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Kyrgyzstan: Film Ban Violates Free Speech

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 4 October 2012
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Kyrgyzstan: Film Ban Violates Free Speech, 4 October 2012, available at: [accessed 24 October 2017]
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.

The Kyrgyz government should lift a ban on a documentary film about gay men in Morocco and allow the film to be screened in Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch said today.

The film, I am Gay and Muslim, shows gay men in Morocco describing their lives and their religious views. On September 27, 2012, Kyrgyz authorities illegally confiscated one copy of the film the day before it was scheduled to be screened at a local cinema in Bishkek, the capital.  The next day, police prevented film festival organizers from showing another copy at the same cinema.

"The Kyrgyz authorities have no legitimate basis for banning this film," said Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "Although not everyone in Kyrgyzstan may like this film or agree with its content, the authorities should respect free speech by allowing the film to be screened."

The documentary is one of dozens of films included in the "One World" film festival, organized annually by local human rights groups for the last five years and shown in numerous cities across Kyrgyzstan.

In response to a complaint filed by the chief mufti of Kyrgyzstan to the General Prosecutor's Office and the State Committee onReligious Affairs, National Security Service (KNB) officers on September 27 took a copy of the film from the Manas cinema in central Bishkek, where the film was to be screened the next day. Festival organizers informed Human Rights Watch that the KNB officials had no search warrant and provided no official documentation permitting them to confiscate the film.  

The Kyrgyz State Committee on Religious Affairs assessed the content of the film and determined it to be "extremist," "offensive to Muslims," and "inciting interreligious hatred." Citing this analysis and the Kyrgyz law on "counteracting extremist activities," the General Prosecutor's office ordered the film festival organizers to refrain from screening I am Gay and Muslim.

The festival organizers refused to comply and attempted to show another copy of the film at the Manas cinema on September 28, as scheduled.  Over a dozen law enforcement officers arrived and prevented the screening.  Police ushered members of the audience out of the theater after they were allowed to participate in a short discussion about the film with its director, Chris Belloni of the Netherlands.

The 59-minute documentary, released in March, has been screened in over a dozen countries, including the Netherlands, the United States, Ukraine, and Serbia.

Using "extremism" legislation to ban this film is a misuse of the law to stifle protected speech, Human Rights Watch said.
Tolekan Ismailova, head of Citizens against Corruption, a local group and one of the festival's organizers, told Human Rights Watch that government officials, journalists, and private individuals had pressured her, other festival organizers, and the Manas cinema director not to show the film. Unidentified people had also threatened to set the Manas cinema on fire if the film was shown. 

Kyrgyzstan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to free speech.  Article 19 provides, "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Free speech is protected in Kyrgyzstan's constitution. Article 31 states, "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought and opinion," and "Everyone shall have the right to free expression of opinion, freedom of speech and press."

In respecting and protecting the right to free speech, governments have an obligation to refrain from censoring free speech, including speech that may offend.  

"The authorities should in no circumstances harass or pressure people who wish to screen or view this film," Reid said. "The effort to show the documentary as part of a human rights film festival should not be condemned, but rather welcomed. Like anyone else, LGBT people of faith have a right to be heard."

Dividing the Group: "Rwandan" and "Congolese"
After the Mai Mai pulled the passengers out of the vehicle, they quickly set about determining who, in their view, was Banyamulenge or "Rwandan" and who was "Congolese." From their comments reported by survivors and witnesses, it was clear that they were looking for Banyamulenge. A survivor told Human Rights Watch the Mai Mai said to him, "Get the Rwandans out."

A survivor who was badly injured sat down on the ground next to the vehicle. He told Human Rights Watch that after separating the Banyamulenge and non-Banyamulenge passengers on the basis of their physical appearance, the Mai Mai told the second group: 'You are Congolese. We have no problem with you. We having been telling you for a long time not to stay with these people, but you don't listen to us. We only have problems with these Rwandans. We will attack them as far as Minembwe [in the area considered the Banyamulenge heartland]."

The Mai Mai escorted the "Congolese" passengers into the village and presented some of them to a Mai Mai commander whom witnesses identified as "Ebuela." He said: "No, not the Congolese, we are only looking for the Rwandans." Survivors said the commander then declared, "You Rwandans have killed many of us. ... It is now your turn. Call your Rwandan friends to help you. We own this country, you are foreigners. You are here to destabilize [the situation], but we are the owners here. Today you will see."

