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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Kyrgyzstan

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Kyrgyzstan, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa25a.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
KYRGYZ REPUBLIC

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997

 

The Kyrgyz Republic became an independent state in 1991. Although the 1993 Constitution defines the form of government as a democratic republic with substantial civil rights for its citizens, the President, Askar Akayev, dominates the government. Akayev was reelected in December 1995 in an open, multicandidate presidential election, which was marred, however, by deregistration of three rival candidates immediately prior to the vote. Also in 1995, a new two-chamber Parliament was elected for a 5-year term. The Constitution was amended by referendum in February to strengthen substantially the presidency and define the role of Parliament. However, the referendum was marred by serious irregularities. In 1995 a Constitutional Court was sworn in, and a reform program was implemented to improve the quality of the judiciary in 1996. Parliament and the Constitutional Court are fairly weak in practice.

Law enforcement responsibilities are divided between the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) for general crime, the Ministry of National Security (MNB) for state-level crime, and the procurator's office for both types of crime. Both the MVD and MNB deal with corruption and organized crime. These ministries inherited their personnel and infrastructure from their Soviet predecessors. Both appear to be under the full control of the Government and must conform their actions to the law. Kyrgyzstani borders are manned by Russian border troops under an agreement with the Russian Federation. The Government has little authority over these troops who sometimes enforce their own rules rather than Kyrgyzstani law.

The Kyrgyz Republic is a poor, mountainous country with a predominantly agricultural economy. Cotton, wool, and meat are the main agricultural products and exports. Other exports include gold, mercury, uranium, and hydroelectricity. The Government has carried out progressive market reforms. There was moderate growth in most sectors, and economic reform is now accepted by the general public. The level of hardship for pensioners, unemployed workers, and government workers with salary arrearages continues to be very high. Foreign assistance plays a significant role in the country's budget.

The Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, but there were problems with freedom of speech and the press, due process for the accused, religious freedom, ethnic discrimination, and electoral procedures. Prison conditions remained poor. Two campaign workers and one journalist were arrested, tried, and convicted under criminal rather than civil statutes for libeling the President. Although receiving suspended sentences, they were held for months without bail before their trials. One was subsequently rearrested and convicted of additional criminal charges despite weak evidence. The Constitution was amended illegally in a referendum marred by irregularities. Local "elders'" courts used torture, and levied harsh sentences beyond their mandate, in one case ordering the death penalty. Although sanctioned by the Government, elders' courts are not part of the regular judicial structure and the Government has made efforts to curtail their activities. In general executive domination of the judiciary made assurances of due process problematic. The Government does not fully protect freedom of religion. Concerns about ethnic discrimination remain, but in general the situation of minorities has improved and emigration rates have fallen dramatically. Violence against women is a problem which the authorities often ignore.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings by government officials. There was one report that an individual was killed by stoning after being sentenced to death by a local court of village elders (see Section 1.e.). These courts are supposed to handle petty disputes and are not authorized to try major crimes or impose punishment other than small fines. Apparently, the elders were not punished, but elders' courts are being monitored more closely.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that officials employed them. There were unconfirmed reports that police beat ethnic Chechens during their arrests (see Section 1.d.).

There have been allegations that local elders' courts in conjunction with unauthorized vigilantes have used torture to gain confessions in two villages (see Section 1.e.).

Prison conditions (including food shortages and lack of heat and other necessities) are poor but not so bad as to constitute cruelty. Those detained by the MNB rather than the MVD are kept in an MNB detention facility; after conviction they go to a regular prison.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The judicial system continues to operate under Soviet laws and procedures. The procurator's office determines who may be detained, arrested, and prosecuted. The Interior Ministry, the MNB, and the General Procurator carry out investigations. Since 1990 persons arrested or charged with crimes have the right to defense counsel. The procurator's office responsible for the investigation often nominates the defense counsel, who is required to visit the accused within the first 3 days of incarceration. However, sometimes the accused first sees defense counsel only at the trial.

The Criminal Code permits the procurator to detain suspects for 72 hours before releasing them or accusing them of a crime. The procurator must issue an arrest warrant before a person can be detained. If a suspect is charged, the procurator must advise defense counsel immediately. The accused usually remains in detention while the procurator investigates and prepares the case for presentation in court. The procurator has discretion to keep the accused in pretrial detention for up to 1 year, but there are provisions for conditional release before trial. After 1 year, the procurator must release the accused or ask Parliament to extend the period of detention. Since independence, there have been no known instances in which Parliament extended a detention.

