Police Violence Against Gay and Bisexual Men in Kyrgyzstan
In May 2012, 32-year-old Fathullo F. (not his real name) received a phone call from a friend who said he had arranged a date for him with another man near a local hotel. Police officers grabbed him soon after he arrived at the designated meeting location, placed handcuffs on him and insulted him. At the police station the officers hit him in the face and in the ear to force him to write a confession about seeking to meet another man, as well as to provide them with contact information for his employer and his family. The officers threatened to initiate a criminal “sodomy” case against him—even though consensual sex between men is not a crime in Kyrgyzstan—unless he agreed to give them money and contact information for other gay men from whom they could also extort money. He described how police officers treated him in detention:
“The officers told me that people like me do not deserve to be on face of the earth. I asked them to let me sit down because I was tired. They said that I didn’t deserve to use their chair and spat on me. They said that I didn’t deserve to live and threatened to ruin me if I didn’t give them 10,000 soms [US$214].”
Kyrgyzstan decriminalized consensual sex between men in 1998, with the adoption of a new criminal code. Despite decriminalization, there remains a strong social taboo against homosexuality. Before Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, only 0.1 percent of men were not married by the age of 50. Current data on this trend is not available, but cultural pressure to enter a heterosexual marriage remains strong. Social expectations, particularly in rural areas, also promote masculine gender expression, which includes short hair, wearing dark colors, and demonstrating physical strength. For those who do not conform to these expectations, including many gay and bisexual men, life can be difficult. It is against strong social conformity that a climate of homophobia in Kyrgyzstan emerges.
According to Human Rights Watch, the case of Fathullo F. is not unique. Gay and bisexual men in Kyrgyzstan are subject to a range of abuses by police, including physical, sexual and psychological violence, as well as extortion and arbitrary detention. Police who commit these abuses are not held to account, creating a climate of impunity that encourages further abuse.
Victims are reluctant to report police abuses to the authorities, fearing retaliation or the disclosure of their sexual orientation to family members and/or employers by the police. Very few cases of police torture and violence against gay men are investigated in Kyrgyzstan, and Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single case in which a police officer has been held accountable for the arbitrary detention, torture or ill-treatment of a gay or bisexual man.
Violence, blackmail, extortion by police, and a lack of accountability for these crimes, are all too common in Kyrgyzstan, but those who belong to minority groups are particularly vulnerable. Gay and bisexual men are easy targets for abuse due to deep social conservatism.
Pervasive homophobia in society and widespread police corruption contribute to these abuses. In general, men in Kyrgyzstan are expected to conform to stereotypical male appearances, marry women and have children. Men who do not fit these stereotypes are perceived as failing to fulfill familial and social duties and are often pressured to conform. Many people perceive homosexuality as a “tragedy” and a “disease.” As a result, many gay and bisexual men interviewed by HRW said that they fear disclosing their sexual orientation to their families and employers and try to conceal it from others at any cost.
The 40 gay and bisexual men HRW interviewed for their report all said that police are aware of their fear of disclosure of their sexual orientation and described how police officers exploit this vulnerability to target men they suspect are gay or bisexual. Most, including two who were 17 years old at the time of abuse, reported having experienced some form of physical abuse, threats, extortion or all of these abuses during one or multiple encounters with the police.
Many of the men interviewed by HRW also reported ill-treatment in police detention, including being punched, kicked, or beaten with gun butts or other objects. Several also reported sexual violence by police officers, including rape, group rape, attempts to insert a stick, hammer, or electric shock device inside the victim’s anus, unwanted touching during a search, or being forced to undress in front of police. In some cases, the ill-treatment the men experienced at the hands of the police rose to the level of torture.
Several men, including one who was 17 years old at the time of abuse, told HRW investigators that police threatened to rape them, in some cases with a coat hanger or a bottle. Police also often asked humiliating personal questions, such as whether they play an active or a passive role in sex.
Most of the gay and bisexual men interviewed said that the police had threatened to disclose their sexual orientation to family members, employers, university administration (in the case of students), and others. In Kyrgyzstan, the disclosure of a person’s sexual orientation can have serious consequences, including violence, loss of employment, and long-term social and family ostracism.
Many of those interviewed also reported that police had compelled them to pay money, ranging from $12 to $1,000, in order to avoid further physical violence, being detained, or the police disclosing their sexual orientation to family members or others.
Police in Kyrgyzstan have no legal right to detain gay and bisexual people solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. In 1998, Kyrgyzstan ended Soviet-era criminalization of consensual sex between men with the adoption of a new criminal code. Despite this, Human Rights Watch found that police arbitrarily stop gay and bisexual men in public places or take them into custody solely because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Police identify gay and bisexual men through dating websites, outside of gay clubs, and in parks where gay and bisexual men meet, among other locations.
Kyrgyzstan’s laws prohibit torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, and extortion by police, as do Kyrgyzstan’s commitments under international law. Despite these legal protections, this report finds that current systems of addressing police abuse are not sufficient for protecting gay and bisexual men from violence and extortion. Of those men interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report, only two filed official complaints about the abuse they had suffered. One victim never received a response to his complaint. In another case, the prosecutor’s office conducted an inquiry that ignored medical evidence of injuries against the victim and declined to open a criminal investigation.
