Crossroads Asia

2 Kyrgyz Human Rights Activists Sue President Atambayev

Tolekan Ismailova and Aziza Abdyrasulova are getting their day in court.

2 Kyrgyz Human Rights Activists Sue President Atambayev
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/

Two human rights advocates suing the president of Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambayev, are getting their day in court. According to RFE/RL, a court in Bishkek has begun hearing the suit brought by Tolekan Ismailova and Aziza Abdyrasulova against Atambayev over public comments he made in May calling the two “saboteurs.”

Ismailova and Abdyrasulova, who head two prominent Kyrgyz NGOs–Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan (One World Kyrgyzstan) and Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century), respectively–are seeking a public apology and 2 million soms ($29,300) in damages.

In part of what EurasiaNet called a “surreal tirade” on May 15, Atambayev said Ismailova and Abdyrasulova had “diligently earned their foreign grants.” The Kyrgyz president was rambling on about a purported coup-plot that had been stopped with the arrest of several former ministers several days before.

Both Ismailova’s and Abdyrasulova’s NGOs have criticized the Kyrgyz government heavily over the years, particularly in relation to the fallout from the inter-ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Cases like that of Azimjan Askarov–an ethnic Uzbek activist convicted of taking part in the murder of a policeman during the violence–are among those taken up by the two groups.

Askarov’s case gained increased prominence when he was recognized with a U.S. State Department award last summer, leading to a tantrum in Bishkek and the scrapping of a cooperation treaty. Rights advocates have long attested to Askarov’s innocence and furthermore, accused the Kyrgyz justice system of torture. Askarov’s case was boosted again this year when the UN Human Rights Committee finally weighed in on his petition to the international body. The committee called for his immediate release and said he should be granted a new appeal. The chairwoman of Kygryz Supreme Court said the court would have to revisit its 2011 decision to uphold Askarov’s conviction. There hasn’t been an update on that front, but the authorities moved earlier this month to seize Askarov’s residence–a move both Ismailova and Abdyrasulova have criticized.

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That Ismailova and Abdyrasulova’s case is actually in a court is a positive development. We’ll have to see how the case progresses, though, before breaking out the victory hats. Kyrgyzstan–which likes to toast its democratic progress–nonetheless often falls into the same brand of paranoia as its neighbors, at times pointing to foreign-funded organizations as sowing discord.

As noted in a recent report–based on an international observation mission in September 2015 put together by a constellation of human rights groups–while Kyrgyzstan has joined and complied with a number of multilateral institutions regarding human rights, the situation of Kyrgyz civil society has deteriorated in some ways. In particular, the report says “Kyrgyz human rights defenders are facing increasing harassment since 2013: judicial harassment, physical attacks, searches of the offices of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), surveillance and intimidation of their employees, widespread discrediting of the activities of human rights defenders in the media, etc.” The report is appropriately titled: “Kyrgyzstan at a Crossroads: Shrink or Widen the Scene for Human Rights Defenders.” The Kyrgyz parliament recently rejected a long-simmering “foreign agents” bill, but at the same time the government remains in conflict with civil society groups.

Ismailova and Abdyrasulova are unlikely to get the apology they seek, let alone the damages. It would be quite the ruling if the case is ultimately decided in their favor.

In a 2008 profile by RFE/RL, after discussing her years of human rights work, multiple arrests, and harassment by both former Kyrgyz regimes, Abdyrasulova commented, “I believe that justice will win after all… but for that we need to work together.”