The Front Line in Kyrgyzstan: Who Does Human Rights?

The Front Line in Kyrgyzstan: Who Does Human Rights?

Sam Kahn: Human Rights in Kyrgyzstan

MOKHAMAJON, JUST released from detention, stood in a white-walled courtyard in the village of Shark in southern Kyrgyzstan and described how he was beaten by Kyrgyz police.* They tied him upside down, by his ankles, he said, and hit him with rubber batons on his hands, his knees, his back, his arms, his feet, and his face. They wanted him to confess to the murder of a local police chief during clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June, and when he refused they demanded that he tell them who did it. From neighboring cells, he could hear the screams of other Uzbeks being beaten.

Mokhamajon spoke in Uzbek, which was translated into Russian for the benefit of Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang, researchers with Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Team who had just returned to Kyrgyzstan to document abuses by the Kyrgyz government. They peppered Mokhamajon with questions like lawyers cross-examining a witness: what cell was he taken to in the police building, how far was it from the entrance, what uniforms were the police wearing, what papers did he sign while he was in custody? When Mokhamajon finished his testimony, Solvang photographed all of his bruises, careful to hide Mokhamajon’s identity by keeping the front of his face out of the pictures.

Already, on their first day back in Kyrgyzstan, Neistat and Solvang were getting the sinking feeling that they knew what would happen next: local police would continue to brutalize Uzbeks; the Kyrgyz government would lack the will to stop them; the Uzbek community would be too demoralized and vulnerable to resist; the international community would intervene too late to matter; and Neistat and Solvang would spend several adrenaline-fueled weeks trying to get the stars out of alignment, confronting officials over abuses in their departments, and doing everything they could to draw international attention to police harassment of Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan.

While Mokhamajon washed down his bruises, several Uzbek women walked Neistat and Solvang back to their car. “Every day is like this,” said one of the women. “Nazism has come,” said another. Neistat and Solvang asked the women to call them if there were more sweeps or if Uzbeks were released from detention.

Once she was in the car, Neistat let loose. “What pisses me off,” she said to Solvang, “is that I feel like we’re the only people on the planet. [The Uzbeks] act as if we’re their last hope. And in the end it’s the two of us running around. We’ll run around, make a scene, call it an outrage, but unless there’s something from [the UN or OSCE], someone with a direct line to the government, nothing will be done.”

HUMAN RIGHTS Watch’s Emergency Team developed out of the Kosovo War, when researchers tired of the old system of waiting to release findings until they’d finished documenting abuses began working in real time, reporting massacres to media and conducting advocacy work while still on the ground. “We didn’t want to write about killings after they had happened,” recalls Peter Bouckaert, founder and director of the Emergency Team. “We wanted to try and stop the killings while they were still going on, to try and cut through the fog of war and provide accurate information to make the international community act on the crimes being committed.” In the decade after Kosovo, Human Rights Watch has steadily become faster, more aggressive, and more media-savvy, dispatching its four Emergency Team researchers to conflict zones all over the world on missions that can look like a cross between a commando raid and a model UN conference. If a government blocks access to a conflict zone, Emergency Team members work undercover. They’ve landed in war-torn countries claiming to be tourists and slipped past military checkpoints by pretending to be lost. Once, Neistat carried a baby across a checkpoint to make herself seem less threatening. A favorite tool is a burka, allowing her, in Muslim countries, to move around undetected.

“We’re kind of a mix of a criminal investigator, a journalist, and a social worker,” says Neistat. “Sometimes it can be very hard to be three-in-one, and then with security forces running after us, but that’s what we think we have to do to get things done. Our feeling is that we often don’t have much time for discussion or deliberation. Sometimes it’s about storming into an official’s office and not taking no for an answer.”

Originally from Moscow, Neistat is, at thirty-four, a veteran of Emergency Team work with experience in dozens of conflicts on four continents. Solvang, thirty-one, with a background in the Norwegian military, started working with the Emergency Team during the Georgian War in 2008 and promptly found himself detained with Neistat by South Ossetian militants. Before they left Georgia they’d shared a kiss, and within months Solvang had moved in to Neistat’s Brooklyn apartment.

