How Central Asian States are muzzling dissent to stop the spread of news about Covid-19 (Part 2)

Imposing new restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
On 25 February, Dulat Agadil, a civil society activist in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, died in police custody. He did not die of Covid-19 and he probably did not die of a heart attack as claimed by the president. A fellow activist published a video of his body allegedly showing signs of torture. Both the spontaneous protest in front of the detention facility where he died and his funeral procession were deemed unauthorized public gatherings and dispersed by police. The activist who published the video was jailed for 15 days for petty hooliganism because he had allegedly tripped a riot police officer involved in dispersing the peaceful protest in front of the detention facility.

On 25 May – exactly three months after Agadil’s death -, the prosecutor’s office closed the investigation into his death for absence of a crime and on the same day the president signed law no. 333-VI “On the Procedure for the Organization and Holding of Peaceful Assemblies in the Republic of Kazakhstan.”

This law was adopted while the country was under rigorous lockdown, severely limiting the possibility for civil society to express its concerns about the law in a meaningful way. The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association had found an early version of the bill in blatant violation of the freedom of assembly enshrined in article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, duly ratified by Kazakhstan. Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a distinguished human rights defender, who criticized the bill, was subjected to a well-orchestrated smear campaign on government friendly social media.

Reacting to the sustained wave of criticism, parliament made a number of cosmetic amendments, but the final version of the bill remains deeply flawed. For example, the organizers of an assembly will need to “notify” the authorities in advance (either five or 10 working days!) of their intention. However, the authorities enjoy wide-ranging discretionary powers to prohibit the proposed assembly and the law bans assemblies that have not been notified in accordance with the procedure. The law explicitly bans spontaneous assemblies. Finally, the law stipulates that all assemblies of more than one person are only permissible in a very limited number of specially designated places. Up until now, there famously was exactly one (!) location in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, and it was way out of the city center.These restrictions on peaceful assemblies are not necessary in order to pursue any legitimate State interest and are therefore contrary to international law. Coming back to Agadil’s death, neither the spontaneous protest in front of the detention facility, nor his funeral would have been lawful under the new law.

“In 2013 the authorities proposed a controversial amendment, essentially requiring all NGOs receiving funding from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents.” 

In Kyrgyzstan, parliament is currently debating a bill to amend the country’s laws concerning NGOs. The amendments propose additional reporting obligations for NGOs, in particular on their financial resources, including detailed information on funding from abroad, and extends the power of the authorities to conduct intrusive inspections of NGOs. Non-compliance with the new provisions can lead to dissolution of the organization. In recent years, officials repeatedly tried to curb the right to freedom of association, enshrined in article 35 of the constitution and article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kyrgyzstan is a party. For example, in 2013 the authorities proposed a controversial amendment, essentially requiring all NGOs receiving funding from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents.” After widespread protests from civil society and following a damning analysis by an international human rights watchdog, the draft was shelved in 2015.

On 22 May, parliament held a public hearing about the latest bill but limited the number of attendees to 60 because of social distancing rules. This excluded most representatives of civil society organisations, who decided to protest in front of parliament instead. They were promptly dispersed. One MP requested to remove his name as one of the bill’s sponsors, admitting he never read it and was told that the bill only targeted gay pride parades in Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, the bill remains on parliament’s agenda.

After a hurricane on 27 April and more bad weather in early May, people in Turkmenabat, Turkmenistan, came out to protest against the slow pace of the recovery operation. Protests are usually unthinkable in Turkmenistan. In 2017, the UN Human Rights Committee believed that “assemblies are rare owing to a fear of reprisals for expressing any dissenting views” and expressed concern about “reports of forcible mass mobilization of the population for participation in various mass events organized by the authorities.” The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights reportedthat in the aftermath of the hurricane, police arrested more than 60 people who had photos or videos of the destruction on their mobile phones.

“Every year Turkmenistan competes with North Korea for last place in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.”