The procurator, not the judge, is in charge of criminal proceedings. Thus the courts are widely perceived as a rubber stamp for the procurator and not protectors of citizens' rights. In addition, very low judges' salaries have led to the apparently well-grounded view among the population that decisions can be bought easily. Numerous articles have appeared in the press about judges being charged and convicted for taking bribes.

Two days before the 1995 Presidential elections, the campaign chairman of opposition candidate Medetkan Sherimkulov and a campaign worker were arrested in Issyk Kul oblast while campaigning. They were charged with libeling the President by handing out leaflets saying that Akayev was ethnically Kazak. They and their colleagues denied that they had any leaflets. The men were detained without bail (which is usually available in cases of nonviolent crime) for 4 months and were allowed no visitors other than spouses and attorneys. In April they were convicted of libel and received 1-year suspended sentences. A third person was arrested on similar charges in Naryn in February and detained without bail until trial in July. He was convicted, given a suspended sentence of 1 year, and released. There were unconfirmed reports that police arbitrarily arrested and detained ethnic Chechens, some of whom were severely beaten during their arrests. The MVD noted that it had "cracked down on Chechen criminals" in 1996.

The Government does not employ forced exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, the court system remains largely unreformed and the executive dominates the judiciary.

Cases originate in local courts, may move to appeals courts on a district or regional level, and finally to the Supreme Court.

Separate courts of arbitration handle civil disputes, and traditional elders' courts handle low-level crime in rural areas.

The procurator brings the case to court and tries it before a judge and two people's assessors (pensioners or citizens chosen from labor collectives). The accused and defense counsel have access to all evidence gathered by the procurator. They attend all proceedings, which are generally public, and are allowed to question witnesses and present evidence. In fact nearly anyone in the court room may be allowed to question witnesses. Witnesses do not recapitulate their testimony in court; instead they affirm or deny their statements in the procurator's files. Defendants in criminal cases sometimes are treated in a demeaning manner by being kept in cages in the courtroom.

The court may render one of three decisions: Innocent, guilty, or indeterminate, i.e., the case is returned to the procurator for further investigation. In May the Constitutional Court ruled that only the defense has the right of appeal. Previously the prosecutor could appeal both acquittals and convictions so that defendants might be acquitted by the trial court but then convicted on appeal or have their sentences increased. The decision of a court to return a case to the procurator for further investigation may not be appealed, and the accused are returned to the procurator's custody where they may remain under detention.

Local elders' courts have committed a number of abuses. They are supposed to try petty crimes and decide local disputes but have tried major crimes and handed out harsher punishments than allowed in the form of high fines or detention. Torture is sometimes used to extract confessions (see Section 1.c.). In an extreme case, an elders' court sentenced a man to death by stoning for livestock rustling; the sentence was carried out (see Section 1.a.). Defendants in elders' courts may appeal to the local administrative court. Prosecutors' offices are monitoring these courts more closely but continue to report cases in which these courts exceeded their authority.

The Government has begun to reform the judicial system. Generally accepted international practices, including the presumption of innocence of the accused, have been introduced. A new system of court administration is being instituted, and sitting judges are being tested on their knowledge of the law and new civil codes. If they fail these tests, they are removed from office. In what may be an indication of growing judicial independence, in November the Constitutional Court ruled that the speaker of the legislative lower house had been unconstitutionally elected since mandated parliamentary procedure was not followed. The legislature accepted the Court's ruling and elected a new speaker.

The appointment of ethnic Kyrgyz to key positions in the judicial system has led to charges by non-Kyrgyz that the system is arbitrary and unfair, and that the courts treat Kyrgyz more leniently than members of other groups. Although systematic discrimination is not clearly evident, it is credible in some cases.

Economic crimes such as tax evasion, embezzlement, or theft of government property are common. Prosecution for these crimes, however, is relatively rare and sometimes appears to be directed at opponents of the Government.

On January 8, 1997, opposition activist Topchubek Turgunaliev was convicted of embezzlement, fraud, and abuse of position, stemming from his service as a university rector in 1994 (Turgunaliev also was convicted in April of defaming President Akayev and received a 1 year suspended sentence). He was arrested on December 17 after organizing a demonstration in Bishkek to protest high unemployment and nonpayment of pensions. The charges on which he was convicted had been brought previously, but rejected for lack of evidence. The timing of the case and the lack of new evidence suggested that the prosecution was politically motivated.

