In 2002, then President Askar Akayev signed a law on the Ombudsman. The law was passed by the Parliament’s Legislative Assembly and in November the same year, the first elections to the Ombudsman took place.
In contrast to its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan takes human rights relatively seriously. The current Ombudsman, in office since 2008, is former political dissident Tursunbek Akun. When Akun took office, he not only promised to defend human rights in the country but more importantly talked about reforming and restructuring the institution to better serve its purpose. One of the most important reforms proposed by Akun was the creation of a special public council, which would be comprised of government officials, lawyers and human rights activists. Its main purpose is to monitor the human rights situation in the country, and then prepare recommendations for the government.
Despite much appreciation for the Ombudsman’s office and its work, some view it as problematic that the current Ombudsman was nominated by then President Kurmanbek Bakiev, and claim that this puts the institution’s independence into question. Certain human rights activists argue that the Ombudsman should be elected by human rights defenders and then be approved by the Parliament in order to provide stronger guarantees for its independence and the transparency of its work.
Despite such criticism, Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsman’s office is arguably more independent and effective in safeguarding human rights that corresponding institutions in neighboring states. For example, in Kazakhstan, the Ombudsman’s office is under the direct supervision of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. In Uzbekistan, the situation is very similar if not worse. Turkmenistan does not have an official office of the Ombudsman. Instead the administration of former President Saparmurat Niyazov created an Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. In a country where the head of state enjoys virtually unchallenged power, the institute is under executive control. Thus, the Kyrgyz institution stands out in the region as a uniquely vital tool for the protection of human rights.
In a country where human rights violations still occur, it is vital to ensure that the Ombudsman’s office is not only fully independent from the executive body but most importantly carries out its work effectively and serves its true purpose. Despite the relative success of the institution and its positive record in comparison with neighboring countries, gross human rights violations still take place in Kyrgyzstan. According to Human Rights Watch, torture and arbitrary detentions in relation to the June 2010 ethnic violence in the south of the country have largely gone unpunished. There have been numerous reports from both international organizations and domestic civil society highlighting the unfair treatment of Uzbeks in the south by law enforcement officials, and the vulnerability of ethnic Uzbeks to torture by police. Freedom of expression is relatively liberal in Kyrgyz Republic compared to its neighbors, and human rights experts and activists, lawyers and civil society representatives and most importantly ordinary citizens frequently voice their concerns over the human rights situation in the country.
Akun’s term as Ombudsman expired in February 2013, and he was reelected by parliament on January 23, facing competition from 17 additional candidates. Opinions differ on the fairness of the selection process. Some observers believe that Akun’s reelection was decided in advance and that the selection process was merely a formality, while others believe that a fair consideration of all candidates was conducted. Regardless of these opinions and potential shortcomings in the selection process, the institution deserves recognition for its relatively strong track record over the past ten years, and will hopefully continue to serve its purpose in the future.