Around 35 percent of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence, according to U.N. Women, a figure that does not include those who have experienced sexual harassment. While 155 counties have passed laws addressing domestic violence, U.N. Women notes that “even when laws exist, this does not mean they are always compliant with international standards and recommendations, or are implemented and enforced.”
In 2017, then-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed a new domestic violence bill into law. As the organization Human Rights Watch wrote at the time, the new Law on the Prevention and Protection against Family Violence “includes measures to improve protections for victims of domestic abuse and strengthen police and judicial response.”
But three years later, women in Kyrgyzstan continue to face significant hurdles in accessing justice when it comes to gender-based violence.
In commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25 and International Human Rights Day on December 10, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights published a report intended to call attention to the ongoing struggle of many women in Kyrgyzstan, who suffer from gender-based violence and discrimination while the perpetrators enjoy impunity.
The report highlights three recent cases that it claims illustrate the ways in which women are denied justice when it comes to gender-based violence; have their rights to a fair trial violated by courts, which devalue their experiences; and are further denied the right to assemble and protest violence and discrimination. Taken together, the three cases shed light on the reality of how, despite the country passing laws and signing various international conventions, the Kyrgyz justice system perpetuates the abuse of women both directly and indirectly.
Take the case of Kaliya Arabekova, a horrific example of justice delayed. In December 2013, Arabekova was gang-raped by three male employees of the judicial system in Talas region, where she lived. She had been lured into the situation by a bailiff, who arranged to meet her and transfer alimony money she was owed from her ex-husband. Instead, the man and two other men put her in a car and took her to an apartment where they assaulted her. In May 2015, the men were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for the gang-rape, but a judge refused to have the men detained until after their appeal. Arabekova complained of continued threats and harassment and in July 2015, her initial assailant and another man raped her at her home. Arabekova was again victimized when the conviction of the three men was quashed, in 2018, and the men were acquitted.
Arabekova sought the help of the Ombudsman, who found that the original conviction was fair and the acquittal the product of corruption. And in June 2019, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court began cessation hearings, which led to the quashing of the acquittal and an order for a new trial.
To date, and thanks to further delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, a new trial has yet to begin. Arabekova’s rapists remain free men and the obstacles that she faced continue to be features of the Kyrgyz justice system, rather than aberrations.
While justice is slow to catch up with rapists, it moves quickly in the other direction when woman fight back. In November 2019, 29-year-old Gulzhan Pasanova was threatened with a knife by her husband, who had subjected her to psychological and physical abuse throughout their marriage. In the ensuing altercation, she hit her husband with a metal pole. According to Human Rights Watch, she called for help but her husband died at the hospital. Pasanova was arrested and eventually sentenced to nine years imprisonment in March 2020. According to the ABA Center for Human Rights, Pasanova’s right to a fair trial was violated as the court refused to consider evidence that she acted in self-defense. The court denied her lawyer the ability to call witnesses who could corroborate his line of argument, that Pasanova had long been subject to abuse by her husband.
As the report states, “This case highlights a problem that is not specific to one case alone, but rather reflects a larger pattern of victim-blaming in Kyrgyzstan’s justice system.”
That Arabekova’s legal journey has taken seven years and is yet to find resolution, but Pasanova’s case was closed within months, indicates where the system’s priorities lie. The third case cited in the report – the disruption of a Women’s Day march in March 2020 – points to the larger context within which Kyrgyzstan’s women live.
“Just before the march began, a crowd of masked men wearing traditional Kyrgyz felt hats attacked the participants – throwing eggs, stomping on balloons, ripping banners, and pushing participants and journalists to the ground – injuring many and disrupting the peaceful event,” the report explains. “Instead of intervening to stop the attack, police officers arrested approximately 70 protest participants, mostly women.”
The authorities had tried to stop the event before it occurred by banning all rallies and gatherings through July 2020. The court pointed to the threat of COVID-19, which had yet to officially reach Kyrgyzstan, as the rationale for the ban, but the report points out that city authorities justified the ban “on the basis that the march was an event that could evoke feelings of anxiety and insecurity amongst the public.” Local authorities also “alleged that the slogans being used by the organizers of the march were dangerous to morality and against traditional values.”
The struggle over “traditional values” and whose version of “morality” is accepted underlines the difficulties women have in accessing justice in Kyrgyzstan.
The report closes with recommendations that the Kyrgyz authorities ensure that women and girls who are victims of violence have access to means of redress and protection and that perpetrators of violence against women are punished. Law enforcement personnel, in particular, should ensure that Kyrgyzstan’s legal framework be applied equally and effectively. Women ought to have their rights to a fair trial protected, too, and judges and lawyers appropriately educated that self-defense is a legitimate defense to make. The final recommendation suggests condemning the arrest and detention of the Women’s Day marchers and an effort to investigate those who disrupted the rally.