On Sunday 17 May, people across the world celebrated International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). In Santiago, Chile 50,000 people marched in support of gay rights. In Bangkok, the city hall was lit up in rainbow colours. In the United States, activists celebrated a good year – one that included a Supreme Court case likely to strike down the States’ gay marriage bans – with awareness that progress is still to be made.
However, some celebrations did not go as planned. In Bishkek, Kyrgyz activists for LGBT equality (including the organisations Kyrgyz Indigo and Labrys) began their day with a dinner and a mock gay wedding. By Sunday evening, activists were sitting in cells, having been detained after an attack by homophobic members of the ultra-conservative nationalist movements Kalys and Kyrk Choro. Their attackers walked freely around the police station.
The attacks appear to have been designed to target Kyrgyz LGBT groups for celebrating International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Homosexuality is not illegal in the fledgling democracy, but social prejudice and state-sponsored violence against the LGBT community is endemic.
On the Saturday night, members of the radical movement Kalys, spurred by leader Zhenish Moldokmatov, gathered outside a restaurant in central Bishkek, hosting a dinner to raise money for a Kyrgyz Indigo safe house. In an effort to intimidate and forcibly ‘out’ LGBT activists, Kalys are believed to have photographed people leaving the building.
In the socially conservative country, being forcibly outed to family, friend and employers not only humiliates victims, but can also place them in serious danger. On the afternoon of 17 May, members of Kalys and another organization Kyrk Choro, broke into a mock gay wedding in Bishkek attended by about 30 Labrys activists.
May 17: Kalys and Kyrk Choro broke into LGBT organisations. Image via Labrys website.
Nurbek Qaibideen attended the wedding and he described what happened when the attackers broke in: ‘I got scared, I was hoping everything would end without violence. They managed to break the door and I went in the building and sat down in the chair just observing.’
‘They were aggressive, filming us. They were screaming, calling for hatred and killings, they were filming everybody.’ One woman was beaten during the confrontation. On Sunday evening, videos of the activists appeared on YouTube account ‘Azamat A’, with titles ‘Dispersal of the gays’ and ‘Kalys crushes the fags’.
Labrys organisers called the police, and both wedding guests and members of Kalys were taken to Pervomaiskoe police station. Labrys reported on their website that they were questioned and detained for more than five hours without access to water, food or medicine.
Amir, an activist, said via email: ‘When we were taken to the police station as witnesses, we were refused legal representation, suffered verbal and physical abuse, and some of us were instructed to reveal our genitalia to make sure exactly whether we are man or woman.’ The attackers were reportedly allowed to walk around the police station, and, unlike the activists, had access to food and water.
Nurbek Qaibideen was detained and described his experience: ‘The police were very homophobic. They were friendly with the members of the radical movement, but were totally aggressive with us. When we were released, I was glad that everything went with minimum injury, but was also demotivated realising that my state does not really protect me as a gay person. We were called names, the police officers were cussing at us, I had never been humiliated like that before just because of my identity.’
Since the attacks, there are rumours that personal details of activists have been released to the homophobic attackers. True or not, rumours like this fuel feelings of isolation, marginalisation and fear that public attacks on LGBT people are intended to create.
Following the attacks, charges of hooliganism under Article 234 of the Criminal Code have been filed against members of Kalys, including the leader Zhenish Moldokmatov. Local media report that the police department is stating that it cannot comment on the incident and that the head of the police department is ‘on vacation’.
Although the sentence of hooliganism can carry a 5-year prison term, there is widespread scepticism that the charge is anything more than symbolic.
LGBT rights in Kyrgyzstan
The human rights situation for LGBT people living in Kyrgyzstan has been deteriorating since a brief democratic opening in 2013. Legislation to ban expressions of ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations is currently making its way through the Kyrgyz Parliament, and public celebrations like IDAHOT will become criminal if the bill passes.
