Rights group urges Kyrgyzstan to end 'abusive crackdown' on extremism

BISHKEK (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan has convicted hundreds of people for extremism by using an excessively broad definition of the crime, Human Rights Watch said and it urged the largely Muslim Central Asian nation to review such cases.

Imprisoning people for mere possession of “extremist literature” - which includes some reports by rights activists - risked generating support for militant groups in the volatile ex-Soviet republic, the New York-based HRW said in a report.

The Bishkek government said on Wednesday that such cases would be reviewed after legal reforms next year.

The mountainous nation of six million, which hosts a Russian military airbase, is vulnerable to the spread of militant Islamist views, and its government fought against armed radicals in the 1990s.

Last year Russian authorities blamed a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen for a deadly suicide bomb attack in St Petersburg.

HRW however said Kyrgyzstan’s broad crackdown on extremism had been too heavy-handed and potentially counterproductive.

“... When people who are not dangerous and were simply in possession of literature (deemed extremist) are sent to prison, where they meet really dangerous people, there is a big risk of radicalizing them,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at HRW, said in an interview in Bishkek.

Denber said the new Kyrgyz criminal code, due to take effect from 2019, excluded possession of literature from the list of offences, but said HRW was concerned about possible delays and the fact that many people had already been convicted.

Apart from Islamist books and pamphlets and recruitment videos of militant groups, Kyrgyz courts have classified as extremist at least two reports by human rights activists, Denber said.

Commenting on the report, Kyrgyzstan’s State Prison Service said about 500 people had been convicted on charges of possessing and disseminating extremist media. Of these, some 300 were in prison and about 200 had received suspended sentences.

With the planned criminal law reform, some inmates may be released, a spokeswoman for the prison service said.

Reporting by Olga Dzyubenko; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Richard Balmforth