Many of the gay and bisexual men interviewed including human rights defenders, told HRW that they feel unable to file complaints and access existing systems of redress, and that they lack confidence in the authorities’ willingness to pursue their complaints. They have legitimate fears of retaliation by those who abused them in the first place or by other law enforcement officials. They also fear that law enforcement officials will fail to respect their privacy and confidentiality or will disclose their sexual orientation to the public, family members, or others.
In January through August 2013, the Bishkek-based LGBT organizations Labrys and Kyrgyz Indigo documented at least 11 attacks on lesbian, gay and bisexual people based on their sexual orientation. Of these, five gay men and two lesbians were victims of police abuse. Police arbitrarily detained all five of the gay men in public places and forced them under threat of disclosure of their sexual orientation to hand over money. The police detained the two lesbians who were in a park, filmed them while they asked them personal questions, and forced them to pay 4,000 soms (US$ 80) in order for the police to delete the videos. In four other cases, the perpetrators were unidentified assailants. In one case from July 2013, four men followed a 20-year-old gay man as he left a store, dragged him into a nearby botanical garden in Bishkek, and raped and beat him, breaking his hand and giving him a concussion. The man did not report this incident to the police.
Two LGBT activists were also victims of homophobic attacks in the first half of 2013. On March 11, 2013, five men attacked Nazik Abylgazieva, the executive director of the Bishkek-based LGBT organization Labrys, at a club. One attacker hit her with a glass bottle, giving her a concussion. When police arrived they told Abylgazieva that she should not expect anything less from perpetrators because she is a lesbian. The police registered Abylgazieva’s complaint but did not proceed with an investigation.
In a separate case, on May 27, 2013, five waiters in a restaurant in Osh harassed a group of gay men, including four gay men from Osh, a Labrys board member, and three employees of the Bishkek-based LGBT rights NGO Kyrgyz Indigo, all of whom were visiting Osh. The waiters followed the group, called them “fags,” and told them that gays were “not welcome” in their restaurant. One of the waiters punched the Labrys board member in the jaw. The men did not report the incident to the police, out of fear for their safety. The man from Osh moved to Bishkek fearing further violence.
In interviews with Human Rights Watch, Ministry of Interior officials openly stated that they are unable to protect victims, including gay and bisexual men, who file complaints from possible repercussions by police or law enforcement officers.
The cases of police abuse against gay and bisexual men documented by Human Rights Watch indicate the need for enhanced and targeted efforts to prevent and punish torture and ill-treatment, including when committed against gay and bisexual men.
Human Rights Watch and other international and domestic human rights groups have documented persistent police abuse in Kyrgyzstan. Minority groups, including ethnic Uzbeks, drug users, sex workers, as well as LGBT people, are particularly vulnerable to violence and extortion on the part of law enforcement officials.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported that it received reports about arbitrary arrests, extortion and abuse by police in Kyrgyzstan throughout 2012. Following his December 2011 mission to Kyrgyzstan, UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, concluded that the “use of torture and ill-treatment to extract confessions remains widespread.” Mendez identified the following forms of torture as a pattern: asphyxiation with plastic bags, punches and beatings with truncheons, the application of electric shock and the introduction of foreign objects into the anus, or the threat of rape. In its concluding observations after a review of Kyrgyzstan in November 2013, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) stated that it is “deeply concerned about the ongoing and widespread practice of torture and ill-treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, in particular while in police custody to extract confessions.”
The OSCE secretary general’s 2012 report on police-related activities across the OSCE area noted that Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs demonstrated “limited commitment” to addressing allegations of human rights abuses and prioritizing an internal mechanism to address these allegations. According to one expert who has analyzed the OSCE police reform project in Kyrgyzstan and other countries in Central Asia, officials of Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs have “consistently ignored the importance of improving human rights,” as part of the police reform process. The expert stressed that more should be done to involve community leaders, NGOs, local governments, and political leaders in shaping police reform.
According to Voice of Freedom, a human rights organization in Kyrgyzstan working on torture and other rights issues, in 2012 the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan registered 371 complaints of torture. In 340 cases, investigators refused to open criminal investigations into the complaints. Twenty cases were sent to court; but only 11 police officers were convicted.
Non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations also report that police corruption is widespread. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kyrgyzstan highlighted corruption within law enforcement in its proposed strategy for law enforcement reform for 2013-2017.
The government of Kyrgyzstan should take steps to encourage reporting of complaints of police violence and extortion against gay and bisexual men, including by ensuring that the recently established National Center for Prevention of Torture and the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights have the mandate and means to receive and adequately investigate such complaints.
The authorities should ensure that all allegations are promptly investigated in a manner capable of leading to prosecutions of perpetrators. The authorities should immediately establish victim and witness protection programs to ensure that gay and bisexual men and others may safely file complaints without fear of retaliation.