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Down from human rights activity to activism in Kyrgyzstan

Article by Ernest Zhanaev

March 1, 2021

Down from human rights activity to activism in Kyrgyzstan

You may struggle to find a country that praises civil society sector and persecutes it simultaneously as much as Kyrgyzstan; where non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are needed most to cover up the dilettante state’s lack of coherence and responsiveness.


The human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating for years and the foreign support of the civil society sector has been gradually fading away due to financial crises, rising nationalism in the donor countries, eroding democratic principles, deadly conflicts emerging worldwide, and the current pandemic.


Kyrgyz civil society, especially human rights defenders, feel betrayed by its state. There might be many indicators of this, such as anti-NGO law initiatives or persecution of particular leaders, but one is the heaviest – the Osh violence in 2010. It is the most enduring pain for many who tried to do their best to overcome the artificially promoted post-colonial differences the state persistently focuses on, atrocities of the law enforcement authorities, and the excessively triumphal behaviour of the Government in the aftermath of the conflict.


The Government and its proxies long-pursued NGOs and civil leaders to release themselves from ‘a burden’ of control. By sentencing Azimjan Askarov, the state reached several targets – ‘winning’ the war against the ‘enemy of the state’; the civil society ‘exposed’ as a ‘fifth column’; and ethnic Uzbeks considered as ‘diaspora’, not ‘a rooted’ community in Kyrgyzstan despite historical evidence. It was a victory over the non-governmental sector, which fiercely pushed for peacebuilding and rule of law. The government’s contempt for NGO’s relative independence amid the outcry over the imprisonment of ethnic Uzbek human rights defender extended to the denial of the privileged status of USAID aid programme.[1] And, it can be considered as a point defining further policies.


Some Kyrgyz scholars when abroad abstain from criticising the Government about its ethnic policy in the presence of public officials. They do not insist on the widely publicised findings even in a secure environment with Chatham House rules. The tragedy of the ethnic violence in 2010 and the consequent harassment, abuse, and asset stripping of ethnic Uzbeks might no longer cause discomfort to those who had not sustained any losses in the conflict, but survivors still live in continuous fear.


However, the Kyrgyz Government’s revised policy towards the development aid organisations and its own civil society seems not to be reactive, emotional or independent – it too served the interests of the expanding Eurasian Economic Union led by Russia. In 2014, Kyrgyzstan adopted more harsh policies towards its human rights defenders following the condemnation of the civil sector by Russian media and diplomacy. Kyrgyzstan backed the annexation of Crimea, ousted the US military base, and received significant financial support from Russia.[2] The state-funded media of Kyrgyzstan continued condemning the civil leaders over their critics of the Russian activity in Ukraine throughout the year.


It seems that the Kyrgyz government found 2014 perfect timing for a crackdown of the active critics among the NGO leaders. Many factors were leading to this moment, one of which was related to the influence of the US support of the civil sector in Kyrgyzstan, the US military base stationing near Bishkek in response to the global terroristic threat, and the international condemnation of the state’s response on the ethnic violence in 2010. President Atambayev proposed Russia to establish another military base later.[3]


When the UN describes human rights defenders, they emphasise that everyone promoting or protecting human rights can call themselves human rights defenders.[4] Amnesty names human rights defenders as ‘some of the bravest people in the world’.[5] In Kyrgyzstan, defending human rights has become a profession like any job in the civil society sector supported by the international community. The financial independence of civil society increased tensions with civil servants and the state media pushed myths about high salaries of the former increasing the cleavage further. Indeed, individuals involved in the activism and capable of promoting the values essential for every citizen can apply for financial support from abroad and rely on it. This has been the case for years.




There were plenty of facts speaking about the increasingly hostile environment for human rights activists and the most publicised case of late Azimjan Askarov is eloquent enough. As one famous civil society leader commented, “I have no hope [left] after the death of Azimjan Askarov and therefore I left the human rights activity”.[6] The penitentiary agency known as ‘GSIN’ that represents the Kyrgyz state and is responsible for the care of its inmates did not prevent the death of a prominent and awarded human rights defender Azimjan Askarov in July 2020.


