The Diplomat has learned that the Kyrgyz government recently informed the British government of its intent to review the entry restrictions imposed on journalist Chris Rickleton and Human Rights Watch senior researcher Mihra Rittmann.
A source with direct knowledge of the matter told The Diplomat that a letter was recently transmitted from Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The letter states, in part: “To highlight the new spirit of openness of our country and the desire to upgrade the level of our bilateral cooperation, I would like to inform Your Excellency that I have given orders to review the restrictions imposed by the past authorities on the entry into the country of journalist Mr. Chris Rickleton and the regional representative of the ‘Human Rights Watch’ Ms. Mira Ritman [sic].”
Mihra Rittmann, a U.S. citizen, was deported from Kyrgyzstan in December 2015, with Kyrgyz authorities declaring her persona non grata. She had been stationed in Bishkek since 2012. The authorities at the time — the government of Almazbek Atambayev — claimed that its order to refuse Rittmann entry to the country was based on violations of the country’s migration laws. The authorities never clarified what those violations were. Earlier in 2015, Rittmann’s work permit had not been renewed, signaling a souring relationship between the Atambayev government and one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the region. At the time, the Kyrgyz parliament was considering Russian-style “foreign agents” bills and chaffing at criticism aimed at the Kyrgyz state by Human Rights Watch and others, including the U.S. government, for the continued imprisonment of Azimjon Askarov. (Askarov died in a Kyrgyz prison in July 2020).
Two years later, in December 2017, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Eurasianet journalist Chris Rickleton was refused entry into Kyrgyzstan and deported. Rickleton, whose wife is a Kyrgyz citizen, was given very few details as to why he was subject to an entry ban. 24.kg reported at the time that the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) said Rickleton has been banned for “violating the visa regime.” Rickleton, a British citizen, said he had not violated the 60-day visa free period that British citizens are entitled to. He had previously sought long-term accreditation from the Kyrgyz authorities, but Bishkek is notoriously stingy with granting journalists long-term accreditation and he never received it.
The cases of Rittmann and Rickleton have been dark marks on Kyrgyzstan’s reputation for relative openness in the region. Both cases were cited in Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit reports, which mark democratic progress (or more frankly, in recent years, regression) across the former Soviet Union, as illustrative of growing difficulties for activists and journalists in Central Asia’s “island of democracy.”
Rittmann and Rickleton were not alone in being barred from Kyrgyzstan. In July 2017 Kyrgyz authorities issued a ban on Vitally Ponamarev, the head of the Central Asia program for Memorial, a Russian human rights organization. As recently as January 2020, an appeal from Ponamarev to have the ban lifted was rejected by a court in Bishkek.
The Diplomat’s source was hopeful that the entry bans on Rittmann and Rickleton will be lifted; however, the language of the letter states that the decisions are simply being reviewed. It’s not clear how long such a review would take, or precisely which authorities are involved in the review.
Rickleton responded to the news, telling The Diplomat, “I would obviously be thrilled if my entry ban was lifted, as Kyrgyzstan is a country where we have family and close friends and a country that I miss greatly. If some kind of review is truly under way we can only respect that process and hope for a positive result.”
In a statement from Human Rights Watch, Hugh Williamson, the head of the Europe and Central Asia Division, welcomed the order to review the entry bans on Rittmann and Rickleton. “We await details on what this ‘review’ will mean in practice,” he said.
Williamson thanked Kyrgyz civil society, the United Nations, and the several governments that have been seeking to have the ban lifted over the years.
Rittmann, he stressed, “should never have been banned from Kyrgyzstan in the first place.” Kyrgyz officials, Williamson said, never provided an official reason for the ban.
The Kyrgyz Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment regarding the cases of Rittmann and Rickleton before publication.
Speaking to the bigger picture, Williamson said, “We hope for an end to Kyrgyzstan’s practice of arbitrarily banning international human rights activists and journalists from doing their regular work in the country. This practice is contrary to Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights commitments. We urge Bishkek to lift the bans on Mihra Rittmann, Chris Rickleton, and any others still arbitrarily excluded from the country. “
“In addition to addressing arbitrary entry bans, we hope the Kyrgyz government will commit to ending the persistent human rights abuses we and others document on a regular basis in Kyrgyzstan,” Williamson continued. “We are committed to a constructive relationship with the government to meet this goal.”
In the letter, Japarov appealed to the U.K. for further patience and support: “I ask the British authorities to continue supporting the aspirations of the Kyrgyz people in building democratic institutions in the mode of dialogue and long-term cooperation.”
The Diplomat’s source stressed that the turn of events comes after diligent work on the part of the British authorities over the years and that the decision to review the entry bans on Rittmann and Rickleton was made months ago, shortly after Japarov’s controversial election in January 2021.
In the letter, Japarov called “strengthening the rule of law in Kyrgyzstan” his “most important task.”
“I want to tell you that I have directly experienced gross injustice and lawlessness in my own life. I deeply believe in the highest priority of building a just state and establishing the rule of law,” Japarov’s letter states. The letter refers to the recent constitutional referendum in Kyrgyzstan, which ended the country’s 10-year experiment with parliamentarism, as “only the first step in this direction.”
Japarov was arrested in 2017 upon his return to Kyrgyzstan. He’d fled the country in 2013, avoiding charges of orchestrating the kidnapping of a regional governor during a protest in favor of nationalizing the Kumtor Gold Mine that went awry in Karakol (Japarov was not present at the rally; the state alleged that he arranged the chaos from afar).
When the October 2020 parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan set off protests, Japarov was among the politicians busted out of prison. Within two weeks, while most of the others were returned to detention, but Japarov instead rocketed from prisoner to prime minister to acting president, before being elected president in a January 10 poll. Three months later, in April, Kyrgyz went to the polls again for local elections and a constitutional referendum. Although turnout was low, the referendum was passed, signaling a return to strong presidentialism for a country that has cycled through presidents irregularly. (Protests in Kyrgyzstan have overthrown or led to the downfall of presidents in 2005, 2010, and 2020; elections in 2011 and 2017 are the only two times the Kyrgyz presidency has changed hands in an orderly electoral fashion).