Why survivors of sexual violence can't get justice in Kyrgyzstan
The police and judicial system are inadequate, and society often blames women themselves when they are raped, kidnapped and murdered
Kyrgyzstan is in shock following the murder of Aizada Kanatbekova, who was ‘bride-kidnapped’ (abducted in order to be forced into marriage) in the centre of Bishkek, the country's capital.
On 7 April, Kanatbekova was found strangled in a car next to the body of her kidnapper, who had taken his own life. It became clear that the police knew the car's licence plate, the name of the suspect and his phone number, but still "did not manage" to save the woman's life. Kanatbekova, 27, had been planning to travel to Turkey for work, after finishing university. On 8 April, people in Bishkek and the southern city of Osh held protests against sexual violence, and called for the resignation of the interior ministry’s leaders.
Such incidents are not unusual in Kyrgyzstan, where the indifference and ineffectiveness of law enforcement agencies regularly lead to tragedy. Many cite the continued practice of bride-kidnapping as evidence that the situation will never change, but, as statistics and expert comment show, the reason for the country’s ongoing sexual violence lies in a broken law enforcement and judicial system that places the blame on women – and justifies perpetrators.
Before and after
The year 2018 divided the life of Amina (whose name has been changed at her request), into ‘before’ and ‘after’. The 18-year-old had recently moved to Karakol, a city in the Issyk-Kul region, and started her first year at medical college. Since childhood, Amina had dreamed of becoming a doctor. She had big plans for the future; she wanted to help people cope with their illnesses and save lives.
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That fateful day seemed no different from any other day. After Amina left college, she went to wait for a bus. She was not familiar with the city, and only knew the way from home to college and back.
"I have poor eyesight," she said, "so I didn't even see the car drive up to me, but I felt a strange tremor in my body. The next second, someone ran up from behind and grabbed me. There were several of them. They closed my eyes, gagged me with a rag and pushed me into the car."
The car pulled away. No one came to help Amina.
The kidnapper turned out to be 19-year-old Ruslan (not his real name). Amina barely knew him. A few weeks earlier, Ruslan had phoned, asking to meet her. Amina was categorically against the idea, and blocked all his numbers. According to Amina, Ruslan got her phone number from her cousin, who repeatedly asked Amina to give him a chance. But becoming friends with Ruslan was not part of Amina's plans; all her free time was taken up with studying.
Amina had never met Ruslan in person, nor the other two men in the car. She recalls how she tried to scream through her closed mouth, fought back with her hands and feet, but the men pretended that nothing was happening. Suddenly the car stopped. Amina realised they had arrived at an empty park. There was no point in calling for help.
"He asked his friends to get out of the car. They laughed and said: 'What? Do you want the rape to be romantic?' I was shaking all over. I could not even try to escape. They got out and he told me to undress. I was paralysed with fear, so I obeyed. Then he raped me. After he finished, he pushed me out of the car, not even letting me put on my clothes. They threw my bag in my face and drove away. I felt terribly humiliated and crushed. I sat in the park for several hours and sobbed. I was in pain. I did not know how I could continue to live."
Amina is one of several thousand women who have experienced sexual violence in Kyrgyzstan. These incidents can occur anywhere – on the street, at a party, at school, even at home. Children, young girls, elderly women and, in rare cases, men – all are victims of rape.
According to official statistics, 2,890 cases of rape and attempted rape were registered in Kyrgyzstan between 2010 and 2019, an average of 290 cases per year. Women’s crisis centre officials and human rights defenders say these numbers do not reflect the true picture, as they only include cases reported to the police. In 2019, out of 767 criminal cases of rape registered, only 100 made it to court, according to the prosecutor general’s office.
Often, turning to the police in Kyrgyzstan is as traumatic as the act of violence itself. Whether intentionally or not, police officers often show hostility to the survivor, despite the fact that their actions can determine the rest of a person's life. The fear of being ‘guilty’, weak or humiliated, as well as a general mistrust of the police, stops many people from reporting crime.
Of course, some survivors do try to seek justice. However, this does not always end well – they face public condemnation, pressure from investigators and judicial bias. As a result, women are often ‘forced’ to be ashamed of everything they have had to experience: ashamed of being raped, ashamed of making it public, ashamed of putting a rapist in prison.