While the judges did everything possible to keep Askarov imprisoned, GSIN continued to withhold medical assistance despite pleadings from all over the world to release the venerable man until he fell completely ill. GSIN then hospitalised him in its penitentiary premises only when his health deteriorated irreversibly.[7] Askarov died the same night after being admitted to hospital. The official cause of his death was given as ‘pneumonia’.[8] It is no doubt that the Kyrgyz state is responsible for this crime against humanity leaving the late Askarov with no professional medical help in the turmoil of the COVID pandemic. Other crimes included blatant violations of human rights during the investigation, judicial hearings and re-trials of his case after the UN Human Rights Committee decision that called for his release.[9]


The sudden and untimely departure of the most persecuted, and well-known abroad, human rights defender and the final post-mortem result worsens the state’s position that they were ‘impartial’ towards Azimjan Askarov. To conclude, the Kyrgyz authorities saw no purpose of keeping Askarov healthy and alive, while applying the norms of early or temporary release selectively to other prisoners.


The penitentiary authority issued unescorted ‘furlough’ orders during the unrest in October 2020 to release prisoners including the former president and prime minister, who had been sentenced for grave crimes. The fairness of their trials is also questionable. However, such speedy decisions benefiting individuals backed by political groups mar the claims of the Government about their impartiality.


For ten years since 2010, human rights defenders have remained as outcasts for the authorities and political groups. There are few doubts left about the whole state system, even the President’s office under every President tried to undermine the independent role of the civil sector, and persecution of individual leaders has often been politically ‘expedient’. While the international media summarises harassment and persecution of civil activists well enough the details of many cases appear to be largely opaque for many and local news outlets barely cover them.


Local police in Issyk-Kul province irritated by anti-torture activist Kamil Ruziev threatened him in 2015 and consequentially he diminished his public activity.[10] The GKNB (the special service overlooking national security) then started criminal proceedings against Ruziev, detaining him in 2020.[11] He was released following the public outcry but not all the charges were dropped.


The nationalists and law enforcers threatened and tried to assault human rights lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov when he represented Azimjan Askarov in 2010 and 2011. He continued to litigate in high-profile cases but fell victim to smear campaigns involving intrusive surveillance and fake exposures by media sympathetic to the Government.[12]


President Atambayev sued prominent human rights lawyer Cholpon Djakupova for her criticism of his incumbency in 2017.[13] The lawyer reported on continuous surveillance in the aftermath of the October 2020 change of power.[14]


Another prominent human rights journalist, Ulugbek Babakulov, after the vilification by the then president Atambayev and threats by nationalists fled Kyrgyzstan days before GKNB charged him with a crime.[15] Later, France granted him asylum.


Membership of Aziza Abdirasulova and Tolekan Ismailova in the council on interethnic policies under President Atambayev ended prematurely because of vilification by the then incumbent president.[16] Abdirasulova also found out she was under close surveillance by the GKNB.[17] Both civil leaders unsuccessfully attempted to sue President Atambayev for moral damage.


Dinara Oshurahunova, Burul Makenbayeva, former NGO leader Gulnara Djurabayeva, and former Supreme Court Judge Klara Sooronkulova found that unknown individuals were following, photographing, and recording their conversations.[18] The law enforcement authorities formally investigated the case with no suspects or feasible explanation to why.


The GKNB targeted whole human rights organisations during the period when Kyrgyzstan started the integration process into the Eurasian Economic Union – called Customs’ Union at the time – and led by Russia. In 2015, they raided the offices of the Human Rights Advocacy Centre and Bir Duino in Osh, while searching the houses of the lawyers of the organisation.[19]


Leading human rights advocates, including the author, founded a Council of Human Rights Defenders, initially under the Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan in 2008, to serve as an informal platform to raise awareness about human rights and the rule of law, and warn the state and the public about systemic issues when the formal institutions failed to do so. The platform also used its resources and outreach to public figures as a conflict resolution mechanism.


