely to materialize, and the future coalition will not be immune to impulses of faction leaders like Tekebaev at least until the next elections in 2015.         

Edil Baisalov, a well-known public activist, argues that this system leaves the government and legislative branches negligent to the actions they take. He says the government should be formed of MPs to ensure their accountability for decisions they make, and cabinet members should return to parliament after their work ends to make sure they are held accountable to their voters.

Published in Field Reports

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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