Dams and show trials: Democratic backsliding in the Kyrgyz Republic5 min read
On 26 and 27 December, 20 detainees had their pre-trial detention extended and their requests to be transferred to house-arrest denied in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Among these detainees were former and current opposition politicians, civil rights activists, and a former judge. This group has been detained since their arrest in October under suspicion of plotting mass riots in response to a new border deal between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. While these individuals have endured harsh treatment from officials, no substantive evidence has come forth to condemn any of those accused. Given the position of these detainees and the recent government crackdown on dissenting voices, their resistance to the deal seems a convenient excuse for officials to expand their repressive campaign.
The catalyst for these events was the development of the new treaty “On the ratification of the agreement between the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Uzbekistan over separate sections of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek State border,” signed by the President of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, on 3 November. Under this agreement, nearly 5,000 hectares of land would be transferred to Uzbekistan while Kyrgyzstan would receive over 13,000 hectares. However, the parcel of land that Uzbekistan would receive includes the Kempir-Abad reservoir. This reservoir has served as a vital water source for both countries since its construction in 1983.
While President Japarov and his allies publicly stated that the reservoir will continue to be managed jointly and that Kyrgyz farmers will still have access, many in the area expressed concerns over the deal. These fears were exacerbated by the secretive nature of the development of the treaty, as the deal was forced through the Parliament behind closed doors. One Parliamentary member, Chingiz Aidarbekov, publicly stated that, “lawmakers didn’t see the documents. I said that until I see the paperwork, I cannot agree to this. So I voted against.’’ This raises the question of why lawmakers were not given the opportunity to see if the document was as equitable as Japarov claimed.
However, it could also be a reflection of the weakening of the Parliament following the shift from a Parliamentary to a Presidential system in 2021. Perhaps President Japarov feels that given his tightening grip on power, he longer needs to explain his whims to the Parliament. However, he was not alone in pushing the deal through. On 10 October, the committee hearing during which Parliament voted on the agreement was attended by the head of the State Committee for National Security, Kamchybek Tashiyev. Tashiyev was pivotal in drafting the document and has been extremely vocal about the need to decide the matter urgently. While it was logical for him to be at the hearing, his presence became rather threatening after he brought a box of weapons to the Parliament building to justify increased militarisation of the border with Tajikistan just a few weeks prior.
The day of the hearing, several small rallies were held near the border with Uzbekistan, as well as a rally in front of the Parliament building made up of several older men from the Uzgen district, located near the Kempir-Abad reservoir. During the rally, protestors took turns sharing their concerns about the treaty. One protester stated that, “The people have only one demand: We do not want to topple the government, we just want to keep Kempir-Abad.” This quote became extremely salient following the arrests.
On 22 October, a group of concerned government officials and activists convened to establish the Committee for protection of Kempir-Abad reservoir. The Committee did not have much time to act on their mandate as the next day all of their members were detained for conspiracy to incite rioting. According to the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic, “calls for active disobedience to the lawful demands of government officials and for mass riots…are punishable by imprisonment for a term of five to eight years.”
Among those arrested were Rita Karasartova, a female human rights defender, and opposition politicians Ravshan Jeenbekov, Bektur Asanov, and Kubanychbek Kadyrov. One of those detained, local activist Chyngyz Kaparov, only attended the first Committee meeting to listen. According to him, “there was no talk about preparations for the seizure of power. I was just a listener, and on Sunday they came with a search and detained me.” However, according to President Japarov, “frankly, they are not interested in Kempir-Abad […] Their goal is to denigrate us in front of the people, arrange riots and come to power.”
On 14 December, after nearly two months in detention, Klara Sooronkulova, Rita Karasartova, Perizat Suranova, and Orozaiym Narmatova launched a hunger strike. Within a few days, 15 of those detained had joined the protest. Over the course of the week, protestors began to experience severe health complications; officials, however, refused to have them seen by medical practitioners. By the end of the month, all of the detainees had begun eating again. Despite their efforts and an outpour of support from the international community, officials have not budged on the issue and have extended their custodial periods.
During the trials, several family members came forward to speak on behalf of those in detention. A small rally was also held on 20 December, during which family members called for their relatives to be transferred to house arrest. President Japarov provided a rather disturbing response to this stating, “Why didn’t the parents who are addressing me today turn to their daughters with the words: ‘Be civil, don’t slander people. Why do you want a coup?’ Why didn’t they educate them before it was too late?” Given the public remarks of the president and officials it appears unlikely that they will evade sentencing.
Unfortunately, this is not the only case of an oppositional voice being arrested under dubious pretenses in Kyrgyzstan last year. For example, investigative journalist Bolot Temirov, who routinely exposed the misdeeds of officials, was stripped of his citizenship in November 2022. This, however, was one of many cases of journalists being arrested over the course of a few months. All of these arrests are part of a larger campaign to repress freedom of speech and assembly in the country. If those detained are given strict sentences, this could set an even greater precedent for the repression of those who speak out against President Japarov’s administration.