One of the most significant achievements of the Council was an amnesty for the Nookat 2008 disturbance participants, although the human rights defenders demanded a full acquittal.[20] Almost all the defendants were ethnic Uzbeks who had been sentenced for extremism in a process full of procedural violations and torture. Another instrument of conflict resolution became possible at that time. This is how the foundation was laid for councils under future presidents.


The annexation of Crimea in 2014 highlighted the specifics of the relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Russia. The Council of human rights defenders fiercely criticised the Russian hostility towards Ukraine and denounced the Kyrgyz Government siding with the Kremlin. It was no surprise that the media backing the Russian and Kyrgyz government reviled this group of independent individuals.[21] The Council of Human Rights Defenders ceased to exist that same year.


The downfall of the Council as a conflict resolution mechanism became a signal that the pressure is increasing and that it would jeopardise such a resource, leaving a vacuum for radical and latent activity.


The Collective Security Treaty Organisation, also led by Russia and including some former Soviet republics, criticised the Government of Kyrgyzstan hinting that numerous NGOs in the country cause a threat to its sovereignty.[22] An initiative to impose more intrusive controls over the activity of NGOs via a draft law on foreign agents or additional reporting almost reached its goal in 2016 before being dropped under pressure from civil society and Western donors, but the toxic environment created by the debate became another contributing factor to the hostile environment for human rights activists.[23]


Many of those mentioned or not mentioned civil leaders or human rights lawyers and activists would not share widely their stories about more dangerous harassment by law enforcement or proxies. These abuses would include numerous attempts to cause accidental injury or even death, arrest for deeds not associated with their activity – such as alleged drink driving or consumption of controlled drugs – that would not be publicly approved.


It is quite understandable that some civil leaders accept national awards to keep their activity public and exercise some sort of protection from abuse.[24] When the national authorities refrain from honoring human rights activists the foreign democracies and international organisations step up to raise awareness about how dangerous human rights profession is.[25]


Activism as a response to COVID-19

Kyrgyzstan experienced a reaction to the COVID-19 related situation also witnessed in other developing countries with persistent corruption too. Mass activism of volunteers, including from the civil sector, supported by individuals and entrepreneurs, helped the country to alleviate a weak and unprofessional response by the Government to the coronavirus outbreak. Even political activists, with their party finances associated with corrupt officials, were not so efficient.


Activism itself is filling the gaps but it should also be able to form a civil society not merely civil sector delivering services sometimes substituting the state. In Kyrgyzstan, it would possess expertise the state agencies lack. It is not a coincidence that one of the leading universities in Central Asia is in Bishkek – the American University of Central Asia – with its numerous alumni having international exposure it comes as a benefit for the society.


The GKNB under President Atambayev tracked down his critics on Facebook and it expanded their work under his successor.[26] Along with the Ministry of Interior, they were revealing dissent on social media regarding the poor performance of the Government on the COVID-19 pandemic, visiting the homes of critics and demanding to deny their words publicly, sometimes leading to arrests and convictions.[27] Suspicions of the public about the misuse of the huge amount of international aid directed to the fight against the pandemic have consequentially only further contributed to unresolved grievances about the political changes that almost never worked.[28]


This might have become one of the triggers that created the mass online activism and gave birth to the first crowdfunded political party consisted of activists, volunteers, and young politicians called ‘Reforma’.[29] Some of the volunteers have since joined the mainstream political parties.


Revolutions have never been complete in Kyrgyzstan and they have remained a tool of violent power change, benefiting only the rise of one political group over others, the sponsors of the presidency, and have been the reason for the deaths of many innocent civilians.


Politicians, unlike civil activists, are backed by their constituency, political groups and financial supporters. Partially, therefore, when in demise, politicians prefer to risk being unlawfully tried and imprisoned, thus accumulating political gains accounting for early release, after power change.


