Ahead of Elections, Kyrgyz Court Targets President Atambayev’s Critics

Civil Rights Defenders condemns consecutive guilty verdicts issued by a Kyrgyz court starting on 30 June in five separate libel cases filed by the Prosecutor-General’s office on behalf of President Almazbek Atambayev against the independent news website Zanoza, its founders and contributors. Civil Rights Defenders calls on Kyrgyz authorities to cease their politicised attacks against critical media and reporters ahead of the October 2017 presidential vote, and urges the higher court to reverse the politicised rulings on appeal.

On 30 June the Oktyabrskiy court in capital Bishkek declared Zanoza, its parent company ProMedia, founders Dina Maslova and Narynbek Idinov, and a human rights activist Cholpon Dzhakupova guilty of libel in two separate cases filed by the Prosecutor-General’s office in April, and ordered each pay 3 million Kyrgyz Som (about €38,000) in damages, the Moscow-based independent news website Fergana News reported. For comparison, average monthly salary in the country is about 15,400 Kyrgyz Som (€195). Zanoza staff said they are to appeal the verdict in a higher court.

In the last two days, Bishkek courts handed Zanoza and Idinov two other guilty verdicts, and ordered each defendants pay a fine of 3 million Kyrgyz Som, Zanoza reported. In total, all defendants must pay the president of the country 27 million Kyrgyz Som (about €343,000) in damages for the articles critical of high-level government corruption, attacks on the media, and a politicized arrest of an opposition parliament member.

One of the questioned articles, in which Idinov criticized Kyrgyz politicians for being drawn into office by financial gains rather than public service, made no specific reference to President Atambayev and was long removed from Zanoza website. This, however, did not stop the prosecutors from arguing that readers could draw parallels between corrupt politicians and the president, and insisted on the trial to proceed, reports from the courtroom said.

Civil Rights Defenders is urging President Atambayev to uphold his government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law, and instruct prosecutors and security services to immediately drop their politicized and retaliatory charges against the media. It is absolutely deplorable that Kyrgyzstan, which claims to be a democratic nation, silences independent and critical voices by means of politicized prosecution and debilitating fines in a case directly linked to the president. With the upcoming presidential vote, it is crucial that independent voices continue to report the news without the fear of any harassment.

Zanoza is one of the few independent critical news outlets that covers developments in Kyrgyzstan, and remains critical of the government, including the outgoing President Almazbek Atambayev. The next presidential vote is scheduled for October 2017, media reported.

Indira Joldubayeva, Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor-general, filed five separate defamation lawsuits in total against Zanoza, its staff and contributors in April, in connection to articles from 2015 and 2017 critical of President Atambayev and his government policies, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported. Each of the articles included allegations of corruption by government officials, criticized the authorities for the February arrest of opposition MP Omurbek Tekebayev, as well as Atambayev’s vitriols and defamation lawsuits filed on his behalf earlier this year against the Kyrgyz service of the Prague-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Prosecutors dropped those lawsuits in late May, RFE/RL Kazakh service reported.

Even though article 31 of the Kyrgyz constitution guarantees freedom of thought and expression, judges at the Oktyabrskiy court in Bishkek admitted all the lawsuits against the Zanoza and its contributors. In a highly controversial move that immediately prompted of the politicized nature of the prosecution, Bishkek court granted Joldubayeva’s request in April to impose a travel ban against the defendants and ordered their property seized before the trial has even started, Human Rights Watch reported in May.

Lawsuits against RFE/RL and Zanoza are not the only attacks on the critical press in Kyrgyzstan this year. In early June, CPJ reported that independent journalist Ulugbek Babakulov was forced to flee the country after facing death threats and a criminal probe on incitement of ethnic hatred charges. Kyrgyz security services opened the probe against the journalist after he exposed ethnic hatred in Kyrgyz-language social media posts. The same Oktyabrskiy district court in Bishkek ordered to block nationwide access to the Moscow-based independent news website Fergana News for which Babakulov reported.