State media in Turkmenistan did not mention the arrests or the protests. As a matter of fact, State media did not even cover the storm. State media does not cover the global pandemic either. There is no independent media in Turkmenistan. Every year Turkmenistan competes with North Korea for last place in Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

How governments are spreading fake news in relation to coronavirus
In our introduction we provided the official numbers of confirmed infections and deaths from Covid-19 in Central Asia. Anyone taking these figures at face value could reasonably assume the novel virus is far less dangerous than the flu. This is not true. In the most developed countries, Covid-19 already infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands.

UN and other experts have stressed that “[h]uman health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. (…) [I]t is essential that governments provide truthful information about the nature of the threat posed by the coronavirus[,] (…) refrain from blocking internet access (…) [and] mak[e] exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists.”

“Using drone footage from a cemetery of Almaty, journalists estimated more people died of Covid-19 than the authorities admitted.”

Unfortunately, authorities in Turkmenistan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan continue beating around the bush on the threat from the virus and the means to protect against it. Turkmenistan’s leader keeps promoting plants from his desert to drive away different kinds of viruses. On 20 May, his Tajik counterpart announced an elaborate 11-point plan, including the development of a pharmaceutical industry on the basis of medicinal herbs that grow in Tajikistan.

At the same time, authorities in all countries of the region persist in downplaying rates of infection and, even more so, casualty numbers. Using drone footage from a cemetery on the outskirts of Almaty, journalists estimated more people died of Covid-19 than the authorities admitted. Activists in Tajikistan started a website with the names of people who died of Covid-19. By the end of May the detailed table included seven to eight times more names than the official tally of less than 50 fatalities. On 11 May, it was reported that access to the website was blocked inside Tajikistan.

Independent media have always lived between a rock and a hard place in Central Asia and officials seem to have shunned the UN experts’ advice to make “exceptional efforts” to change that. As previously recounted, officials in Kyrgyzstan’s capital refused to supply independent journalists with permits to pass roadblocks during the lockdown for almost one month, allegedly in order to protect their health. In April, two TV journalists, who had filmed conditions inside a hospital in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, were placed under a two-week quarantine and given a warning for “violation of the state of emergency regime” (article 476 of the code of administrative offences). Still in April, another Kazakh journalist, Zaura Mirzakhodzhayeva, was charged, but not arrested, for spreading false information during a state of emergency (article 274 of the criminal code). On 30 May, the charges against her were dropped.

On 11 May, Abdullo Gurbato, a young reporter with Asia Plus in Tajikistan who had repeatedly criticized the Tajikistani government’s fairy tale stories about the absence of Covid-19, was viciously attacked on the streets of Dushanbe by unknown assailants. He was again attacked on 29 May in Vakhdat province, while reporting on discontent about the authorities’ failure to provide assistance in the aftermath of a landslide.

Internet is not available to everyone in Central Asia, the connection is slow – Turkmenistan has reportedly the slowest internet in the world – and (as we already illustrated) content is often censored. For better or worse, many people rely on State media, mainly TV. Sadly, the priority for State-controlled media often is to panegyrize the chief.

On 1st May – one day after Tajikistan officially registered its first 15 cases of Covid-19  – ,the president was shown promising to double medical workers’ wages for the next three months. He also transferred his salary of one month into a special bank account opened to finance measures to combat coronavirus. Independent sources later reported that public sector workers were gently reminded to follow the president’s example. State TV repeatedly showed the president opening new hospitals to cope with the growing number of Covid-19 cases. However, they never showed him visiting existing hospitals. Maybe the president was self-distancing from his sick constituents to avoid questionsabout why people had to pay for their treatment, despite official assurances that Covid-19 patients would be treated free of charge?

State-controlled media in Tajikistan also began to report on how the president and members of his family – his eldest son is the mayor of Dushanbe and the speaker of the Senate and thus according to the constitution next in line to the throne if his father dies or becomes incapacitated – made large gifts of food, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other goods purchased from their personal funds. It is difficult to check these claims, as in 2016 Tajikistan passed a constitutional law stipulating that bank accounts belonging to the president and his family remain forever secret and cannot be confiscated. However, activists discovered that some of the donated goods actually bore logos identifying them as humanitarian aid from China. The above-mentioned website with the unofficial death count, which the authorities attempted to block, also contains information on shipments of humanitarian aid to Tajikistan.

