Surveillance and policing – KyrgyzstanIn the wake of COVID-19, the threat to the rights of minorities and other marginalized groups is greater than ever
While the pandemic has been experienced globally, many of its impacts have been highly localized, exposing the specific challenges facing different countries. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, the outbreak of COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of the country’s dilapidated economic and governance systems. It has also highlighted the perilous state of human rights in the country, particularly for its minority populations – a situation illustrated by the fact that, more than a decade after the tragic inter-ethnic clashes in 2010 that saw almost 500 people killed, its predominantly ethnic Uzbek victims are still seeking justice and fighting impunity.
In response to the pandemic, a national emergency was announced in Kyrgyzstan in March 2020, with stringent restrictions imposed in Bishkek and a number of other cities. As part of the state of emergency, initially in force until 15 April but later prolonged until 10 May, a curfew was introduced and people’s movement was limited, with police checkpoints established to enforce these controls. While to some extent these mirrored measures put in place elsewhere, the implications for the protection of freedom of expression, association and assembly are especially concerning in the Kyrgyz context. Subsequent actions by the government also suggest that security and repression, rather than public health, have been its main priorities in responding to the virus. Throughout, marginalized and discriminated groups such as minorities, women and LGBTQ+ persons have been overlooked or even targeted by the authorities, despite their heightened vulnerability to the pandemic and its social effects.
For many years, civil society in the country has suffered from a narrowing public space, with instances of organizations disbanding, suspending their activities or struggling to secure funding. Staff members are intimidated, detained or assaulted, sometimes even killed. Informal social movements without official approval experience similar threats, as do journalists, academics and bloggers. When they do not suffer from direct repression, they still tend to be affected indirectly through self-censorship and a refocusing of their activities, away from human rights advocacy towards the less contested area of service provision.
From rising homelessness to increased domestic violence, human rights issues have only become more urgent during the pandemic. Yet throughout, despite these pressures, the government has failed to provide adequate assistance to those worst affected, including marginalized groups such as women, the elderly and people with disabilities. In orphanages, mental health facilities and boarding schools for children with special needs in Chui region, for instance, staff reportedly had to sew their own protective equipment and produce their own sanitizing materials. In prisons, too, inmates have not only been denied visits from family members but also from doctors and lawyers: out of around 2,500 lawyers who applied for state authorization to access their clients in prison during the lockdown, only 139 were approved – far fewer than in the pre-pandemic period, when almost all requested visits were permitted.
Out of around 2,500 lawyers who applied for state authorization to access their clients in prison during the lockdown, only 139 were approved.
Instead of focusing all efforts on protecting the civilian population in the midst of an unprecedented health emergency, the authorities have been passing more legislation against civil society, including those working on women’s rights. This renewed repression also included an attack in April 2020 by self-styled nationalists against activists protesting against the abduction and murder of a young woman, Aizada Kanatbekova, with the vigilantes falsely accusing the demonstrators of seeking to promote LGBTQ+ issues — a long-standing target of official persecution and homophobic policies. LGBTQ+ activists have highlighted that homophobic violence against community members has only increased since the pandemic began; as a large proportion of attacks against LGBTQ+ people take place at home, the imposition of quarantine and lockdowns has left many exposed to even greater risks of domestic violence.
Ethnic minorities have also been especially affected during this period. In a submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in October 2020, the human rights groups ADC Memorial and Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan expressed their concern about the heightened plight of ethnic minorities at a time of social and political instability following mass protests, the president’s resignation and the postponement of parliamentary elections. Ethnic minorities living in crowded settlements have faced additional risks during the pandemic, made worse by the lack of available information about the dangers of COVID-19 and prevention measures. This is because many do not speak the Kyrgyz or Russian languages fluently, lack access to the internet and social media, and follow certain religious and traditional practices that make social distancing difficult. Human rights groups called on the government urgently to consider the specific needs and lifestyles of ethnic minorities to minimize the spread of the virus in these communities.
The perilous state of human rights in Kyrgyzstan was illustrated by the plight of Azimzhan Askarov, a 69-year-old ethnic Uzbek journalist and human rights defender who worked tirelessly to document abuses during the violence in 2010 and was subsequently convicted of complicity in a trial that was widely criticized for its many irregularities. His death in custody in July 2020 was the tragic result of the Kyrgyz government ignoring calls for his release from Kyrgyz civil society, international organizations, heads of state and public figures over many years. While much has changed since the onset of the pandemic, the repression and marginalization of ethnic minorities, human rights activists and other targeted groups has shown no signs of abating.
Photo: A Muslim religious leader from the ethnic Uzbek community in Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Franck METOIS/Alamy.