Defending the rights of national minorities in Southern Kyrgyzstan

“I have met and talked to many people with tears flowing, a sign of their internal pain and suffering, and I have also talked to people with physical injuries, an indication they have been physically tortured,” says Nazgul Suyunbaeva, a lawyer, civil society activist and women’s rights champion from Kyrgyzstan.

Here, even the sun is sad, read the words on a ruined wall in the Kyrgyzstan city of Osh © Elodie Fischer OHCHRIn June 2010, her hometown Osh was at the centre of a three-day outbreak of violent ethnic conflict which left an estimated 400 persons dead and thousands of buildings destroyed. While members of both communities suffered, the violence mainly targeted the ethnic Uzbek minority.

Following the violence, Suyunbaeva and other lawyers have become frontline human rights defenders, because of their role in providing legal assistance to those charged with involvement in the unrest. To date, most cases involve ethnic Uzbeks. During the subsequent investigations and trials there have been allegations of serious human rights violations, including torture to extract confessions.

Suyunbaeva explains: “Everyone is entitled to a defense. Our clients are very scared. They are afraid to give testimony. Defense witnesses are afraid to come to the court room if they are ethnic Uzbeks.” 

“If trials fail to meet even basic standards, and are seen to be biased against one group, they will not serve the purpose of bringing the perpetrators of violence to justice and will not facilitate reconciliation between communities,” she says.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) supports the efforts of lawyers to protect and promote human rights in southern Kyrgyzstan, working with organizations such as Citizens Against Corruption, the Human Rights Advocacy Center, Ray of Solomon and Spravedlivost. Suyunbaeva has represented a number of clients through these organizations.

The lawyers have themselves faced severe pressure. On 14 October, a group of civilians, sympathizing with victims, physically attacked Suyunbaeva and another lawyer. In response to these and other assaults, lawyers in Osh have demanded that the authorities provide them with adequate protection.

When asked what motivates her to continue working in these difficult circumstances, Suyunbaeva says , “Some of the greatest moments in my life have been when I see people I have assisted smiling again; to me this is a big motivator.”

“Secondly, I feel happy, motivated and inspired when I remember cases in which victims were able to reclaim their rights,” she says. “It is so satisfying to be able to see results in such cases.”

Suyunbaeva concludes: “And third, I feel encouraged by your presence – the presence of the United Nations and others who are here working for human rights”.

On Human Rights Day 10 December the theme is human rights defenders who act to end discrimination.

24 November 2010