Why Did Central Asia’s Leading Democracy Ban a Human Rights Watch Researcher?

Central Asia’s leading democracy has taken the unprecedented step of barring a prominent human rights researcher from entering the country. On December 2, immigration authorities in Kyrgyzstan denied entry to Mihra Rittman, researcher and national office director for monitoring group Human Rights Watch. Kyrgyzstan held open parliamentary elections in October this year, but continued persecution of minorities and growing ties with Russia threaten their fragile human rights regime. The decision comes ahead of Kyrgyzstan taking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in January 2016.

Rittman attempted to enter Kyrgyzstan at Bishkek Manas airport on December 2, but was shown documents describing her as persona non grata. A Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed that Rittman was refused entry, stating ‘violation of migration laws’, but did not elaborate further. Rittman has lived in Kyrgyzstan since 2012. She told UN Dispatch, “It’s quite rare for HRW staff to be banned outright from a country, and the experience of being turned away at the border – and finding out I’ve been banned from Kyrgyzstan – was awful.”

Human Rights Watch are one of the world’s most influential human rights monitors. In Central Asia — a region whose countries most people struggle to identify on a map — Human Rights Watch combine local and regional expertise with international clout to research and advocate on pressing human rights issues.

In October, HRW published ‘Call Me When He Tries to Kill You’, a report documenting the weak state response to domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan. Other reports have exposed police violence of gay and bisexual men (‘They Say We Deserved This’) and in 2011, HRW published a report criticising the judicial investigations into the massive 2010 inter-ethnic violence in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. Rittman herself conducted many of the interviews with victims. Executive Director of HRW, Kenneth Roth, called Rittman’s ban “unprecedented” and said “Authorities in Kyrgyzstan should immediately lift the ban and allow Rittmann to return to Bishkek and continue working without harassment.”

The move to curtail HRW activities comes as the Kyrgyzstani parliament is considering draft legislation that would require domestic NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as ‘foreign agents’. The legislation mimics a Russian law that passed in 2012 which stigmitised NGOs and led to an exodus of human rights organization and even media outlets from Russia. The law is intended to limit the abilities of civil society to criticize and hold government to account. HRW has been active in urging Kyrgyzstani officials to reject the bill.

Human Rights Watch is not the only civil society group targeted in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstani activists are frequently persecuted by secret police for their work exposing abuses or advocating for political change. In March, offices of the leading human rights organization Bir Duino in the troubled southern town of Osh were raided by police. Bir Duino believe this was due to their work documenting police corruption and abuse of the persecuted Uzbek minority in southern Kyrgyzstan. In an interview, Chairperson Tolekan Ismaillova pointed to police destruction of safes storing documents and explained that her staff are routinely intimidated by authorities.

The denial of entry to Mihra Rittman highlights ongoing contradictions in Kyrgyzstan. The country is rewarded by the international community for its relatively open and democratic system in a region marked by authoritarianism. Yet ongoing abuse of minorities and crackdowns on human rights, encouraged by a tightening bond with Russia, continue to disrupt what was once perceived to be an inevitable pathway to democracy.