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Kyrgyzstan: NGOs Battle Smear Campaign

Rights activists deny newspaper claims that foreign money is funding anti-government demonstrations across the country.
By Sultan Jumagulov

The state-controlled media has launched a stinging attack on NGOs and human rights organisations in Kyrgyzstan, accusing them of trying to destabilise the country.

Newspapers Erkin Too, Slovo Kyrgyzstana and Kyrgyz Tuusu have all published articles alleging that these groups are using overseas grants to fund protest meetings and demonstrations.

Talks between government representatives, NGOs and the official media over the allegations were held in the Bishkek offices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, on June 25. They were intended as a constructive debate, but ended acrimoniously.

The claims are linked to ongoing civil disturbances in the south of the country, which were sparked by the arrest of popular parliamentary deputy Azimbek Bekhazarov in January.

The former lawyer was charged with professional malpractice, but the alleged offence took place a number of years ago. And many believe the real reason for his detention was his fierce criticism of a border agreement between the governments of Kyrgyzstan and China.

In March, law enforcement officers shot dead several people and arrested many others during a pro-Bekhazarov demonstration in the Aksy region. During a march on Jalal-Abad in June, there were more claims of police brutality. This provoked a further wave of anti-government protests and hunger strikes that continue to rock the country. The articles claimed that these rallies have been funded by NGOs using foreign money.

The organisations have fiercely denied the allegations and have received the support of the American embassy and the National Democratic Institute, both of which have issued statements pointing out that the NGOs' activities are entirely transparent.

US diplomats also posted a detailed report on the internet outlining the extent of its financial assistance to Kyrgyzstan - 50 million dollars this year alone - which it says is entirely directed toward strengthening democracy in the country.

Some politicians have also joined the debate over the media claims. Murat Sultanov, leader of the largest parliamentary grouping, Za Narod, was amongst several who backed the NGOs, "It is thanks to international financial support that we have been able to implement economic and democratic reforms more or less successfully," he said.

After a few days of complaints from the public and the organisations themselves, the ministry of foreign affairs released a statement claiming that the government was not behind the allegations.

However, the announcement effectively defended the accusations, which it said reflected the opinion of a significant portion of society. The statement prompted a swift unequivocal response from the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, FDCS, which has considerable authority in Kyrgyzstan.

Coalition leader Edil Baisalov told IWPR that as the allegations were coordinated and repeated word for word in several government newspapers, they had to reflect the views of the authorities. "The Kyrgyz establishment still rules by communist method of force," he said.

"The latest incidents have shown the government is incapable of holding an equal and honest dialogue with its citizens, who have been fighting for their civil and political rights for months (a reference to the Aksy events).

"First, the authorities used the old Soviet method of arrests and intimidation, as we saw in the Jalal-Abad municipality. When that didn't work, they decided to smear NGOs and human rights organisations who receive aid from the West and form close relations with the population."

However, Toktaiym Umetalieva, leader of the Kyrgyzstan Association of NGOs, claims that some civil rights activists have been involved in the protests in the south.

"I've attended meetings in Aksy and seen members of one human rights group inciting demonstrators with anti-government slogans. Naturally, this caused some indignation," she said, before adding, "(But) the NGOs are fully transparent and they keep strict financial records, so there is no genuine risk that grants are being misused."

Local and international pressure appears to have prompted the authorities to effectively retract the media allegations. The recently appointed minister for foreign affairs, Askar Aitmatov, told IWPR that his department has no evidence that international organisations are financing local NGOs and civil rights defendants in an attempt to destabilise the country.

"Kyrgyzstan is grateful for the aid that the West provides, and hopes to establish more partnerships with international organisations," he said.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Kyrgyzstan

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