Even by Neistat and Solvang’s standards, Kyrgyzstan’s conflict is complex. A small ex-Soviet state, Kyrgyzstan had long been considered a beacon of press freedom and human rights—“the Switzerland of Central Asia” runs one now-almost-forgotten sobriquet. After coming to power in a bloodless revolution in 2005, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev suppressed opposition parties and diverted state wealth to personal accounts—a slide toward autocracy that was halted abruptly this April when thousands of demonstrators stormed the presidential building. Snipers loyal to Bakiyev opened fire, killing eighty-five demonstrators, but the crowd surged forward. In clashes that lasted deep into the night, demonstrators succeeded in driving Bakiyev out of the capital, Bishkek, and installing an interim government cobbled together from opposition leaders.

The political destabilization following Bakiyev’s overthrow highlighted ethnic divisions in the country’s south, where mistrust had long run high between Kyrgyz and the substantial Uzbek minority. Readily distinguishable from Kyrgyz by language, dress, and appearance, Uzbeks tend to be prominent in the south’s agriculture and business sectors though virtually absent from the military, police force, and government administration. Uzbeks complained of steadily worsening discrimination under Bakiyev’s regime, while Kyrgyz, subsequent to violent clashes in 1990, suspected that Uzbeks secretly desired an autonomous region in southern Kyrgyzstan. A scuffle in a casino in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, on the evening of June 10 spilled into massive fighting by the next morning when thousands of Kyrgyz drove in from mountain villages to attack Uzbek neighborhoods. Uzbeks returned fire, and military vehicles aided the Kyrgyz in breaking down barriers Uzbeks had erected to protect their neighborhoods. In four days of fighting at least 371 people (and possibly over a thousand) were killed and whole neighborhoods obliterated—an eruption of violence so sudden and devastating that many Kyrgyz and Uzbeks continue to blame it on “third forces” ranging from foreign militants to Bakiyev’s cronies to the mayor of Osh to mob bosses to special forces sent by Russia or Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyz security forces focused their investigation almost exclusively on ethnic Uzbeks, notwithstanding that Uzbeks bore the brunt of the violence. Out of 243 arrests made in connection with the June violence, 219 of the detainees—according to government statistics—were Uzbeks. Detainees were routinely denied access to a lawyer and beaten in pursuit of a confession. In the week after the June clashes Neistat and Solvang issued a series of press releases focusing on government abuses—on a rape committed by Kyrgyz soldiers, on the detention and beating of an Uzbek human rights defender, on a police sweep into an Uzbek village in which Kyrgyz security forces killed two Uzbeks. “You don’t need these,” one of the policemen told Uzbeks, ripping up their passports. “You’re not people anymore.”

I MET Neistat and Solvang when they returned to Kyrgyzstan at the beginning of July, three weeks after the initial clashes. Shops had reopened in Osh and thousands of people who fled during the violence had returned from mountain villages or refugee camps on the Uzbekistan border, but Osh police had become more aggressive in raiding Uzbek neighborhoods, detaining Uzbek men on an assortment of charges related to the June violence, and harassing Uzbeks who traveled to the city center. With police abuse escalating, the international community was just starting to muster a response. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the dominant member state organization in the region, was in talks to deploy a fifty-two-man police force to Osh, and a deputy in the OSCE parliament had just announced plans to organize an inquiry into the clashes. Neistat and Solvang lobbied for a UN-mandated peacekeeping force and commission. They were concerned that the OSCE (“a lamentably bad organization,” in the words of one veteran international observer) lacked the muscle to effectively spearhead an international response, but with UN intervention looking increasingly unlikely, they suspected that OSCE intervention would be the only realistic option.


Neistat and Solvang worked well into the night during their first few days in Osh, sending out press releases and op-eds, tipping off wire services to the abuses they were uncovering. Kyrgyzstan may be about as far off the radar of most western media outlets as it’s possible to get, but with media worldwide cutting down on staff, Human Rights Watch has managed to position itself as a feeder to news services that lack the resources to report stories themselves. Human Rights Watch now has more researchers, says Carroll Bogert, the organization’s deputy director, than the New York Times and Washington Post combined have foreign correspondents. “We understand ourselves to be part of the information economy,” says Bogert. “In the ecology of journalism, we’re right at the start of the food chain, right there in the field getting the first information out, almost like a wire service.” In the three months following the June violence, Neistat and Solvang were quoted in five New York Times stories on Kyrgyzstan, while the Times and others lifted information verbatim from Human Rights Watch press releases.

