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People in Kyrgyzstan Still Feel Threatened
[Interview] Ivar Dale, head of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Central Asia
Ryskeldi Satkeev (ryskeldi64)     Print Article 
Published 2009-09-02 13:56 (KST)   
This article is lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
On October 12, 2008, you were refused entry into Krygystan by Kyrgyz Border Control at the Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan. There were no explanations presented by Kyrgyz government officials. What's your side of the story?

Ivar Dale
©2009 http://www.nhc.no/php/images/photoalbum/komiteen/s
Ivar Dale -- When I arrived at Manas Aiport from Moscow on October 12, 2008, I had already been living in Kyrgyzstan for two years, had an apartment and an office in Bishkek. As usual, the consular services issued a visa without any problems. However, when I went through passport control, I was told by the border guards that I was denied entry for 10 years, and would not be let out of the airport. A representative of the Presidential Administration came to the airport, but was unable to resolve the situation. The decision had been made by the security services a few weeks before, on the same day as I left Kyrgyzstan for a short vacation in Norway.

I spent 23 hours at Manas. Throughout the day, my lawyer came to the airport, and many of my Kyrgyz relatives. The border guards were kind enough to let me speak briefly to them. The next day, I was forced to board a plane to Istanbul. Later, I received a letter from the Kyrgyz State Security Service, in which they declined to give any explanation why I was denied entry. They said this is "standard procedure in all countries". This of course, is not true. Since then, the United Nations, Norwegian authorities, the European Union and the US State Department have all written to Kyrgyz authorities, asking that the ban be lifted. Unfortunately, none of them have received any kind of answer.

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Russian-language blogs and media in Kyrgyzstan reported on your activities associated with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee in Kyrgyzstan as well as incidents around NHC office. They wrote in particular, aggressive actions taken by Kyrgyz Law enforcement agencies against you. What's the background for Kyrgyz authorities' deep interest in your activity in Kyrgyzstan, your comment?

I think this question should be directed to the Kyrgyz authorities rather than to me. Nobody has ever explained to me why they went to such great lengths to force me out of the country.

My first trip to Kyrgyzstan took place in November 2006, to open a Representative Office for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization. As soon as I arrived, I went to speak to the Deputy Minister of Justice regarding our registration. He ensured me that there should be no problems for an organization such as ours. We held an opening conference, where the Minister himself participated, as well as many other Kyrgyz government officials. I felt welcomed in the country not only by regular people, but also by representatives of the authorities.

However, we soon ran into problems; the list of required documents kept changing. I spent considerable time meeting with officials, and did absolutely everything in my power to ensure that everything was done exactly the way they wanted. One of the requirements to register a foreign organization in Kyrgyzstan, is that you must present documents proving that you are renting an office space in the country. Hence, I rented an office in the center of Bishkek, and even used the guard service provided by the Kyrgyz police themselves. I made every effort to signal that the NHC only wanted to play a positive role in Kyrgyzstan.

In June 2008, the police and security services showed up at my office, saying it was illegal to have an office without registration. Obviously, there is a lack of logic here; you can't have an office without registration, but then you can't register your organization without an office. This was the beginning of a very unpleasant string of events. I was brought in for questioning by the police repeatedly, and the security services started writing letters to various Ministries; effectively making it impossible for them to deal with the situation in a sensible manner. I was threatened with deportation, and even got telephone calls asking me to come to interrogations on my wedding day.

Eventually, the police called me to the Sverlovskiy Regional Court in Bishkek, where I was accused of illegal work, and of having given "untrue information" in a visa application a year before. This last issue was particularly outrageous; it was shown that someone with a poor knowledge of English had tried to imitate my handwriting. The court ruled that the document was a forgery and that I had done nothing wrong, and ordered that the case against me should be stopped.

We had hoped that this was the end of the story, and officials in various Kyrgyz ministries also seemed happy that this mess had been resolved. Therefore, I was still more surprised when the security services decided to simply ignore the ruling of the Kyrgyz judge.

What's the history of NHC work in Kyrgyzstan?

The NHC has been involved in Kyrgyzstan since 1998, reporting on human rights developments and supporting projects in that field. We also had election observers present during the Presidential election in 2005. In 2006, it was decided that we would open a Representative Office for Central Asia in Bishkek, and I was asked to lead this work.

One of our projects went on in the Colony Nr. 14 for Minors, where we had very good cooperation with representatives of the prison authorities (GUIN) and the Ministry of Justice. I myself was permitted to visit the colony several times and participated in fun activities for the young inmates on reading and writing. This is just one of many examples of how the authorities gave us extremely conflicting signals.