It was the activists, mainly from Bishkek, who first protested against the mass violations in the parliamentary elections and consequently led to a standoff with law enforcement authorities. However, experienced politicians with support from the provinces seized the momentum – released the political prisoners, started forming an interim government and drafting a new constitution. Later, after winning the January 2021 presidential election, Sadyr Japarov ‘revealed’ that he planned the October 2020 revolution while in prison.[30]


There are many ‘ifs’ for the future of human rights activities in Kyrgyzstan – if there would be continuous financial and moral support of it by the international institutions and foreign donors; if there would be enough legal space for human rights activism; if the state would refrain from imposing pressure on human rights defenders; and if there would be no persistently growing impunity against those who seek to restrict basic human rights and freedoms.


The old diplomatic approach by leading democracies of imposing sanctions (such as against former Sudanese President Al-Bashir over Darfur) against human rights abusers would barely affect them in Kyrgyzstan, now morally standing by Russia. Or, probably, it would have the same inconsistent or unsustainable effect as with the case of Azimjan Askarov, where the names of perpetrators were well-known starting from the local police officer torturing the human rights defender up to Prosecutor General that oversaw his case.[31]


Stable financial support is essential for any activity seeking sustainable goals. Who knows, maybe the private sector would start sponsoring local or national human rights activism to promote human rights and freedoms like it did when the pandemic hit Kyrgyzstan? In the meantime, some lawyers are already catching up on the defence of human rights, whether by representing individual cases or litigating on a strategic level.


Although foreign or international missions stationed in Bishkek represent donors, their influence on the Kyrgyz authorities is weak and bound by much anticipated and largely technical outcomes of their joint projects. Decision-makers in the governments or headquarters sponsoring reforms in Kyrgyzstan should demand bigger results from its government. The aid directed on democratic development should be conditional on the results and satisfaction of the Kyrgyz civil sector.


The established democracies should not limit themselves with merely raising their concern over rule of law issues but make sure their voices over the respect of human rights and freedoms heard. This is how the value of the taxpayers’ money brought to the Kyrgyz people would start to improve, and, Kyrgyzstan may stop persecuting own human rights activists.


Ernest Zhanaev, a human rights writer and consultant based in the UK since 2014. He was instrumental in making the Kyrgyzstan parliament adopt the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and latterly to pass legislation for greater financial transparency in electoral law. Also, he edited English news for the independent Fergana News covering developments in Central Asia. Now consultant for international organisations and think tanks Ernest researches human rights issues in post-Soviet countries specialising on freedom of speech, social and political development. He is currently also a postgraduate student at University of St Andrews.


Image by UN Women in Europe and Central Asia under (CC).


[1] Olga Dzyubenko, Defiant Kyrgyzstan says canceled treaty will hit U.S. aid agency, Reuters, July 2015,

[2] RFE/RL, Kyrgyzstan Says Crimea Referendum ‘Legitimate’, March 2014,; Stephanie Ott, Russia tightens control over Kyrgyzstan, The Guardian, September 2014,

[3] Bruce Pannier, Kyrgyzstan’s President Wants Another Russian Military Base, RFE/RL, June 2017,

[4] OHCHR, Who is a defender,

[5] Amnesty International UK, Human rights defenders – some of the bravest people in the world, January 2018,

[6] Abdumomun Mamaraimov, Facebook, December 2020,

[7] OHCHR, Kyrgyzstan must uphold its human rights obligations and release human rights defender Azimjan Askarov, says UN expert, May 2020,

[8] OHCHR, Kyrgyzstan: Death of human rights defender Azimjan Askarov a stain on country’s reputation, says UN expert, July 2020,

[9] CCPR/C/116/D/2231/2012, The United Nations Human Rights Committee, May 2016,

[10] Aleksandra Li, Активист заявляет о преследовании и угрозах за правозащитную деятельность [‘Activist states about persecution and threats for human rights activity’], Voice of Freedom of Central Asia, February 2015,

