In a warning of things to come in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, criminal trials against human rights defenders continue in Kyrgyzstan. Launched in the wake of last year’s unrest which forced the president to flee, the trials have been plagued by widespread abuses by police and state officials forcing lawyers to stop work and raising concerns abroad about the absence of due process. The trials raise questions over the country’s justice system and its ability to ensure genuine accountability, particularly in the south, where mistrust and hostility still divide the local Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities after the violence of last year.
This week, the BBC reported on human rights campaigner Azimjan Askarov and several others who are in limbo, awaiting a ruling by the Supreme Court on their life sentence handed down last fall. Askarov’s case is just the latest example of the criminalization of human rights defenders by governments intent on shifting the responsibility for political violence onto the very people who attempt defend the victims of that violence.
The government in Kyrgyzstan is weighing how to respond to international criticism of their handling of these and related cases. The authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of abuses and ethnic bias in the conducting of their investigations. President Roza Otunbayeva has denied discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in trials but addressing the country’s prosecutors recently, she said “Arbitrary arrests and illegal criminal proceedings are taking place everywhere… We have to understand that by breeding lawlessness we are creating the ground for those who will come with weapons in their arms.”
Attacks against lawyers defending clients in the south of the country pushed lawyers to stop work for a time last fall: “We declared that we will not take part in proceedings until there is adequate security,” said Nazgul Suiunbaeva, one of 161 members of the lawyers’ group that issued the statement. Since the violence that erupted in April of 2010, forcing the sitting President to flee, foreign Minister Otunbayeva assumed leadership of a transition government but the state’s judicial and security apparatus has clearly not got the message that business cannot continue as usual.
Kyrgyzstan is in the unfortunate position of being in the middle of the strategic Central Asian pocket for a number of powers. Traditionally an area Russian geo-strategic dominance, the country borders China to the east and hosts the Manas air base, used to supply US troops in Afghanistan. The country was visited by US Secretary of State Clinton in December 2010. For revolutions in the Arab world there are probably some lessons here about the resilience of state institutions with bad habits, especially in places with a strong ethic or religious divide (Hello, Bahrain?).