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Defending NGOs in Kyrgyzstan

For the last year, people in Kyrgyzstan have been trying to build a democratic society. The process began in March 2005, when thousands of protesters stormed government buildings in Bishkek, the capital. The protests were sparked by parliamentary elections, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe determined were seriously flawed. Events culminated with former President Askar Akayev fleeing the country.

Since then, the Kyrgyz government has worked closely with the OSCE to promote democratic developments in Kyrgyzstan by supporting presidential elections, promoting the rule of law, and encouraging free media. But the Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice's recent threat to investigate foreign-funded NGOs would undermine further progress.

While the Kyrgyz Justice Minister appears to have stepped back from his January 24th statement, his comments that the Justice Ministry would "analyze" religious organizations registered as NGOs to see if their activities are consistent with their registration documents is not in line with President Bakiyev's commitment to civil society.

This tactic is reminiscent of those employed by former President Akayev's regime during the 2004-2005 crackdown against NGOs and the independent media. Those tactics failed because Kyrgyz NGOs fought back -- as many are doing now.

Investigating NGOs without justification, whether or not they are religious in nature, is a violation of Kyrgyzstan's OSCE commitments. Those commitments require that member countries uphold the principles of freedom of association and the right of non-governmental organizations to function. This includes the right of NGOs to solicit and receive voluntary financial contributions from international sources.

The United States recognizes the efforts Kyrgyzstan has made to move forward with democratic reforms. Clearly, it would not be in the interest of the Kyrgyz government to harass NGOs -- a tactic reminiscent of the Soviet-era.

Kyrgyzstan's civil society is a leader in Central Asia. Such leadership should continue. One aspect of that is to permit the institutions of civil society -- including religious and non-religious NGOs -- to operate freely.

The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.