The government of Kyrgyzstan is using a "dangerously overbroad" interpretation of extremism to convict hundreds of people and sentence them to long prison terms, a leading human rights monitor said.
In a report issued on September 18, Human Rights Watch said suspects are given prison terms of three to 10 years for possession of videos, pamphlets, and books blacklisted by the authorities, even if they did not distribute the materials or do anything to incite violence.
In some cases, the monitor found, people were convicted of possessing materials that were only deemed "extremist" after their arrests. Other suspects told the organization that the materials had been planted during searches by security officers who then demanded bribes to close down investigations.
The practice of convicting people merely for possessing material deemed extremist "makes it all too easy to unjustly target political opponents, activists, journalists, defense lawyers, and ordinary citizens," said Letta Taylor, a senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher and author of the report.
In preparing the 78-page report -- titled "We Live In Constant Fear": Possession Of Extremist Material In Kyrgyzstan -- Human Rights Watch reviewed 34 court cases and conducted 70 interviews in 2017 and 2018.
A man identified only as Sukhrob was convicted in 2017 for possessing three pages of literature and a magazine that was several years old. He told researchers the material was planted.
Erlan Bakiev, the head of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry's Extremism and Illegal Migration Department, rejected the report as "baseless."
"When our [security service] agents go on a search and recover some extremist materials, they have a valid justification for [conducting the search]. It’s never ordered out of thin air," Bakiev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on September 18.
"We do not agree with [the HRW] position on [the confiscation of] extremist materials. Although we have signed international agreements, we also have our own laws. And if [our legal code] defines something as a crime, [we have to treat] it as a crime," Bakiev said.
Human Rights Watch noted that prosecutions in Kyrgyzstan are part of a broad crackdown across Central Asia being carried out in the name of countering Islamist extremism.
In Kyrgyzstan, at least 258 people have been convicted under the law on possessing "extremist" material since 2010 and several hundred other suspects are awaiting trial.
The report calls on Kyrgyzstan to rewrite its law on extremist materials and to refine its "overly broad definition of extremism." It also urges a prompt review of all convictions under the law on possessing extremist materials.