States urged to make recommendations on freedom of expression during UPR reviews of Kyrgyzstan, Kenya and Turkey
On 2 December 2014, PEN’s Europe Researcher and Campaigner Cathal Sheerin, attended the UPR pre-session on Kyrgyzstan. Earlier in the year, PEN made a joint UPR submission on Kyrgyzstan with Article 19, and the pre-session presented us with an opportunity to persuade some of the permanent missions in Geneva to adopt our recommendations as their own when they make their contributions to the review of Kyrgyzstan in January 2015. It was also an opportunity for PEN to continue our work advocating for LGBTQI free expression in Kyrgyzstan with Labrys, the Kyrgyz LGBTQI group.
PEN is particularly concerned by Kyrgyzstan’s recent legislative assault on freedom of expression. As the small Central Asian state moves closer to joining the Russia-dominated Customs Union, it seems to be intent on following Russia’s bad example when it comes to choking free speech. In April 2014, the Kyrgyzstan parliament passed a law criminalising the dissemination of ‘knowingly false messages about the commission of crimes.’ The law imposes punishment of up to three years in prison, and provides no public interest defence. Kyrgyzstan had been applauded for decriminalising defamation in 2011, but this new law has effectively reintroduced it through the back-door. In 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed to the dangers presented by criminalising defamation: “Criminal prosecution for defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of the press. International standards are clear that imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for defamation.”
And criminalising defamation is not the only legislative area in which Kyrgyzstan is imitating Russia. During 2014, Kyrgyz lawmakers introduced another two extremely worrying draft laws. The first of these is the so-called ‘foreign agent’ law, which will place onerous restrictions on all non-governmental organisations receiving funding from abroad and which are involved in ‘political activities’. If passed, this law will introduce criminal liability for non-compliance and will cripple Kyrgyz civil society. The second of these laws is a piece of legislation that copies Russia’s so-called anti-gay propaganda law, but which imposes much harsher punishments for the “propaganda of non-traditional relations.” As the Labrys activist, Syinat Sultanalieva, commented during pre-session: “If this law is passed, I could be imprisoned for one year just by being here and making this statement.”
During the pre-session, PEN had useful discussions with a number of delegates with whom we raised these concerns. We also had two meetings with the permanent missions of Ireland and Brazil. PEN attended the meeting with the Irish Mission alongside Labrys’ leading advocates. While LGBTQI free expression rights took centre-stage, PEN also had the opportunity to advocate on behalf of one of our main cases in Kyrgyzstan – the imprisoned ethnic Uzbek journalist and human rights defender, Azimjon Askarov.
Askarov is currently serving life in prison, having been convicted – following an unfair trial in 2010 – of complicity in the murder of a police officer. Askarov is a well-known figure in Kyrgyzstan; his independent investigations into corruption not only made him unpopular with the Kyrgyz state authorities, but also resulted in the dismissal of ten police officers. He was arrested during the interethnic conflict that swept Osh and Jalal-Abad during the summer of 2010, and, he alleges, tortured before, during and after his trial. This was independently corroborated in 2012 by the NGO, Physicians for Human Rights. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed to Askarov’s case as an example of an unfair trial; the Kyrgyz government’s own human rights ombudsman concluded that Askarov was not even at the scene of the crime when the murder of the police officer took place.
PEN is hopeful that our recommendations that Askarov be released and his conviction quashed, and that Kyrgyzstan’s draft anti-gay ‘propaganda’ law be rejected, will be incorporated in some of the recommendations made by states to Kyrgyzstan in January 2015.
PEN International’s joint submissions on Turkey and Kenya were taken forward at the pre-session by our partners Article 19 and the Turkish Platform for Independent Journalism P24.