Many observers consider Topchubek Turgunaliev a political prisoner.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution prohibits unlawful entry into a home against the wishes of the occupant and states that a person's private life, privacy of correspondence, and telephonic and telegraphic communications are protected. The law and procedures require the General Procurators's approval for wiretaps, searches of homes, interception of mail, and similar acts. A change in the law in 1995 weakened these protections by allowing the procurator to give approval for searches over the telephone; thus no written proof exists to verify that the search was approved. Furthermore, in certain cases law enforcement officers may first carry out a search and then get approval within 24 hours. If approval is not given, any evidence seized is inadmissible in court.

Personnel and organizations responsible for violations during the Soviet period have remained largely in place; however, no widespread nor systematic violations of the privacy of citizens were reported. There were some reports by citizens active in politics or human rights issues that the privacy of their communications was violated, but credible evidence is not available.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

A 1992 law calls for freedom of the press and mass media but also provides guidelines proscribing publication of certain information. The law supports the right of journalists to obtain information, to publish without prior restraint, and to protect sources. However, it also contains provisions that the Government used to restrict press freedom. For example, the law prohibits publication of material that advocates war, violence, or intolerance toward ethnic or religious groups; desecration of national norms, ethics, and symbols like the national seal, anthem, or flag; publication of pornography; and propagation of "false information." The law also states that the press should not violate the privacy or dignity of individuals. It requires all media to register with the Ministry of Justice and to await the Ministry's approval before beginning to operate. The Ministry has ruled that foreign entities are not entitled to register. An amendment to the Constitution makes the dignity of presidents or former presidents inviolable.

There are fully independent newspapers and magazines, as well a few hours daily of independent television broadcasting and some independent radio stations. However, almost all electronic media and a significant portion of print media receive government subsidies, which permit the government to influence media coverage, especially on radio and television. Two print journalists are still barred from practicing their profession under a 1995 conviction for libel. No overt efforts to interfere with the press were observed in 1996, although at least one journalist complained of harassment by police and procurators for expressing independent views. The conviction of two campaign workers and one journalist for criminal defamation of the President during the election campaign emphasized the limits to freedom of speech. They were given 1-year suspended sentences in April and then released (see Section 1.d.).

Academic freedom is respected.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Under the Constitution, citizens have the right to assemble and associate freely and do so without government interference.

Permits are required for public marches and gatherings but are routinely available. Some peaceful protests took place outside the President's office, mostly pensioners protesting late pension payments and market vendors protesting tax enforcement.

The 1991 Law on Public Organizations, which includes labor unions, political parties, and cultural associations, requires them to register with the Ministry of Justice. A bureaucratic mentality, carried over from the Soviet period, is at least partly responsible for the delay some organizations experience in registering. Ultimately all organizations have been able to register, with the exception of a Uighur organization with the stated goal of the creation of an independent Uighur state in northwest China.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion and the right of all citizens to choose and practice their own religion; however, the Government does not fully protect these rights. The Government does not support any religion and expressly forbids the teaching of religion (or atheism) in public schools.

In March the Government created a new State Commission on Religious Affairs, officially in order to promote religious tolerance, protect freedom of conscience, and oversee laws on religion. In its early months, the commission was not active and the Government appeared to resist calls by some Orthodox and Muslim leaders to limit the activities of "sects" and "nontraditional religions." By fall, however, the commission became more active. The President signed a decree requiring all religious organizations to register with the commission and announced that a new law on religion would be presented to Parliament. Under the new regulations, each congregation must register separately. As previously, if the group wishes to own property, it must also register with the Ministry of Justice as a legal entity.

Muslim leaders complain that the commission has begun to make decisions about religious events without consulting them. The main Baptist organization reported that a congregation of Baptists in Naryn oblast was denied registration both by the Ministry of Justice and by the Commission for Religious Affairs.

The church filed lawsuits and appeals, but the courts upheld the denial of registration. The Baptists report that in October police broke into their services and threatened worshipers. The Chairman of the Commission acknowledged that he was aware of the problems of the Naryn Baptists, and said that he had informed the authorities that they were to allow the Baptists to worship in peace, but was noncommittal on whether they would be allowed to register.

Religious leaders note with concern that the commission frequently uses the term "national security" in its statements. They also worry that references to "preserving interconfessional accord" could be used by traditional religious to prevent smaller churches from registering. Both Christians and Muslims have expressed concern about the State's apparent intention to take a more intrusive role in religion. Ethnic Kyrgyz Christian congregations appear to face special barriers, as do some Muslim congregations with foreign support.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

In general Government policy allows free travel within and outside the country. However, certain Soviet-era policies continue to complicate internal migration, resettlement, and travel abroad. Under the Soviet-era law still in force, citizens need official government permission (a "propiska") to work and settle in a particular area of the country. Home and apartment owners can legally sell their property only to buyers with such permission. This law is not enforced, however, and has become irrelevant as people move within the country, freely selling their homes and businesses.

