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How Central Asian States are muzzling dissent to stop the spread of news about Covid-19 (Part 1)

In Uzbekistan a deputy minister defended an order to seize mobile phones from people placed in quarantine centres because they could be used to spread false information about living conditions in these centres. In Kazakhstan lawmakers passed a draconian law on peaceful protests and government trolls launched a vicious smear campaign on social media against the law’s critics. Officials in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, refused to issue permits to independent journalists, preventing them from traveling across checkpoints set up to enforce the lockdown, but State media apparently drove around unimpeded. In Tajikistan a journalist who focused on the government’s whitewash of the spread of Covid-19 was severely beaten by unknown assailants twice in one month. In Turkmenistan officials and doctors were reportedly instructed not to mention Covid-19 and State media recommended to treat “seasonal acute respiratory illnesses” with tea made of herbs listed in the encyclopedia of medicinal plants of Turkmenistan, authored by the country’s president.

At the end of May 2020, there were around 11,500 cases of Covid-19 in Kazakhstan, 4000 in Tajikistan, 3700 in Uzbekistan, 1850 in Kyrgyzstan and zero in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan remains – along with North Korea and a few remote island countries in the Pacific – the only Covid-19 free country in the world. There have been just over 100 fatalities from Covid-19 in the five countries combined. The official statistic for Central Asia, inhabited by 70 million people and located geographically between China, Iran and Russia – all Covid-19 hotspots –, sounds too good to be true.

There is probably more than one reason to doubt the accuracy of the official figures. I would like to explain the distortion using a human rights-based approach. Governments in Central Asia are going to great lengths to avoid telling the truth about the pandemic and employ a sophisticated arsenal of repressive measures to muzzle those who seek to inform themselves and others about Covid-19 or who aim to disclose officials’ shortcomings in handling the current public health crisis.

"In Tajikistan a journalist who focused on the government’s whitewash of the spread of Covid-19 was severely beaten by unknown assailants twice in one month "

The spread of Covid-19 in Central Asia

Before describing in detail how human rights in Central Asia suffer in the Covid-19 era, I’d like to make two preliminary remarks. It would be wrong to tar all Central Asian countries with the same brush. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, who all reported their first cases of Covid-19 in mid-March, quickly moved to declare a state of emergency and to impose sweeping measures to halt the spread of the virus: severe curbs on movement of people, closure of schools, mosques and most shops, and cancellation of mass events. Although Tajikistan and Turkmenistan quarantined nationals returning from abroad, officials largely ignored WHO advice on social distancing and celebrated Novruz,(Persian new year) with performances involving thousands of participants standing less than 1,5 m apart. Turkmenistan further organized mass exercises to mark – and this is not a joke – World Health Day on 7 April and its equestrian president filled the racecourse to observe National Horse Day on 26 April.

"The director of the prison service stated that several prisoners fell ill with Covid-19 like symptoms because they drank cold water in the evening after breaking the Ramadan fast"

On 20 April, a group of civil society organizations in Tajikistan appealed to the authorities to answer questions about the country’s testing ability days after the deputy health minister blamed a worsening outbreak of pneumonia on “adverse weather conditions” and a high-ranking law enforcement officer succumbed to swine flu. The director of the prison service stated that several prisoners fell ill with Covid-19 like symptoms because they drank cold water in the evening after breaking the Ramadan fast. On the eve of a visit by a WHO delegation, the authorities finally acknowledged 15 cases on 30 April and the number of infections has grown exponentially since.

Meanwhile officials in Turkmenistan continue to feverishly tout their own deeds that have allegedly kept the virus at bay, for example disinfecting buildings and public places by burning harmala, a plant that is plentiful in arid Turkmenistan and featured in you know which encyclopedia. Independent sources reported that facial masks are not allowed in public, but people were advised not to queue in line at grocery stores or ATMs. However, it is unclear if this was meant to prevent a pandemic or to hide empty shelves and shortages of cash.

"Incapable of stopping the spread of an invisible virus, officials seem eager to try to hold back the spread of information about Covid-19 to increase their chances of political survival."