In a third of rape cases, the defendant was not punished – either the case was dropped or they were acquitted
openDemocracy reviewed 196 rape cases published in Kyrgyzstan's Court Decision Database, covering a five-year period from 2015 to 2020. Since 2016, courts in Kyrgyzstan have been obliged to publish all information about the progress of court cases and any decisions taken.
These statistics show that in a third of cases, the defendant was not punished – either the case was dropped or they were acquitted. In 91% of cases, the rapist acted alone. There were two defendants in 8% of cases, and three in only 1%.
According to openDemocracy's analysis, out of the 196 cases, 132 resulted in convictions, 56 were dropped, and eight defendants were acquitted. Minors and children were victims in 30 cases. Of these, five cases were dropped, one defendant was acquitted, and in the remaining 24 cases the court issued a conviction.
Amina did not dare tell anyone what happened to her for a long time, even her mother. She was scared. In order to accept what happened, she needed time. After a few weeks, she began to feel changes in her body. When a pregnancy test came back positive, the teenager told her mother everything.
Amina's mother raised her children on her own. The family did not own their home, and had to move constantly between rented apartments. Amina and her younger brother were living in Karakol with relatives, while their mother worked in Turkey to earn money to buy a home and pay for the children's education. When she learned of her daughter’s tragedy, Amina’s mother gave up her job and bought a plane ticket home.
"As soon as my mother arrived in Karakol, we immediately went to the police and wrote a statement," Amina said. "I underwent a forensic examination and provided all the information they required. During the investigation, the police deceived me. They convinced me that everything was going according to plan. The results of the examination take 30 days, but we were not given them for four months. My mother went to the police every day to find out how the case was progressing. But nothing. They did not give out any information. They were probably just waiting for the moment when I would withdraw my testimony. Meanwhile, the man who raped me and the other two guys remained at large."
The police then dropped Amina's case, for unknown reasons. This inaction led to Ruslan kidnapping Amina again. He took her to his parents' house and tried to force her to marry him. Fortunately, Amina's mother managed to remove her daughter, and refused to allow the marriage.
The prosecutor's office cancelled the decision to dismiss the case, and Ruslan was finally arrested. But the police did not even look for the other two kidnappers, nor did they investigate the abduction itself.
"I had to have an abortion for health reasons," said Amina. "I was preparing to have an eye operation, and I was strictly forbidden to give birth. I did it, despite the likelihood that I will never be able to have children. That man did this to me, and he was not even arrested the first time."
"We didn't give up trying to get justice and appealed to the regional court. The first time around, he [Ruslan] managed to pay his way out of trouble, but this time the case was considered by three judges. He never admitted his guilt"
Despite the fact that the forensic examination confirmed that Amina was raped, Ruslan was acquitted on grounds of "insufficient evidence". According to Amina, his parents bribed the investigator, prosecutor and judge.
After the trial, Amina closed in on herself. She would cry from fatigue, stress and despair. Her emotional state was also made worse by her relatives and neighbours, who kept reminding Amina of what had happened, scolding her and claiming that she "deserved her punishment".
Seeing her daughter's suffering, her mother decided to send the girl to Moscow to stay with relatives for several months. She was afraid that Amina might still be in danger, since Ruslan was at large. In addition, the girl needed to regain her health and avoid thinking about what had happened.
Meanwhile, Amina's mother, along with human rights defenders and lawyers, started contacting the courts again.
Amina said: "We didn't give up trying to get justice and appealed to the regional court. The first time around, he [Ruslan] managed to pay his way out of trouble, but this time the case was considered by three judges. He never admitted his guilt, and tried to convince everyone that I wasn't against sleeping with him. He could have asked for forgiveness, or said that he did something stupid and regretted it. But I never heard anything like that."
In the end, Ruslan was sentenced to ten years in prison. The other two men involved in the kidnapping were never brought to justice.
Protecting the rapist
According to human rights lawyer Yevgenia Krapivina, proving sexual abuse is not an easy task. Forensic and biological examinations are the main source of evidence, but Kyrgyzstan’s police still do not carry out a DNA examination in cases of sexual violence.
