Bishkek's Civil Society Threat

Kyrgyz civic groups mobilise against a 'monstrous' draft law to curtail political parties and NGOs, and the government may be listening.

Bishkek's Civil Society Threat

Kyrgyz civic groups mobilise against a 'monstrous' draft law to curtail political parties and NGOs, and the government may be listening.

Critics of a new government proposal to restrict the rights and freedoms of individuals and civic organisations registered a small victory last week. On August 16, expressly citing public concern, President Askar Akaev sent the draft law back to the government for review.



A month earlier, on July 18, the government of Kyrgyzstan approved draft legislation, initiated by the ministry of justice, which would forbid the activities of political parties founded on the basis of religion or those founded abroad. Foreign citizens would also not be able to become members of parties founded in Kyrgyzstan.



The government justified this move in the name of state security. Over the past two years, the country has experienced incursions by gunmen from the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU. Individual members of the religious party Khizb-ut Takhrir, which, according to law-enforcement organs, has close ties to the IMU, have been detained and sentenced to prison terms.



As with the IMU, the goal of Khizb-ut Takhrir is to establish a unified Muslim state, the Islamic Khalifat, in Central Asia. The government asserts that the new legislation is designed precisely to counter such religious parties.



The law would adopt amendments and additions to several older legislative acts. According to the deputy justice minister, Erkinbek Mamirov, these adjustments are needed to regulate the activities of political parties, since the current law does not fully cover their diverse and many-sided activities.



If the draft legislation is approved, registered parties would have to bring their by-laws and member rolls into accordance with the new amendments and undergo re-registration within six months. Failure to do so would result in the party being abolished.



In addition, all NGOs, and any subsidiaries, would be obliged to undergo state registration regardless of their membership numbers or their programme goals.



In a stipulation that has caused particular concern, journalists could face three to five years imprisonment "for agitation or propaganda conducted with the purpose of weakening or undermining the constitutional system".



WAVE OF CRITICISM



NGO leaders and members of the media have widely condemned the draft proposal. They insist that such broadly defined stipulations would be a licence to crack down on dissent.



"The amendments are aimed at restricting the activities of political parties," said leader of the Kyrgyz Communist Party Klara Ajibekova.



"Civic institutions would be controlled and punished by the Ministry of Justice for anything they did that went beyond the strict norms outlined," said Rina Prijivoit, executive editor of the newspaper Advokat. She added: "Unregistered political parties would be considered criminal organisations and any criticism of the authorities could be interpreted as an attempt to undermine them."



Natalia Ablova, director of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau of Human Rights and the Rule of Law, had particularly strong words against the proposal, calling it a provocative attempt by individual officials to establish a police state. She says it should have been cut short long ago by the guarantor of the constitution, the president of the country.



Prijivoit and Ablova are not alone in their stand against the draft; NGO leaders and members of the media have widely condemned the draft proposal.



On July 27, leaders of thirty NGOs issued a statement addressed to Akaev, expressing their deep concern. They argued that some articles in the draft law contradict the constitution as well as international human rights conventions ratified by Kyrgyzstan. They warned that adoption of the draft would significantly damage democracy and the development of civil society in the country.



The battle continued when, on August 3, in Bishkek, representatives of NGOs and the media met for a round-table discussion, hosted by the local office of IWPR, to discuss the draft legislation. Plans were discussed to challenge the draft legislation before the constitutional court.



NOT BACKING DOWN



At first, the authorities stood firm behind their resolve to adopt the new regulations. Deputy Justice Minister Mamirov considered public concerns totally groundless. "This draft legislation does not infringe the rights and liberties of our citizens in any way," he said.



Deputy Justice Minister Mamirov dismisses such concerns. "This draft legislation does not infringe the rights and liberties of our citizens in any way," he said.



Mamirov points to articles in the draft requiring civic organisations to file report with the government on their activities and their financial status. He insists NGO activities should be transparent.



"It is quite understandable why they see the proposed amendments as painful. They have something to conceal," he added.



Tolekan [I1]Ismailova, the chairwoman of the NGO coalition behind the statement, disagrees. She says the article on the accountability of public organisations is entirely unnecessary, since full transparency is already guaranteed by the tax code.



"This new article provides an opportunity for justice ministry representatives to engage in extortion and demand bribes. They could interpret the code at will, over-emphasising insignificant infractions, which will only lead to further unnecessary inspections and corruption," says Toktaiym Umetalieva[AB2], Chairwoman of the NGO Association.



Among the numerous formalities introduced would be the necessity of collecting 500 signatures in order to establish a political party. Some intellectuals have criticised this, noting that article 16 of the Kyrgyz constitution gives citizens freedom of association regardless of numbers.



Umetalieva calls this condition "monstrous," asking, "Who would defend the rights of various minorities, if their organisations were unable to collect the required number of signatures?"



THREAT TO SPEECH



Opponents of the draft legislation claim proposed additions to the criminal code are a serious threat to freedom of speech which could paralyse the work of the independent media.



Journalists in particular have reacted strongly against the proposed addition to the criminal code by which "agitation or propaganda" undertaken with financial resources or material received from foreign organisations or individuals that "undermine the constitutional system" would be punishable by up to five years in prison.



Such formulations, Nadejda Lisheva, a lawyer for the local office of the international media support organisation Internews, can be "interpreted by the authorities in nearly any way they wish".



Umetalieva, the NGO representative, warns that the stipulation on foreign funding will scare away charitable donors supporting the independent or non-state media, such as the Soros and Eurasia foundations and other sources.



Official sources see the problem differently.



"In the majority of cases, the independent media provide distorted information about the work of state organs," said Sopubek Begaliev, chairman of the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan. "Such materials cannot consolidate the nation. And right now our country needs peace and stability as never before."



Mamirov, the deputy justice minister, agrees. "If criticism is constructive, it can never mean a call for forceful change of the constitutional system," he said. "The article in question will be utilised only in case rallies and pickets are organised with the aim of overthrowing the existing power and if calls for the establishment of an Islamic state start to be heard."



He insisted that such legislation would not curtail the right of political parties or citizens to call for the resignation of the government. "This is a normal political process, and all parties have a right to it. The ultimate goal of every party is to come to power," he told IWPR.



In spite of the wave of strong criticism, the draft was signed by prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiev on July 18 and was forwarded to the Legislative Assembly. But the fact that the draft was sent back this week for public review is widely seen as a small victory for the legislation's opponents.



Kubat Otorbaev is an independent journalist in Bishkek and frequent contributor to IWPR.



Support our journalists