Kyrgyzstan: Supreme Court upholds rulings that ‘muzzle free speech’, HRW says

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BISHKEK (TCA) — Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court dealt a heavy blow to freedom of speech on November 30 by upholding three defamation rulings punishing critics for apparently insulting the “honor and dignity” of the now former President, Almazbek Atambayev, Human Rights Watch said.

“Ironically, President Atambayev just made a name for himself by being the first elected president in Central Asia to voluntarily step down from office last week at the end of his term. That comes following elections in October dubbed by international monitors as having ‘contributed to the strengthening of democratic institutions’,” Human Rights Watch said.

The rights watchdog said these defamation lawsuits have exposed the weakness of Kyrgyzstan’s judiciary – a key democratic institution. The rulings also undermine a free press and freedom of speech – another important component of a functioning democracy.

Earlier this year Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor General’s office pursued defamation lawsuits against a media outlet, journalists, and a human rights defender, who have been critical of the government. The suits alleged that the defendants had discredited the honor and dignity of the President and spread false information. Courts ruled in favor of the former President, awarding damages worth US$430,000, and the decisions were upheld on appeal. (The media outlet Zanoza.kg and its founder Narynbek Idinov are still facing two lawsuits that have not yet been reviewed by the Supreme Court.)

These rulings go against international standards that public figures such as presidents don’t get special legal protections against speech considered “insulting,” Human Rights Watch said.

The Supreme Court rulings are final and cannot be appealed. The defendants must pay damages or risk criminal prosecution.

But it’s not too late for Kyrgyzstan’s new president to turn a new page, Human Rights Watch said. President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, whose campaign platform noted “the President should act as the guarantor of freedom of speech, media, and internet,” should indeed uphold the right to freedom of speech, and ensure that on his watch, no journalist, media outlet, or human rights defender is unjustly prosecuted for defamation on his behalf.

Sergey Kwan

TCA