There is no law on emigration. Administrative procedures permit movement of people; however, citizens who apply for passports must present a letter of invitation from the country they intend to visit or to which they intend to emigrate. They also need an exit visa. There were no reports, however, that citizens, after presenting such a letter, were denied a passport or an exit visa. A Soviet-era law prohibits emigration within 5 years of working with "state secrets." No one is believed to have been barred from emigration under this statute in 1996.

Emigrants were not prevented from returning to Kyrgyzstan, and there is reportedly a small but steady flow of returnees. The Government cooperates with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The issue of first asylum did not arise in 1996. There were no reports of forced return of persons where they feared persecution or expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens have the constitutional right to change their government peacefully, but have limited ability to do so in practice.

The Constitution mandates presidential elections every 5 years. There is a two-term limit. The President was reelected to a second term in 1995 in a multicandidate election marred by irregularities. Parliamentary elections are also held every 5 years. In 1995 citizens elected a new Parliament in elections marred by irregularities. In February a referendum was held that amended the Constitution to redistribute power within the government. The referendum violated the Constitution in force at the time and the Law on Referendums. Voter apathy was high, and turnout low. The results were reminiscent of the Soviet era with a reported turnout of 98 percent and an approval margin of 95 percent. Ballot stuffing was rampant.

The amendments approved in the February referendum further strengthened the formal power of the President and his advisors who dominate the Government. The Parliament and the judiciary tend to be subordinate to the executive branch, but still show some independence. The overwhelming majority of local government officials are not elected but appointed by the President.

Women and most ethnic minorities are underrepresented in government and politics. Only 4 of 105 parliamentary deputies are women. There are four female ministers and the Constitutional Court chairman is a woman. A women's group has formed to recruit, advise, and campaign for women candidates in the next parliamentary elections. Russians and Uzbeks are underrepresented in government positions.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A number of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are generally responsive and sensitive to their views. However, in 1996 human rights groups and diplomats were denied access to the two opposition activists convicted of slandering the President (see Section 2.a.).

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for the rights and freedom of individuals and prohibits discrimination, including on the basis of language. The Government expresses a strong commitment to protecting the rights of members of all ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups as well as those of women.

Women

Research conducted in 1996 on violence against women showed a noticeable increase in such incidents since independence. Activists note that rape is becoming more common with authorities often ignoring such attacks. Official statistics show little change in the number of crimes against women, but medical records present a different story with increased hospital admissions of women who have been injured by a family member. Many of these incidents are alcohol related. Such crimes are treated by the normal criminal process if women press charges, but crime statistics indicate that most such crimes go unreported. There are no shelters for battered women. The Government has not devised a program to deal with this problem.

The law gives equal status to women, and they are well represented in the work force, in professions, and in institutions of higher learning. Women are prominent in law, accounting, and banking; and play an active role in the growing nongovernment sector.

Nonetheless, the deteriorating economic conditions have had a severe impact on women, who are more likely to lose their jobs. It is estimated that 70 percent of the unemployed are women. Women make up the majority of pensioners who are also in much worse condition than previously as inflation has eroded pensions, which are often paid late. Women's groups express general concern about the situation of rural women. With the end of communism, traditional attitudes toward women are reasserting themselves strongly in the countryside, where women are relegated to the role of wife and mother and educational opportunities are curtailed.

Women's groups are involved in drafting a family law that will include sections on the treatment of women and children within the family.

Children

The Government continues to rely on former Soviet law in this sphere, but is finding it increasingly ineffective in dealing with adoption issues, custody disputes, and similar matters. A new family code is still in the drafting stage.

Human rights groups and the Kyrgyz Children's Fund monitor conditions of children. Human rights groups note that children who are arrested are usually denied lawyers. Police often do not notify parents of the arrest and neither parents nor lawyers are present during interrogation, despite laws to the contrary. Children are often intimidated into signing confessions and sometimes are placed in cells with adult criminals to frighten them. In practice children have restricted rights to travel abroad until 16. Before that age, they are not entitled to their own passport and usually may travel only when accompanying a parent on the parent's passport.

The Kyrgyz Children's Fund is concerned about the growing number of street children, many of whom have left home because of abusive or alcoholic parents. The organization has opened two shelters, one in Bishkek and one in Osh to provide food, clothing, and schooling to such children. The forced marriage of underage girls is becoming more common and the authorities often ignore this practice. Cultural traditions and social structures discourage victims from going to the authorities.