Ty Cobb, Director of Human Rights Campaign Global, commented on the attacks: ‘It's horrific to see this type of violence, but not surprising given the current political movement to marginalize the LGBT community in Kyrgyzstan with Russian-influenced legislation that silences advocates for equality. This should be a warning of what's to come if that legislation moves forward.’
A post-Soviet Republic, Kyrgyzstan has been slower to build a strong state structure or diverse economy than neighbouring Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz majority and Uzbek minority led to a revolution in 2010 and the deaths of an estimated 2,000 people. Since 2010, the government has made commitments to protect human rights and build civil society, bolstered by international support and financing.
However, the Kyrgyz government and public remain strongly bound to Russia, both politically and economically. According to ICCO Cooperation Central Asia, remittances from migrant labourers in Russia constitute 32% of Kyrgyz GDP. As Russia’s human rights record deteriorates and political isolation increases, Kyrgyzstan has followed suit. It appears to be a matter of pride to not only mimic Russian developments, but to take them one step further.
In addition to geopolitical pressures on political and social development, the growth of conservative nationalist sentiment, dedicated to preserving ‘traditional’ Kyrgyz values and identity, has made being LGBTQ in Kyrgyzstan more dangerous.
The IDAHOT attacks were the latest in a series. In April 2015, Labrys offices were firebombed, and Member of Parliament Narynbek Malobaev said in an interview with MSNBC that, if he could, he would round up gay people to execute them in the public square in Bishkek. Cai Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University, Australia told me that whilst not representative, Malobaev’s voice is not alone in a government increasingly concerned about the impact on national stability of a resurgence of virulent nationalism seeking to defend Kyrgyz identity from foreign influence.
Wilkinson sees this anti-Western nationalism as equally important to the persecution of minorities as the geo-political architecture of the region. A key goal of the movement to defend Kyrgyz values is to create public moral panic, and the mock gay wedding was a perfect opportunity for Kalys to make LGBT people appear threatening to traditional values.
The greater fear that nationalist movements generate, the more public and political support they can build for persecution.
The proposed law to ban ‘gay propaganda’ is the latest development at the nexus of Russian influence and Kyrgyz nationalism. First proposed in 2014, the legislation is a more extreme version of the Russian discriminatory law passed in 2013.
If passed, the law will criminalise or sanction dissemination of information ‘aimed at forming positive attitudes toward non-traditional sexual relations’, including in print media, radio, television, public assemblies, and on the internet. The bill passed a first reading in parliament in February 2015. Kalys are now calling for an accelerated second and third reading of the bill.
Human Rights promoters and governments around the world have condemned the legislation, describing it as in direct contravention of the Kyrgyz Constitution and Geneva Conventions, of which Kyrgyzstan is a signatory. In May, members of the United States Congress wrote to the Speaker of the Kyrgyz Parliament asking him to prevent further advancement of the law.
Whether this type of pressure from Western defenders of human rights adds fuel to the fire of resentment of foreign intervention and corruption of Kyrgyz identity is a debated issue. Some argue that every foreign comment further cements Kyrgyz nationlist’s resolve to protect their identity and persecute threats to their norms, while others identify a difference between public statements by politicians and private beliefs. Kyrgyzstan is after all highly dependent on foreign aid, and Central Asian regimes crave legitimacy from foreign governments.
The question on everybody’s lips in Bishkek now is: what will happen in a second and third reading of the bill? National elections take place in Autumn, which could overshadow the bill or propel it as political theatre intensifies.
This week, Kyrgyz President Almabek Atmbaev signed treaties ratifying the nation’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union, a currency union currently linking Russian, Kazakhstan and Belarus, further signaling Russia’s deepening regional hegemony. Cai Wilkinson believes that the mood is there to enable the law to pass, but that it will face a series of revisions. It is also unclear how it would be enforced and what the impact would be on the LGBTQ community.
One thing is clear: if the bill becomes law, attacks like those on Sunday will become more frequent, except it will be the activists who are the criminals.