Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Addressing Torture in Kyrgyzstan

Published in Field Reports

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. 

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