"If the victim, in a state of emotional distress, either took a shower out of ignorance or destroyed items that could have contained traces of a crime, then the likelihood of bringing the offender to justice is reduced to zero. The victim may not have signs of bodily harm, and then investigators begin to believe in a scenario of mutual consent to intimacy," Krapivina explained.
"A psychological and psychiatric examination is needed. But it's rarely done, and then only at the request of the victim's representative – even though the investigators' manual says they should do this. If the examination is carried out, the investigators are not interested in what kind of suffering the victim has endured. Instead, they ask questions such as 'Are women prone to lying?'"
Women have to convince the investigating and judicial authorities that they are telling the truth. A separate problem is the need to repeat their testimony several times, in all its humiliating details. Kyrgyzstan's criminal code does not prohibit additional interrogation, and this approach can re-traumatise a survivor. First, the woman is interrogated by the police, then by an investigator, and then she must testify in court. Investigators can interrogate survivors as if they themselves were the criminals. This approach significantly reduces the level of trust in the investigation.
"Victims often experience violence when they are asked the wrong kind of questions during an interrogation," Krapivina added. "They may be asked: 'What were you wearing?' 'Why did you go out to him?' 'If he paid for dinner, did you understand how it could end?' 'Why didn't you scream?' The woman has to go through this kind of treatment, in addition to being raped. As a result, the victim can be brought to the point where she says: 'No, he did not rape me.'"
Survivors also need psychological help, because this kind of experience has life-long consequences. But in Kyrgyzstan there are no programmes for rehabilitating survivors of rape, and private psychologists are expensive. The most you can hope for is moral compensation, and that's only if the rapist is found guilty.
"A rape investigation can drag on for years. At some point, the victim does not have the strength to fight the system," Krapivina said.
"It is easier for them to close in on themselves and cope with the trauma on their own. At the same time, you cannot say that the courts are passing incorrect sentences. The judge makes a decision on the basis of the case presented to him. Violations committed in the collection of evidence are interpreted in favour of the accused. The poorer the quality of the forensic examination, the more norms that can be questioned, the more likely it is that the case will fall apart in court and the culprit will go unpunished."
Help is available in Kyrgyzstan in the form of private crisis centres, and human rights defenders who provide free legal and psychosocial assistance. But these resources are sorely lacking.
Culture of violence
In Kyrgyzstan, only a few survivors of sexual violence dare to tell their stories. This halo of silence aggravates the situation of the victims and plays into the hands of the perpetrators.
Larisa Ilibezova, head of the Center for Research on Democratic Processes NGO, says that the country's "culture of violence" is to blame for the way sexual violence is normalised and justified.
"In Kyrgyzstan, a woman is often viewed as an object," Ilibezova said. "If this object violates generally accepted 'rules' – she put on the wrong skirt, got into the wrong taxi, returned home too late – and then is raped, then she will be to blame for this. A woman is obliged to keep her honour and if something happened to her, it means 'she went looking for it'. It's in our culture."
"The victim may think ‘I behaved wrongly, I am guilty, everyone will condemn me’ and thereforedecides to remain silent about the experience. At the same time, a woman has a right. The right to choose whether to go public or not. But in any case, the emergency services should be like beacons that provide a light around the clock for everyone who needs help. Only then will people reach for such ‘beacons’ and not be afraid to talk about violence,” Ilibezova continued.
If survivors are confident that there's somewhere to turn for help, it becomes much easier to track crimes, said Byubyusara Ryskulova, a crisis centre director and human rights activist. She believes it's necessary to develop zero tolerance for violence, to believe the woman and to actively punish aggressors.
"Many people say that we, human rights defenders, are overly dramatising the situation when we talk about the problem of sexual violence. But if we stop talking about it, the problem will not go away," Ryskulova said.
"Rape is, first of all, a crime – it cannot be acceptable or justified. Everyone who wants to commit such a crime should know that he will not be able to avoid responsibility, by making peace with the victim after the events."
Ideally, the Kyrgyzstani state should assume responsibility for protecting survivors of sexual violence. The courts and law enforcement agencies should not pander to gender stereotypes. Survivors, instead of feeling guilty and powerless, should know that the law is on their side. Only when every rape is followed by inevitable punishment can survivors finally feel protected.
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