The latter brings us to my second preliminary observation. Central Asian economies will be hit especially hard as demand for their biggest export commodities (oil, gas and cheap migrant workers) already plummeted. The region’s authoritarian regimes – according to the OSCE no country in Central Asia ever held free and fair elections –are like patients with underlying conditions (economic stress, high corruption, a bloated bureaucracy and a chronically underfinanced public health sector) who might be at higher risk of Covid-19. Incapable of stopping the spread of an invisible virus, officials seem eager to try to hold back the spread of information about Covid-19 to increase their chances of political survival.

How spreading news relating to coronavirus can become a criminal offense

Article 274 of the criminal code of Kazakhstan stipulates that “dissemination of knowingly false information, endangering public order (…) during a state of emergency (…) shall be punishable by deprivation of liberty of 3 to 7 years (…).” Invoking this provision, police in Almaty on 28 March arrested a man who posted a video message on YouTube calling on the authorities to do more to assist the poor and the unemployed. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, a prominent human rights NGO, reported more arrests on the same charges in April, though the criminal case against one activist was quickly dismissed. On 12 April an activist in Karaganda was arrested by the State security service and remanded in custody for two months under article 373 of the criminal code for publicly insulting the “Elbasy” – aka Kazakhstan’s first and only president until March 2019. It is unclear what precisely enraged law enforcement to prosecute a case under this article for the first time since 2007.

On 26 March, Uzbekistan added article 2445 to its criminal code, making “dissemination of untrue information about the spread of infectious diseases” punishable with imprisonment of up to 3 years if it is disseminated through the media or online.

Tajikistan’s prosecutor general, the top law enforcement official in the country, urged the population not to listen to unfounded rumors about an increase in deaths, rising prices and shortages, and stated that spreading false rumors endangering the population would trigger a firm response. His statement served as a stern warning to anyone challenging the official narrative – valid through April 30th – that there were no cases of Covid-19, but just a lot more cases of pneumonia. For weeks, officials kept stonewalling journalists’ questions about the virus.

Kyrgyzstan’s criminal code lacks a specific provision about spreading fake news, but this did not prevent the State security service - acronym GKNB – from threatening to prosecute dozens of people who circulated pictures or posted on social media. Human rights groups highlighted the case of a doctor who was forced by the GKNB to apologize and recant for posting about the poor quality of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the clinic where he was working.

Abuse by officials of their sweeping powers to enforce quarantine measures

International law recognizes the right of everyone to “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Article 12 of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly stipulates that States must take steps to prevent, treat and control epidemic diseases. It is unavoidable that this will entail significant limitations on other human rights, but States do not get a blank check. Every step must adhere to the principles of legality (= imposed by clear and accessible legal act), necessity (= in the interest of public health), proportionality (= be the least intrusive option) and non-discrimination. In addition, some human rights, like the prohibition of torture and the right to a fair trial, are non-derogable, meaning they can never be restricted. These principles derive from human rights treaties that have been ratified by all Central Asian States.

On 16 March, a group of UN special rapporteurs “urged States to avoid overreach of security measures in their response to the coronavirus outbreak and reminded them that emergency powers should not be used to quash dissent.” However, since the outbreak and rapid spread of the coronavirus, governments in Central Asia have shown a penchant for adopting repressive measures and increasingly misusing such measures for other purposes than in the interest of protecting public health.

After shutting their borders in March, authorities in all Central Asian countries scrambled to organize quarantine areas for thousands of their nationals returning home.[1] Complaints about inadequate living conditions in quarantine or the fact that healthy people were being placed together with people showing symptoms of Covid-19 quickly surfaced online in all five countries.

Uzbekistan’s deputy justice minister gave three reasons to justify a government order to seize mobile phones from people placed in quarantine centres: 1/to disinfect the devices; 2/ to track the phone user’s prior movements to trace the infection and 3/ to protect the privacy of other citizens in quarantine. At least the third motive seemed totally irreprehensible if the official had not elaborated that a lot of what was posted online contained unreasonable and distorted information about the conditions of detention in quarantine centres. On 3 April 2020, a court in the Tashkent region sentenced seven people to 15 days administrative detention for different offences, including minor hooliganism. The seven were part of a group of 254 who had been quarantined after arriving from Dubai on 17 March. They had run amok against inadequate detention conditions and the unexplained prolongation of their 14-day quarantine.

The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, a well-respected human rights NGO, reported that authorities in Turkmenistan set up a quarantine camp in Turkmenabat, housing people in large tents with bunk beds that were tightly placed together. The camp was damaged during a hurricane on 27 April but quickly rebuilt. The same source also reported about the arrest and interrogation of a doctor who had forgotten to leave his phone at the entry checkpoint of the quarantine zone.