[11] Ayzirek Imanaliyeva, Kyrgyzstan: Fresh arrest shows how screws are tightening on civil society, Eurasianet, June 2020,

[12] RFE/RL, Former Kyrgyz PM’s Defense Lawyer Says Targeted By Smear Campaign, February 2019,

[13] Edliyar Arykbayev, Эмоции, оскорбления, ирония и сарказм: За что судят правозащитницу Чолпон

Джакупову? [‘Emotions, insults, irony and sarcasm: Why the human rights defender is being tried’], Kloop, May 2017,

[14] Cholpon Djakupova, Facebook Post, Facebook, October 2020,

[15] RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Kyrgyz Journalist ‘Given Political Asylum’ In France, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 2019,

[16] Abdumomun Mamaraimov, Азиза Абдирасулова: “Парламент Кыргызстана совершил преступление против государства” [‘Aziza Abdirasulova: Kyrgyzstan parliament committed crime against state’], Fergana Agency, February 2019,

[17] Alina Pak, Правозащитница Азиза Абдирасулова заявила, что за ней следят [‘Human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova says she is followed’], Kloop, December 2016,

[18] Fergana Agency, Киргизские правозащитницы пожаловались на прослушку [‘Kyrgyz human rights defenders complained about wiretapping’], September 2018,

[19] Justin Burke, Kyrgyzstan: Criminal Probe Has Rights Activists on Alert, Eurasianet, November 2014,; Chris Rickleton, Kyrgyzstan’s Security Agents Intimidating Uzbek Minority, Activists Say, Eurasianet, April 2015,

[20] David Trilling, Evaluating Kyrgyzstan’s Impact on the Islamic Militant Threat in Central Asia, Eurasianet, June 2010,

[21], “Совет правозащитников Кыргызстана” ангажированность или беспристрастность? (анализ обращений за 6 лет) [‘Council of human rights defenders’ bias or impartiality? (analysis of statements for 6 years], July 2014,

[22] Eleonora Beyshenbek kyzy, НПО Кыргызстана в поле зрения ОДКБ [‘Kyrgyzstan NGOs in sight of CSTO’], RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, March 2015,

[23] Anna Lelik, Kyrgyzstan: Foreign Agent Bill Nixed, NGOs Rejoice, Eurasianet, May 2016,; Ayzirek Imanaliyeva, Kyrgyzstan: Draft bill threatens to drive NGOs against the wall, Eurasianet, May 2020,

[24] President of the Kyrgyz Republic website, ‘О награждении государственными наградами Кыргызской Республики’ [‘On State Awards of the Kyrgyz Republic’], November 2017,

[25] US Department of State, 2014 Human Rights Defender Award Ceremony for Azimjan Askarov and Foro Penal, July 2015,

[26] Nurjamal Djanibekova, ‘Спецслужбы проверяют критиков Атамбаева в “Фэйсбуке”‘ [‘Special services scrutinise critics of Atambayev on Facebook’], Kloop, January 2017,

[27] Kloop, ‘Тот, кого нельзя называть. Как кыргызстанцев преследуют за критику президента’ [‘He Who Must Not Be Named. How Kyrgyzstani Persecuted for Criticising President’], July 2020,

[28] Aleksandra Li, Кыргызстан тратит миллионы долларов на борьбу с коронавирусом, но власти скрывают как расходуются деньги’, [‘Kyrgyzstan spends millions of dollars to fight coronavirus but authorities conceals how money is spent’], Kloop, June 2020,

[29] Bruce Pannier, Who’s Who In Kyrgyzstan After The Latest Tumultuous Uprising?, RFE/RL, October 2020,

[30] Vladimir Soloviev, В тюрьме ты 24 часа в сутки свободный человек [‘You are a free man in prison 24 hours a day ‘], Kommersant, January 2021,

[31] Front Line Defenders, Case of Azimjan Askarov, July 2020,

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