oDR: Analysis

Why child sexual abuse in Kyrgyzstan remains unpunished

Official data shows that fewer and fewer child abusers are being sent to jail – and most avoid punishment altogether. Caution: this article deals with child abuse, and some readers may find it distressing

Suiumkan Ulanbek
10 August 2021, 9.26am
Image: Suiumkan Ulanbek

In recent years, stories about sexual violence against children have become a weekly feature of Kyrgyzstan’s news. The stories are pervasive and the number of victims is harrowing. But it’s increasingly clear that victims suffer twice – both during the violence and again when perpetrators escape prosecution.

Indeed, official data shows that in Kyrgyzstan, fewer and fewer child abusers are being sent to jail – and most avoid punishment altogether. While certain cases do attract heavy prison sentences, the country’s legal system allows many to get away with a metaphorical ‘slap on the wrist’ – if they are ever caught.

By way of explanation, experts point to two factors. First, Kyrgyzstan’s poorly operating law and justice system, and second, the pressure of the stigma of sexual abuse on parents, many of whom also allow those responsible to bribe them.

Caution: this article deals with child abuse, and some readers may find it distressing

Unregistered cases

In 2016, Erkin, a ten-year-old boy, was raped by “a man from his village”, in the Suzak district of Jalal-Abad, a region in southern Kyrgyzstan. The abuser, an imam at the local mosque, repeatedly abused Erkin for two months until the child’s parents found out.

“Someone saw what was happening and told my husband,” Erkin’s mother said. “He did not want to talk about it for fear of shame in front of the neighbours, but I reported it.”

In 2017, the imam was sentenced to 21 years in prison. This case, however, is one of the rare instances in which a family decided to report the crime to the authorities and find justice - experts suggest many cases go unreported.

Government statistics between 2014 and 2018 show that in Kyrgyzstan, an average of 140 cases of sexual abuse against children are registered by the authorities each year – in effect, every three days a child experiences sexual abuse in this country of six million people.

Of all the registered cases of rape, around 20% involve children. When it comes to crimes qualified under sexual assault, however, half of the victims are children. Children also often become victims of depraved sexual acts, which are regulated by Article 133 of Kyrgyzstan’s Criminal Code.

Relevant articles in the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic:

Article 129: ‘Rape’. When committed against children, rape is penalised with a prison sentence ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment.

Article 130: ‘Sexual Assault’. Violent sexual acts can be counted as sexual assault. Like rape, sexual assault against children is penalised with a punishment ranging from 15 years in prison to life imprisonment.

Article 132: ‘Sexual intercourse and other sexual acts with a person under the age of 16’. This differs from rape and sexual assault because there may not be violence involved, however, one of the participants of the sexual intercourse is a child. It is punished with up to five years in prison.

Article 133 ‘Depraved sexual acts’. A type of sexual crime without the use of violence against persons under the age of 18. It differs from Article 132 because it does not entail sexual intercourse. This crime is punishable with five to eight years in prison.

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Analysis of official data for openDemocracy shows that rape and sexual assault are the most commonly reported sexual abuse crimes in Kyrgyzstan. Around 40% of all sexual crimes against children are classified as rape and a quarter are classified as sexual assault.

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Among sexual crimes, 25% of cases are sexual intercourse with minors, which is punished with up to five years in prison. Depraved sexual acts represent 15% of all registered sexual crimes, and are punishable with five to eight years in prison

Off the record

While these appalling numbers emerge from official police statistics, every year countless acts of violence remain unrecorded – and without investigation or prosecution, according to Darika Asylbekova, head of the Ak Zhurok crisis centre in the southern city of Osh.

“There are young girls from ages eight to 17 who come to us seeking help. The majority of them have experienced sexual violence from their close family: their fathers, uncles, stepfathers,” Asylbekova told openDemocracy.

“In most cases, victims are discouraged from going to the police for several reasons. Most cases, in fact, do not result in prosecution. And the lack of prosecution increases the number of these types of crimes, because they are hushed up, no one wants to make them public.”

“When the victim’s parents, mostly their mothers, decide to report to the police, their relatives try to convince them not to report, for fear that this publicity would bring shame on the girl”

According to Asylbekova, the stigma attached to sexual abuse plays a significant role in whether the family decides to report the crime.

“When the victim’s parents, mostly their mothers, decide to report to the police, their relatives try to convince them not to report, for fear that this publicity would bring shame on the girl,” she said.

Less punishment

Stigmatisation and a corrupt law and justice system are the main reasons that prevent parents or guardians from going to the police and seeking justice. However, even when these crimes are reported, the authorities often fail to bring perpetrators to justice, official data shows.

Between 2014-18, 202 cases of sexual intercourse with minors were recorded by the Kyrgyzstani police. But only a quarter of abusers were convicted. These numbers are similar, but differ from the numbers of court convictions because of minor differences in calculation method.

The same lack of justice is evidenced with crimes under Article 133, ‘Depraved sexual acts’. Under this statute, between 2014-18, only a quarter of abusers were convicted. Since 2014, the conviction rate has decreased by 36%, while the number of victims has increased by 12%. This means that every year fewer rapists are being punished, while the number of victims grows.

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Dismissed cases

Why do most rapists in Kyrgyzstan go unpunished? In most instances, rape cases are dismissed at the investigation stage, data from the Ombudsman’s Office, a human rights institution, shows. Nearly 60% of all dismissed investigations into sexual violence are terminated by a police investigator. Most cases do not even get to court for review, let alone trial.

According to statistics, most investigations end before getting to court when parties – both the victim’s family and the perpetrator – reconcile. Half of the cases related to sexual abuse of children are closed on the basis of “reconciliation in connection with compensation for material and moral harm”.

A spokesperson for Kyrgyzstan’s ministry of internal affairs told openDemocracy that many abusers pay compensation to victims, and that the amount is decided by the court.

The ministry also stated that “a criminal case cannot be initiated, and an initiated case is subject to termination – if the victim refuses to continue the prosecution”.

“When the rapist is from a close circle and relatives ask the victim’s side not to report, in 90% of cases the victim’s side ends up not reporting anything to the police”

Thus, the responsibility for finding justice lies with the victim, but in this case they do not have the right to decide whether to prosecute since they are underage. They cannot go to the police themselves: the legislation of the Kyrgyz Republic does not allow it. The final decision to report the crime is instead made by their parents or legal guardians.

Close surroundings

One of the main deterrents for prosecution is the relationship between the abuser and the victim. Data shows that every fifth parent who participated in the research by the Ombudsman’s Office said that they would not contact the police if the abuser was someone from their own family.

“In terms of the cases of child abuse, in the majority of them the rapist comes from the child’s close surroundings – from their own family, relatives, neighbours who live nearby,” a psychologist at the Sezim crisis centre in Bishkek, told openDemocracy.

It also appears that an abuser known by the victim is more likely to go unpunished. “When the rapist is a friend or family member and relatives ask the victim’s side not to report, in 90% of cases the victim’s side ends up not reporting anything to the police,” Darika Asylbekova said.

If abusers are in the victim’s close circle, data from the Ombudsman’s Office shows that the abuse often continues for a lengthy period of time. Some 30% of children abused by family members have been sexually abused continuously for six months, while nearly 15% are abused for a period of two years.

But despite this situation, there remains little hope of change. Families continue to refuse to report cases, sometimes accepting bribes not to – and vulnerable children see their abusers go unpunished.

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