Children in rural areas commonly pick crops.

People with Disabilities

There is no special law to protect disabled individuals, nor any law mandating accessibility. Former Soviet law continues to remain the basis for any resolution of complaints. Government officials are inattentive to the issue.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Reported complaints of discrimination center on the treatment of citizens who are not ethnic Kyrgyz. In an estimated population of 4.5 million, some 59.7 percent are Kyrgyz, 16.2 percent Russians, 14.1 percent Uzbeks, and the rest Ukrainians, Tajiks, Kazaks, Tatars, Germans, and others. These groups, which make up over 40 percent of the population, are often called the Russian-speaking minority. Members of this minority allege discrimination in hiring, promotion, and housing. They complain that government officials at all levels favor ethnic Kyrgyz. The predominance of ethnic Kyrgyz in government lends weight to this claim.

Russian speakers (those who do not speak Kyrgyz) also allege that a ceiling exists in government employment that precludes their promotion beyond a certain level. The representation of ethnic Kyrgyz at high and intermediate levels of government is proportionally much greater than the percentage of ethnic Kyrgyz in the general population. This gives credence to perceptions that career opportunities are limited for those who are not ethnic Kyrgyz.

The Constitution designates Kyrgyz as the official language but provides for the preservation and equal and free development of Russian and other languages used in the country. In 1996 Russian was also declared an official language for some purposes. As a result of these reforms and difficult economic conditions in Russia, Russian emigration has significantly declined with some ethnic Russians returning.

Ethnic Chechens were reportedly subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention without charge or on false charges, but these reports could not be confirmed.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The 1992 Labor Law provides for the right of all workers to form and belong to trade unions, and there is no evidence that the Government tried to obstruct the formation of independent unions. Hearings were held on a draft labor law, but it has not been passed. The Federation of Trade Unions of the Kyrgyz Republic (The Federation), successor to the former official union, remains the only trade union umbrella organization in the country, although unions are not required to belong to it. The leadership is changing, and some properties are being sold off.

The Federation has been critical of government policies, especially privatization, and their impact on working class living standards. The Federation still regards itself as in a process of transition in which it is adjusting its relations with the Government, with other unions in the former Soviet Union, and with other foreign unions. A growing number of smaller unions are not affiliated with the umbrella organization.

While the right to strike is not codified, strikes are not prohibited. There were small strikes of short duration. There were no retaliatory actions against strikers, nor were there instances of human rights abuse directed at unions or individual workers.

The law permits unions to form and join federations and to affiliate with international trade union bodies. It calls for practices consistent with international standards. Since independent unions are still in their infancy, no meaningful affiliation with international trade union bodies has taken place.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law recognizes the right of unions to negotiate for better wages and conditions. Although overall union structure and practice are slowly changing from that of the Soviet era, there is growing evidence of active union participation in state-owned and privatized enterprises. The Government sets the minimum wage, and then each employer sets its own wage levels.

The law protects union members from antiunion discrimination, and there were no recorded instances of discrimination against anyone because of union activities.

There are free economic zones that can be used as export processing zones. The minimum wage law does not apply to workers in the zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law forbids forced or compulsory labor, and it is not known to occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment is 18 years. Students are allowed to work up to 6 hours per day in summer or in part-time jobs from the age of 16. The law prohibits the use of child labor (under age 16); the Ministry of Education monitors enforcement. However, families frequently call upon their children to work to help support the family.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Government mandates a national minimum wage at a level theoretically sufficient to provide minimal subsistence. The minimum wage is about $6.00 (75 soms) per month. In practice even the higher median wage is considered insufficient to assure a decent standard of living for a worker and family. The Federation is responsible for enforcing all labor laws, including the law on minimum wages. Minimum wage regulations are largely observed. However, enforcement of labor laws is nonexistent in the growing underground economy. Market forces help wages in the unofficial sector to keep pace with official wage scales.

The standard workweek is 41 hours, usually within a 5-day week. For state-owned industries, there is a mandatory 24-hour rest period in the workweek.

Safety and health conditions in factories are poor. The deteriorating economy hindered enforcement of existing regulations and prevented investment to improve health and safety standards. A 1992 law established occupational health and safety standards, as well as enforcement procedures. Besides government inspection teams, trade unions are assigned active roles in assuring compliance with these measures, but the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in the country has made the compliance record of businesses spotty. Workers have the legal right to remove themselves from unsafe working conditions.

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