Kyrgyzstan detains 22 protest leaders in a disputed border deal
On Sunday in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek, police agents raided the houses of more than a dozen government critics who one day earlier formed a committee to protest against the transfer of the Kyrgyzstan-based Kempir-Abad water reservoir to neighboring Uzbekistan. During some raids, police agents failed to present their identification documents and search warrants but nevertheless confiscated phones, computers, notebooks, and other personal belongings of the targeted persons and their family members.
As of Monday 24 October, at least 22 persons targeted in the raids were forced into detention for 48 hours pending a court ruling. Among those detained are human rights activist Rita Karasartova, opposition politician Ravshan Dzheyenbekov, former Supreme Court judge Klara Sooronkulova, several civic activists, and former and current politicians, Kloop News reported. According to Kyrgyz media, authorities said they had opened a criminal case against those detained on accusations that they were plotting to stage mass and armed rallies and seeking to overthrow the government.
The reservoir transfer deal is a part of a border delimitation process that the two neighbouring nations have been carrying for years. Although Kyrgyz authorities spoke of their intent about the reservoir transfer and insisted that their nation would benefit from the exchange of territory, they kept the details secret from the public and rushed the approval process behind closed doors in the parliament. According to news reports, residents in the Kempir-Abad area of southern Kyrgyzstan – an arid mountainous region – believe that once the deal is complete, they will lose all access to the major water source in the area as well as the fertile grounds in its vicinity which they have been using for agriculture purposes.
Civil Rights Defenders condemns the raids and detentions in Bishkek carried with procedural violations and urges the Kyrgyz authorities to free those in custody without delay and end their harassment and prosecution. The speed with which the Kyrgyz police opened the criminal case and carried the raids – less than 24 hours after the group announced forming a committee – points at a politicised and retaliatory nature, not serving of justice.
Given the importance of the issues – border demarcation and access to valuable natural resources – Civil Rights Defenders urges the Kyrgyz government to withstand from further harassment of their opponents. Instead, authorities should openly engage local communities, ensure proper and timely sharing of information especially among those residents most affected by the demarcation process, and welcome public scrutiny. Public rights to access to information, to holding protest rallies and to expressing critical opinion are essential under the Kyrgyz constitution and other national laws and must be protected by the state, not repressed.
Update 25 October 2022:
On Monday evening, 24 October, and through the night in Bishkek, judges with the Pervomayskiy District Court ordered all the detained persons except two into pretrial detention for two months, regional press reported. As one of the detained activists had heart problems, the court forced the person into house arrest, reports said.
We condemn the district court’s orders to imprison the activists despite the violations and judicial failure to protect the detainees’ rights to critical speech and peaceful assembly. These actions only add to our belief that the entire case is of retaliatory nature with authorities using all state resources to silence the dissent.