Your look at human rights and free speech in Kyrgyzstan?

For a long time, Kyrgyzstan enjoyed a special position in Central Asia, as an 'island of democracy'. Most observers agree that those times are over now. For whatever reason, it seems like Kyrgyzstan wants to fall in line with human rights practices in other Central Asian countries.

The development has been particularly negative over the past year, and I think we will see a further deterioration. Particularly worrisome are the new laws on peaceful assembly and the many arrests which have come as a result of that. Also, the continuous attacks on politicians, journalists and religious groups is a very bad signs pointing in a negative direction.

Kyrgyzstan recently received much attention in the West due to a massive fraud in presidential elections which was evaluated by OSCE as "disappointment". What's your opinion on results of the July 23 elections?

Since I am banned from Kyrgyzstan, I could not come to observe the elections myself. The NHC sent another representative from Norway. However, at the last moment, she was denied accreditation. The Central Election Committee wrote to us and said they had been told by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the NHC should not be accredited because we don't have an office in Bishkek. This does not make any sense. Most international organizations that conduct election observation in Kyrgyzstan or any other country, don't have offices there. There is nothing about this in Kyrgyz law either.

The conclusions of the OSCE after the election came as no surprise. Particularly the repeated attacks on the opposition before the election were disturbing. Such attacks should not occur in a democratic society. It is in the interest of everyone, including those who are in power, that everyone are given the chance to state their opinion and run their political campaigns in peace.

There's report that Kyrgyz police has been threatening you, if NHC continues to work in Kyrgyzstan. Your comment on that?

There was a verbal threat from some police officers, nothing I care to think about. I just would like to see this ban removed so that I can visit friends and family as normal.

Any specific details of your job in Kyrgyzstan which caused Kyrgyz Government to react in such manner against you?

One can only speculate what the reason is. Perhaps there is a particular project they didn't like, or perhaps one particular official decided he didn't like us. Or it could be just part of a general trend in Kyrgyzstan now, that the authorities try to hinder the work of human rights organizations.

It is important to note that I am not the only person to be banned from Kyrgyzstan. Only this past year, the same has happened with citizens of Russia, Kazakhstan, USA, Poland and the UK, all people working on democracy and human rights. This is a very sad development, that the security services damage Kyrgyzstan's reputation abroad in this manner. I don셳 think they realize themselves how unfortunate it is.

What is certain is that there are people in all parts of the government who agree that this situation is unnecessary and wrong, but who feel unable to do anything to resolve it. Many officials say that they wish they could help, but who probably are worried that they themselves could have problems if they got involved. I understand their concern, of course.

There are quite a few NGOs in Kyrgyzstan concentrating on human rights. Why was NHC picked by Kyrgyz authorities? Is there a political aspect beneath the surface?

We are a small organization, so perhaps they figured it would be easy to close our office. Besides, there aren't really that many foreign organizations working on human rights in Kyrgyzstan, and Norway has no embassy there that can provide support to such organizations if they have problems. My impression is that there is a general trend in Kyrgyzstan now, that the authorities and others want to go after NGOs. We have seen this in the proposed amendments to the law on NGOs, which certainly would cause great problems for Kyrgyz NGOs also.

Personally, I find it very strange that in 2009, there are still people who feel threatened by human rights organizations, who believe that human rights activist represent some kind of danger to society, or that people who work there are spies or criminals. Hopefully, such attitudes will disappear in time. Organizations like NHC wish to contribute in a positive way. Fortunately, regular people in Kyrgyzstan understand that.

I know that there is a group of Kyrgyz citizens demanding from Kyrgyz Government in an open letter to lift ban placed on you. Can you provide a little more info on this movement?

Yes, it was a pleasant surprise for me. Some friends from Kyrgyzstan decided to start a petition, collecting signatures from other Kyrgyz citizens to ask the President that my ban should be lifted. I have not received any response to my own letter to the President. I hope that this letter with signatures from Kyrgyz citizens can have an effect. Either way, I am really moved that so many people already have wanted to sign the petition. It means a lot to me personally.

What's your current project with NHC and are you in touch with human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan?

At the moment, some colleagues and I are working on a report on the situation for refugees in Europe. The NHC continues its commitment to promote human rights and democracy in Central Asia. Of course we are involved in many projects in the region. In September, we have invited about 30 observers from former Soviet republics, including Kyrgyzstan, to follow the Parliamentary elections in Norway as international election observers. I am very much looking forward to this.

We are regularly in touch with human rights groups from all over Central Asia. I consider them my colleagues and friends. There are many brave individuals working to promote human rights in the region, and I am very glad that I had the chance to get to know them all.

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©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ryskeldi Satkeev

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