Kyrgyzstan: Judge Fired for Opposing Government’s Fingerprint-Collection Drive
A senior judge in Kyrgyzstan has been sacked after challenging the government’s plan to collect fingerprints and other biometric data from citizens.
Klara Sooronkulova had become a hero for civic activists who believe the top-down effort to force citizens to share their fingerprints in exchange for the right to vote is unconstitutional and at odds with their civil liberties.
Sooronkulova, a judge at the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, was drafting a document declaring the 2014 Law on Biometric Registration unconstitutional. She had attracted legal expertise from abroad to reinforce her position.
She now seems certain to lose her position after the Council of Judges (kind of a judges’ board of directors) voted unanimously on June 18 to dismiss her, citing a breach of judicial discipline.
As support builds for Sooronkulova – about 100 supporters protested outside parliament on June 24 – the president and parliament must now confirm her dismissal.
Well-known rights activist Cholpon Djakupova, director of the Adilet legal clinic, told Vechernii Bishkek that Sooronkulova had been punished “for going against the system.”
Biometric passports, otherwise known as e-passports, are identity documents containing the holder’s biometric information – usually a fingerprint. As of 2014, over a 100 countries issue them. Supporters argue that the built-in electronic identification mechanisms make travel documents less prone to identity theft.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has also linked the passports to upcoming elections, arguing that biometric data will make ballot-box fraud a thing of the past.
But critics of the Law on Biometric Registration, which President Almazbek Atambayev signed last July, say submitting the data places Kyrgyzstan’s citizenry at the mercy of almost anyone. That includes the secretive security services, which, critics fear, could use the data to finger innocent people in criminal investigations.
Temirbek Asanbekov, a former presidential candidate, summed up this sentiment at a press conference in Bishkek on June 18: “By introducing biometric registration as a condition for participating in the election, the state creates artificial barriers. To elect and be elected is a constitutional right and not an obligation. We should bear in mind the general state of information security in the country. Citizens’ data could become accessible by various extortionists or even international terrorists. Who will guarantee that evil-minded people will not gain access to this database?”
President Atambayev, however, has taken a hard line on biometric registration, commenting earlier this month that “if a person is too lazy to have their fingerprint taken then they should not be taking part in the electoral process.”
Meanwhile, Sooronkulova’s pending dismissal brings to the fore once again the debate over the judiciary’s independence. Other judges are falling into line behind the president’s position on the biometric data debate with hardly a peep in support of their colleague. The judiciary looks as dependent on the executive as ever.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.