A woman who returned to Tajikistan uploaded a video on YouTube about the run-down summer camp with no running water where she was being quarantined. The provision of quarantine in the above examples is not in line with the advice of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture which stated that people should be accommodated in adequate conditions and “should be able to benefit from the fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment” while being quarantined.

"Only in Tajikistan a lockdown was deemed unnecessary because – according to the health minister – the hot and dry climate prevented the spread of the virus."

In May, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan started gradually loosening curfews and internal travel restrictions in place since mid-March. Even Covid-19 free Turkmenistan had limited people crossing provincial borders. Only in Tajikistan a lockdown was deemed unnecessary because – according to the health minister – the hot and dry climate prevented the spread of the virus.

Stringent restrictions on freedom of movement including stay at home orders can certainly be justified in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan added new articles and/or tougher penalties to their codes for various violations of the state of emergency and for breaking quarantine rules. Kazakhstan already had these provisions codified before Covid-19. And when the virus appeared in Central Asia, some officials clearly went into overdrive.

Officials in different cities across Kazakhstan sealed off multistory buildings because of suspected Covid-19 cases among their residents. In some cases, this included literally welding entrance doors. Meanwhile the Interior Ministry reported that in the first month of the state of emergency in Kazakhstan law enforcement authorities stopped 5130 violators and 1626 out of them were subsequently sentenced to administrative arrest.

In Kyrgyzstan police frequently rounded up people who did not observe the curfew and then kept them at police stations until the end of the curfew in the morning. The Coalition Against Torture in Kyrgyzstan, a group of human rights NGOs, complained that it was impossible to socially distance in the overcrowded police cells and there were also problems with guaranteeing the right of access to a lawyer to all those deprived of their liberty.

On 12 May 2020, the prosecutor’s office of Samarkand region, Uzbekistan, opened a criminal case against a doctor for not seeking medical advice despite showing symptoms of Covid-19 after he allegedly infected 34 people amongst his family, colleagues and patients.

Furthermore, officials across the region began using their additional powers under emergency legislation to harass human rights defenders, independent journalists and opposition activists.

On several occasions, police In Aktobe, Kazakhstan, arrested activists for “violation of the state of emergency regime” (article 476 of the code of administrative offences). In March two activists were jailed for 10 days and on 5 May nine activists received three days. All they had done was trying to attend court hearings of other activists. Ten days administrative detention was also the penalty for a man who live-streamed a crowd in front of a post office in Shuskiy district, Zhambyl region, that was hoping to receive a small allowance promised by the authorities.

In Shymkent, Kazakhstan, Ruslan Zhanpeisov, who exposed police wrongdoing in the past, was jailed for 10 days under article 476 and 25 days under article 478 (provoking violations of law and order during the state of emergency). At the end of April he received another five days under article 478 and in May his trial started on criminal charges of attacking and slandering a police officer and another person.

In Almaty two activists, who made a video of a quarantine roadblock and posted it on Facebook, were charged with “disobeying the lawful order of a law enforcement officer” and sentenced to respectively two and 10 days administrative detention. One of them complained he was ill-treated by other inmates without guards intervening and subsequently hospitalized with symptoms of a heart attack.

On 7 April, a court in Tashkent sentenced 3 bloggers to 15 days administrative detention after they posted a video made in front of a statute of Amir Temur, Uzbekistan’s national hero. The court ruled they were in a public space without facial masks and had shown disrespect to Temur. In the video one of them asks Temur when Covid-19 will leave Uzbekistan.

On 30 March, the authority in charge of enforcing the lockdown in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, refused to issue permits to journalists, preventing them from traveling across checkpoints and doing their work. The official stressed the rules apply to everyone and were aimed at protecting the journalists’ health. However, it quickly emerged journalists of the state media were immune to the prohibition. A local NGO, the Media Policy Institute, complained and on 20 April the authority reversed its decision.

In all of the above examples, the authorities violated at least one of the above-mentioned principles: legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination.

[1] There are still thousands of others remaining in Russia, Turkey and the Middle East, who are unable to return home because air traffic was cut off and land borders were closed. They have received little or no assistance from their home countries.

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

Read the second part of this blog post here

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