Although state media in Uzbekistan sometimes reported on medical workers falling ill with the coronavirus, the lion’s share of TV news is filled with smiling patients being discharged after recovering from Covid-19 and hospital staff dressed in full PPE, lavishly thanking officials and the president. Despite wide-ranging reforms started in 2017, the space for public criticism remains precarious. Two sports journalists who joked on air about State TV always showing smiling citizens – in this case the smiling citizens had just lost their homes after a dam burst on 1st May had forced thousands to flee – were promptly fired.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan journalists, including those working for State media outlets, have been able to report more openly about any setbacks in the government response to the pandemic, for example on infections amongst medical personnel. Statistics show that health workers account for approximately 20% to 25% of Covid-19 cases in these countries. This ratio is also valid for Tajikistan, as confirmed by the unofficial count. The authorities have provided different explanations for such a high number, but the fact of the matter is that activists, journalists and health workers themselves have repeatedly complained about a lack of proper PPE.

Covid-19 and prisons in Central Asia
Before concluding, I’d like to briefly highlight one vulnerable group, which is especially at risk from the coronavirus: people deprived of their liberty. This article provided several illustrations of how governments in Central Asia tend to have a weakness for implementing repressive measures, including custodial penalties, in their response to the pandemic. In addition to that, all five Central Asian countries continue to incarcerate political opponents and human rights defenders. The latter include Max Bokayev in Kazakhstan, Azimzhan Askarov in Kyrgyzstan and Buzurgmehr Yorov in Tajikistan.

“In Uzbekistan we do not even know the official prison population as it is considered a State secret.”

The UN, regional bodies and civil society organizations worldwide have stated that people deprived of their liberty are at a heightened risk of contracting coronavirus because social distancing is almost inherently impossible in prisons. With respect to places of detention in Central Asia, one can often add one or more of the following concerns, which have been raised repeatedly by various UN human rights bodies: overcrowding, a dilapidated infrastructure, dormitory housing instead of individual cells, low standard of health care, the lack of an effective complaints mechanism and the lack of independent oversight of the prison system. In some countries – for example, Uzbekistan – we do not even know the official prison population as it is considered a State secret.

The Revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (better known as the Mandela Rules), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, stipulate that “the provision of health care for prisoners is a State responsibility” and that “prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community.” Accordingly, governments are likewise obliged to take steps to reduce the risk of infection, including by exploring options for release and alternatives to detention.

By the end of May Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan confirmed Covid-19 cases within their prison systems (either prison staff and/or inmates). On 13 May, the director of the prison service of Tajikistan confirmed that four inmates had died of pneumonia – but not of Covid-19 – and several others were ill with symptoms.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, officials have taken a number of steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Authorities cancelled all long- and short-term family visits for prisoners until further notice and stopped the receipt of parcels. Lawyers in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan experienced delays in getting access to their clients in detention. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan also halted prison visits by their National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) – a body of independent monitors for the prevention of torture. These bodies resumed their work in May, but only online via videoconference.

The director of the prison service of Tajikistan claimed that all prisoners and staff were provided with facial masks on 31 March “after prison labor was reorganized in order to prioritize the production of masks.” However, Prague based Radio Liberty published testimony from a prisoner who stated that most prisoners had no masks or gloves and were detained in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

However, apart from a couple of amnesty laws, which were only applicable to a relatively small number of prisoners, none of the Central Asian countries significantly reduced their prison populations. And none of them followed the appeal of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to “release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.” On 13 May, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan upheld the life sentence of Askarov, who is 68 years old and in ill health, despite a 2016 decision of the UN Human Rights Committee calling for his immediate release.

By way of conclusion
You might have noticed that this article did not identify any president or government official by name. Their countries’ tightly controlled airwaves are full with news about their exploits in the battle against Covid-19, so the omission of their names here is my way of clapping for health workers, journalists and human rights defenders across Central Asia who, without adequate PPE, without free media and without basic human rights, try to keep their countrymen and -women safe from the coronavirus.

Roemer Lemaître is Senior Human Rights Adviser for Europe and the CIS at the OMCT

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