UPDATE, March 28: American journalist Umar Farooq says he has been freed and is leaving Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile, lawyers for human rights watchdog Bir Duino have filed a complaint with the prosecutor's office for the raids on their office and several top employees’ homes.
The arrest of an American journalist on extremism charges and the subsequent raid of a prominent human rights organization, both in southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city, Osh, suggest that Kyrgyz authorities are still cagey about independent inquiry in a region associated with growing adherence to Islam and festering inter-ethnic tensions.
Kyrgyzstan has styled itself as a bastion of democracy in an authoritarian region, but rights activists see looming Russian-style legislation that would brand NGOs “foreign agents” as impending death for the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
Umar Farooq was researching the recent arrest of a popular cleric accused of supporting Syrian radicals, said a local journalist who had met with him shortly after he arrived in Kyrgyzstan a few weeks ago. On his webpage, Farooq identifies himself as a journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and others.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) released a statement late March 27 confirming Farooq’s March 25 arrest, and claiming he had been found with documents and video materials of a "religious extremist and terrorist character."
A US Embassy spokeswoman told EurasiaNet.org that American officials had been in touch with Farooq and were providing consular support.
Authorities have opened a criminal case, the GKNB statement said. A court hearing is expected tomorrow.
The NGO, Bir Duino (“One World”), is among the most prominent human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan and receives support from Western organizations such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Freedom House and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Farooq’s fixer in Osh, Shokhrukh Saipov, told Kloop.kg that the raid on Bir Duino – formerly known as Citizens Against Corruption – was likely tied to Farooq’s arrest, because the journalist had sought to interview one of the organization’s lawyers.
Bir Duino employees told Kloop.kg that GKNB agents had seized equipment, including computers and hard drives, from the office. The GKNB, in its press release, confirmed it had carried out raids on two employees’ homes.
Whoever was behind it, the Bir Duino raid calls to mind the harassment faced by the Human Rights Advocacy Center, also in Osh, last autumn. The GKNB had charged Advocacy Center in November with “inciting interethnic hatred” for distributing an opinion survey.
That case was seen as part of the campaign to ratify the Russian-style “foreign agents” law in Kyrgyzstan. The Advocacy Center project was funded by Freedom House, which receives some of its funding from the US government.
Under local and international pressure, the prosecutor eventually rejected the GKNB’s request to take the Advocacy Center to trial – an unusual move.
Bir Duino head Tolekan Ismailova was among the loudest voices demanding the charges to be dropped.
Activists today fear a vindictive spy agency still lobbying for the “foreign agents” legislation organized the Bir Duino raid. One campaigner also expressed concern that with Bir Duino’s hard drives, the GKNB could access defense case files, as well as sensitive testimony on, for example, the security services’ use of torture.
By that reading, the American journalist could have been a pretext for a crackdown. But his arrest will also send a clear signal that press freedoms do not extend to reporting on sensitive topics.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev has been touring Europe this week, looking for financial support. Human Rights Watch had called on European leaders to press the president on fundamental rights issues, such as the “foreign agents” draft and repressive anti-gay legislation that he has refused to condemn.
David Trilling contributed reporting.