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Kyrgyzstan: RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service -- Women Activists Report Increasing Harassment

Well-known NGO leader and rights activist Cholpon Jakupova (file photo) (RFE/RL) August 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan is known for having a strong civil society, but in recent months many observers have warned that the human-rights situation in the country has deteriorated.

Civil society leaders are now calling on the Kyrgyz government to halt persecution of human-rights activists.

Awareness Campaign

Leading human-rights organizations in Kyrgyzstan have collected some 100,000 signatures to raise awareness of what they say is a worsening human-rights situation in the country.

In Kyrgyzstan, there are no female members in the parliament or any regional governors, and there are only a few women in the cabinet.

The initiators of the six-month long campaign aim to collect 1 million signatures in order to bring attention to the persecution of female human-rights activists. They accuse law enforcement officials and government organs of disgracing and using violence against them.

Tolekan Ismailova, who heads the Citizens Against Corruption Center in Bishkek, and her colleague Aziza Abdrasulova of the Torch of the Century (Kylym shamy), claim that especially female activists are under growing pressure.

Both women are known for their longstanding efforts to protect the rights of ordinary citizens. Their work was internationally recognized when -- along other four Kyrgyz activists -- they were nominated to the list of the 1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

In March 2005, authoritarian President Askar Akaev fled the country during the popular uprising known as the Tulip Revolution. On July 10, 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiev -- one of the leaders of the revolution -- was elected president with the promise of respecting the law and civil freedoms.

Criticism Of The President

But many in the opposition claim that he has not fully realized these promises, while some civil-society leaders are raising the alarm at what they say is a worsening situation for human rights.

"The lack of promised reforms is the main reason why the corruption is on the rise, the number of poorer is growing and women activists are being persecuted," Ismailova said at a recent roundtable held by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

A campaign called "Let us Defend Freedom, Dignity, and the Personal Inviolability of People in Kyrgyzstan" was launched by civil activists on July 5.

In a statement, Ismailova and her colleagues gave a long list of activists who were targeted by law-enforcement agencies and the State Committee for National Security.

Among those on the list is Valentina Gritsenko, the chairwoman of the nongovernmental organization Spravedlivost (Justice) in the southern Jalal-Abad Province, who has been persecuted for more than a year for her efforts to disclose information about the alleged torture of a pregnant woman by a local policeman.

Activists Arrested

Arzykan Momuntaeva, the director of the regional office of the Coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, was arrested along with several other activists as well as farmers and a member of a local council in connection with mass disturbances in the western Talas region. The protests were sparked by perceived corruption at a gold mining company. Momuntaeva was later released.

The campaign statement said that prominent civil society leaders Asia Sasykbaeva and Cholpon Jakupova, among others, were questioned several times by the security officials without a lawyer being present.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the international rights watchdog, noted in its 2006 report that in the 18 months since the ouster of Akaev, some aspects of the human rights situation have worsened.

Rachel Denber, the deputy director of HRW on Europe and Central Asia, said that it is getting harder for human-rights activists to conduct their work.

"The particular concern is the government's increasing tendency to try to disrupt the work of the nongovernmental community and intimidate the human-rights activists," she said. "Now we see several cases where human-rights activists are the target of a criminal investigation."

'Room For Improvement'

Denber praised the human-rights defenders as "extraordinarily courageous, intelligent, and sophisticated," adding that it is in the Kyrgyz government's interest to have an open society and to have government accountability. She also said that human-rights defenders are an important part of a strong civil society.

Tursunbek Akun heads the State Committee for Human Rights in President Bakiev's office. Appearing at the RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service's roundtable with Ismailova, he acknowledged that there is still room for improvement.

"Unfortunately, there are many of those in the presidential and government administrations, Prosecutor-General's Office, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Council of National Security who 'behead people when they are asked only to take their hats,'" he said.

In Kyrgyzstan, women are largely sidelined from the political decision-making process. There are no female members in the parliament or any regional governors, and there are only a few women in the cabinet.

Women Active In Society

But at the same time, women are active in small business and they also lead most of the NGOs and human-rights organizations.

In their effort to collect 1 million signatures, the human-rights campaigners are also calling on Bakiev to accelerate the reform of law-enforcement agencies in Kyrgyzstan as well as to "provide women equal access to resources and politics."

Each signatory to the petition will be asked to give a symbolic 1 som. Then 1 million soms (some $22,000) will be distributed to various charities helping homeless mothers, street children, orphans, and others.

The campaign is scheduled to end on December 10, the International Day of Human Rights.

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