Press coverage is nice, but Neistat and Solvang’s real goal was to mobilize the international community—an aim that was hampered by the UN and OSCE’s late deployment to Osh. The OSCE evacuated its Osh office during the June clashes. Personnel returned weeks later, around the time that the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR, the UN’s human rights arm) and the bulk of the UN team arrived in southern Kyrgyzstan, too late to head off police abuses in Osh.

While Solvang continued to collect testimony from Uzbeks and, in the interests of even-handedness, to visit Kyrgyz neighborhoods affected by the fighting, Neistat spent the next days driving from neighborhood to neighborhood, confronting officials over abuses in their departments. Julbaev, the Kara-Suu police chief with jurisdiction over the area immediately outside Osh, looked like a cartoon of a Central Asian: heavy with buzz cut, gleaming gold teeth, and a pack of Winstons open on his office desk. While Neistat attempted to explain Human Rights Watch’s mission, Julbaev interrupted her to answer the phone and sign off documents brought by fawning subordinates. As Neistat described the abuses reported from the Kara-Suu police department, Julbaev changed tactics. When his phone rang he held it at arm’s length and answered just as Neistat reached the main point of her sentence. She continued to press him on abuses in his police headquarters, and he conceded that while there may have been beatings, he didn’t know about them. By now Neistat had lost patience. She told him that Human Rights Watch would be closely monitoring the situation in Kara-Suu and that Julbaev was shaming his country, that because of him foreign ambassadors were calling the Kyrgyz president every day demanding to know what was happening in the Kara-Suu police department. When the phone rang again, Julbaev told the caller that now was not a good time.

He explained to Neistat that he has no ill will against Uzbeks: he’s a man and a Muslim and believes that an Uzbek is a man too. Neistat wasn’t interested. She made it clear again how closely he was being watched and then proceeded to the office of the prosecutor with oversight of the police department. “He’s completely stupid, which helps,” Neistat said as soon as she’d left Julbaev’s office. “A more professional guy would say I can’t give you any information because there’s an investigation underway.”

The prosecutor was a cagier opponent than Julbaev, and it didn’t help Neistat’s case that, for fear of giving away the Uzbeks’ identities, she couldn’t show him photographs of injuries. He said that he could guarantee protection for Uzbeks; if complaints were brought to him he could make the abuses stop, but—as it turned out—he hadn’t received any complaints. Neistat argued with him about the sweep in Nariman in June in which two Uzbeks were killed, one shot, one beaten to death. The prosecutor contested the term “beaten to death,” which, he argued, implies a continuous beating when, in fact, the Uzbek died from a single blow. Neistat didn’t belabor the point. She turned back to the question of continued police abuse. Shouting, the prosecutor guaranteed protection for Uzbeks who registered a complaint, while Neistat tried to convince him that, as he well knew, Uzbeks are afraid of complaining to Kyrgyz officials.

As she left the prosecutor’s office, Neistat repeated her threat that the prosecutor was being watched by the international community, but she was beginning to consider raising the stakes. “I think my next step is to threaten [International Criminal Court] prosecution,” she said mischievously. It may have been pure fantasy, but for the benefit of Osh’s police chiefs, Neistat was constructing an imaginary international community that was efficient, proactive, and steadfastly supportive of Human Rights Watch.

While repressive governments worldwide become increasingly aggressive in silencing human rights activists in what Human Rights Watch’s annual report calls “an intense round of attacks on human rights defenders, organizations, and institutions,” the human rights movement has found the mainstays of the international community—the UN in particular—to be somewhat unsteady allies. As often as not, the Security Council is blocked up by the geopolitical differences of the permanent members, while the OHCHR seems to have great difficulty extricating itself from its own red tape.

“The OHCHR has a rapid response unit, but it’s not allowed to go anywhere without [United Nations Department of Safety and Security] approval,” says Bouckaert, the Emergency Team’s director. “What takes days for us takes weeks for them. By the time they make the decision to deploy, things can get out of hand or already be over.”