Executing the Banyamulenge Humanitarian Workers
The commander called Ebuela asked the Banyamulenge passengers if there was a pastor among them, the survivors said. When one answered yes, he said they "must take confessions… We are going to kill you now."

A survivor told Human Rights Watch: "They took [a] young woman behind a house and we heard two shots. They did not ask her if she was a Rwandan or a Tutsi, they only looked at her." Witnesses in the village saw the woman being taken away: "She pleaded: 'I am a student. Why are you doing this to me? Have mercy please!' They said to her, 'Shut your mouth!'" The woman, Gisèle Nabisage, who was in her 30s, was killed on the spot.

The Mai Mai then selected the other Banyamulenge passengers who had been taken to the commander and ordered them executed in the village. Witnesses heard shots. Two Banyamulenge men, Pasteur Ngeremo Amédée and Gitandu Muhoza, (the driver's father-in-law), were killed. Two others survived.

One of the survivors told Human Rights Watch how he escaped: "I was sure we were being taken to be killed. I made a decision. I decided that I did not want to be tortured and that I would rather be shot in the back. So I decided to run. They were going to have to shoot me. They shot at me and I heard the bullets going by, but thanks to God I was not hit."

The Mai Mai then shot another Munyamulenge woman in the side. She said: "They shot me there on the spot… I fell down. I had been hit in the back. The bullet had gone in and out at the same moment. I think they thought I was dead."

Meanwhile, on the road the Mai Mai set fire to the Eben Ezer vehicle. Witnesses in the village heard the Mai Mai yelling to the injured, "Is it your home here? You are foreigners!" The Mai Mai had kept one able-bodied survivor, a non-Banyamulenge, by the vehicle to pull out the injured and materials inside. He told Human Rights Watch: "I was wearing my work identification and when they saw my name, they said: 'Why are you travelling with these people? You will die.' They took everything out of the vehicle and [then] said, 'Burn the vehicle'… We started to walk toward the village and I saw smoke from the vehicle and heard the sound of tires exploding. As we were walking, one of the [Mai Mai] made a phone call and said, 'We have hit them seriously.'"

After burning the vehicle, the Mai Mai ordered one of the injured Banyamulenge passengers: "Go lie down next to your brothers so that we can shoot you." They made him lie down on the road with his face turned away from them so that he could not see them. One of the Mai Mai, whom the passenger described as behaving like a commander, ordered the others to shoot him. One fired a shot; the bullet passed very close to his head but missed him. The commander then said: "Let's go, the job is finished."

This survivor was able to leave the area before the Mai Mai returned. He told Human Rights Watch, "About 30 minutes later, I heard the group of assailants come back. They stopped near [the other injured] and I heard them say, 'These people are not dead yet!' They started cutting them with machetes… [One] may already have died because he had been shot in the chest. I heard [the victims] scream. The assailants could not see me in the bush because it was dark by then, but I could hear them clearly. They cut my friends with machetes until they died. It was very quick – just a few minutes. There were no gunshots." Those who died were Eraste Rwatangabo, Edmond Gifota, and Tite Kandoti.

The Mai Mai left soon afterward. As they were leaving they told some of the villagers that they had been under orders to carry out this attack, though it was not clear exactly who had given the order. Villagers believed the attack was premeditated. One told Human Rights Watch, "They came quickly, they did the act and they left quickly. It was as if they knew and had information that the vehicle was coming."

After the Attack
The seven survivors – three Banyamulenge and four non-Banyamulenge – spent the night in the bush, then made their way separately to nearby towns. Several were wounded.

Residents of Kalungwe told Human Rights Watch that the attack spread fear in the village and that a number of residents fled, fearing retaliation from the Congolese army or Banyamulenge armed groups. Some did not return to Kalungwe for several months.

There was a sense of fear by association: residents felt that since the attack had taken place in their village, that many Mai Mai Yakutumba are of the same Babembe ethnicity as many local residents, and that some Mai Mai Yakutumba were seen in the village before the attack, it might be assumed that residents of Kalungwe had been complicit in the attack.

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