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Kyrgyzstan: State Adopts Controversial Law On Public Demonstrations

Kyrgyzstan has adopted a new law on public demonstrations that the government says takes into consideration the rights of citizens to protest while allowing the state to maintain public order. The law follows months of sometimes violent protests in the south of the country. But the new law is generating controversy. A Kyrgyz parliamentarian says it is confusing and may make it harder for people to demonstrate. RFE/RL talks to the author of the law, and its critics.

Prague, 31 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev signed on 23 July a new law that regulates public gatherings and street demonstrations.

Kyrgyz officials say the law effectively balances the rights of citizens to demonstrate peacefully with the obligations of the state to maintain public order. It follows several months of demonstrations and violent police crackdowns in the south, which led to five deaths and around 100 injuries.

Omurbek Tekebaev, a parliamentary deputy and the chairman of the opposition Ata Meken party, is the law's author. He told RFE/RL that the measure will ensure the constitutional right of citizens to gather in public. "First of all, this is a new legal base that expands the rights of the citizens to gather. For example, the law says that roads, walkways, squares, and boulevards are public places, and now citizens can organize meetings and demonstrations in all public place and indoor facilities. Until today, if 15 to 20 people gathered together, law-enforcement bodies could disperse them by claiming that it was an unsanctioned meeting. Now, citizens have a right to hold such meetings [without permission from local authorities]," Tekebaev said.

But that point of view is not shared by all of Tekebaev's colleagues in parliament, or by some in the local human-rights community.

Oksana Malevannaya is the head of the human-rights committee in the Kyrgyz parliament and the author of an alternative draft of the law that was not approved.

She said the new law was written from the point of view of protecting the government and police and will not necessarily allow citizens to demonstrate when and where they want. The law allows law-enforcement officers or other officials to ban a protest if they determine that the rights of citizens who are not taking part are being violated. "But, in essence, any government or any law-enforcement official has the right to decide, for example, whether the rights of other citizens who are not taking part in meetings, demonstrations, or marches are considerably violated or not. If they are violated [by official interpretation], then according to this law, local administration and law-enforcement officials have the right to ban such events immediately. This is unacceptable," Malevannaya said.

She pointed to a contradiction between Article 3 and Article 5 of the new law. Article 3 says citizens may gather in public without permission from local authorities. Article 5, on the other hand, says protest organizers need to obtain special permission from local authorities and provide the time, place, purpose, and number of participants of a proposed gathering.

She said that, in the past, authorities have granted permission for only a very small number of demonstrations.

Because of these contradictions, Malevannaya believes the new law may complicate the political situation in Kyrgyzstan. "This law, from the point of view of recent events in Kyrgyzstan, will not have any positive effect on lessening tension, and it will not bring any benefit. I think, to a certain degree, it might worsen the situation," Malevannaya said.

So far, at least, independent human-rights activists do not appear too concerned about the law.

Natalya Ablova is the head of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, a human-rights advocacy group. She said people will gather if they want to or not. She said this right is already provided by the Kyrgyz Constitution. "Now this law, I have already told everybody, has absolutely no meaning. If people want to gather, they will just ignore it. We don't need such a law. We have the constitutional right to gather peacefully and without weapons. Plus, we have a civil code," Ablova said.

She said the Kyrgyz people have already learned how to use their constitutional rights to express their opinions.

Ablova added, however, that the new law does have one benefit. She said it will prevent local authorities from independently banning demonstrations.