But more than that, Bouckaert says, UN failures can often be traced to simple timidity, with UN representatives lacking the aggressiveness needed to document and stop human rights abuses. “Frankly, in a lot of different situations the people who should be there on the ground finding out what’s happening don’t want to experience difficult conditions. A lot of [UN representatives] feel they’re too important to spend three weeks roughing it and getting malaria or sleeping in heat or facing risks. They want to get a briefing in a day or two, fly in for a photo op.”

THREE DAYS after Neistat and Solvang arrived in Osh, police brutality led to the death of an Uzbek man, Khairullo Amanbaev, twenty years old, who suffered a fatal head injury while in detention. The police claimed that he died falling from a second-story window. Neistat described his injuries to various doctors who told her the police story didn’t make sense. If Amanbaev fell headfirst from a second-story window, he would have fractured his skull, but he died from internal bleeding, which was more likely the result of a blow from a blunt object.

Over the next week, Neistat and Solvang personally documented a dozen cases of abuse and collected credible information in fifty additional cases. One Uzbek man was burned with cigarette butts by police attempting to extract a confession. Another was suffocated with a plastic bag. Several had gas masks fitted over their faces and the oxygen turned off. When they lost consciousness, they were revived with water and beaten.

In a series of visits with government ministers, including the head of Kyrgyzstan’s police force, Neistat and Solvang received assurances that the federal government would step in to investigate and curb abuses in the police departments around Osh, but Neistat and Solvang developed a more basic method for protecting Uzbeks: they passed out their cell phone numbers, seemingly to whole neighborhoods, and told people to call in case of trouble. Neistat and Solvang hoped that they would be called only if there was an abuse they could document, but over the course of a week they fielded dozens of calls from Uzbeks asking to be advised on their legal rights and to be put in touch with lawyers. When two Uzbek women, beaten by Kyrgyz in front of police, said they were afraid to lodge a complaint, Neistat accompanied them to the police department. When Uzbeks said they were worried that Kyrgyz officials, exhuming and reburying the bodies of Uzbeks killed during the June violence, would try and register the bodies as Kyrgyz to bolster the Kyrgyz casualty count, Neistat spent a full morning at the exhumation.

On the larger scale, though, Uzbeks were virtually defenseless. As a result of the June violence upward of 40,000 Uzbeks left Kyrgyzstan in fear for their safety. Thousands more suffered internal displacement, and the ethnic balance of the region has been drastically, perhaps permanently, altered. Facing opposition from Osh’s nationalist mayor and from nationalist politicians assuming power in the wake of the ethnic clashes, the OSCE police force had its deployment pushed back, meaning that all the calls for international assistance—including direct appeals from Kyrgyzstan’s president—failed to produce any tangible result.

Neistat left Kyrgyzstan feeling freshly embittered with the international community’s lethargy and lack of coordination. Re-reading Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell, which documents the international community’s response to acts of genocide through the twentieth century, she found herself torn between satisfaction and despair on almost every page. “On some pages I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve gone such a long way over the last sixty years,’ and then a few pages later I’ll be thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve gone such a long way and I’m still hearing the same lines from officials and diplomats as sixty years ago.’ Now we have so many tools in place, so many mechanisms, but making them work is still a challenge.”

Neistat and Solvang did log one victory just before leaving Osh. Hours before their plane was due to depart, an OHCHR representative called to tell them that an Uzbek human rights defender, whom Human Rights Watch is calling Suleiman, had disappeared into police custody. There’s reason to think that he’d been detained by the organized crime unit, although no department admitted to having him. The OHCHR representatives in Osh didn’t speak Russian, and their Kyrgyz translator seemed reluctant to confront police officials, so Neistat took over as they followed the chain of evasions and denials through various departments of the criminal justice system in Osh. “I had to do the screaming and pushing and charming,” Neistat said afterward. As she boarded her plane to Bishkek, thinking that nothing had been accomplished, she got word that Suleiman had been released. It’s not entirely clear what happened—the police explained neither why they detained Suleiman nor why they released him. But the timing suggests that, while police were arguing with Neistat at the entrance to the organized crimes unit, their colleagues, deciding it wasn’t worth it to fend off criticism about human rights abuses, simply released Suleiman out the back of the building.

*His name has been changed for this essay.

Sam Kahn is a freelance journalist who’s written on Kyrgyzstan for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Global Post.

Photos taken by Sam Kahn


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