For almost a year and a half, law enforcement agencies have been persecuting sex workers in Kyrgyzstan. During this period, the number of sex workers receiving HIV prevention services in some regions of the country reduced twice. Civil society organisations registered more than 450 cases of sex workers’ rights violations by the police every year.
Extortion, detentions, and threats
In 2017, 81% of all reports of abuse and human rights violations submitted to the Shah-Aiym Sex Workers Network were complaints against police officers on extortion. Shah-Aiym documents such cases with the support of Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan and street lawyers of public associations all over Kyrgyzstan within the framework of the Global Fund via Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan. Both sources recorded 475 cases of sex workers’ rights violations by law enforcement agencies in 2016 and 459 cases in 2017. Most often, those are cases of extortion, arbitrary detention, threats, blackmailing, pressure and degrading treatment.
“The wave of mass raids started in mid-2016 when City Directorate of Internal Affairs in Bishkek announced that it was going to “clean the city by getting rid of prostitution.” They even asked local people to conduct night raids, make photos of sex workers and pass such photos on to the policemen,” tells Shahnas Islamova, head of NGO Tais Plus. “At first, press service of the Chief Directorate of Internal Affairs was reporting detentions, not even hesitating or not understanding that they were, in fact, announcing unlawful acts of the law enforcement agencies.”
In Kyrgyzstan, sex work is decriminalized, which means that it is neither an administrative nor a criminal offense. To punish sex workers, law enforcers use other provisions of the Administrative Offences Code. Most often, sex workers are detained for alleged disorderly conduct or petty crimes.
“Sex workers try to avoid court proceedings: they buy off. There are some cases when law enforcers know what a girl does to earn her living and start blackmailing her. They threaten to take photos of the girls, tell their relatives about their occupation or take them to a police station, so the girls agree to pay: the standard charge is up to 1,000 soms ($15),” tells Alina (the name is changed), a street lawyer of a civil society organization. “If girls try to defend their rights, law enforcers find other ways to detain them: they draft reports of disorderly conduct or failure to obtain registration. Those who have bad luck or are not able to buy off may be arrested for three to five days.”
According to Alina, many sex workers have gone underground: they often change their rented apartments and phone numbers. Such situation in some regions of the country hinders the access of NGOs to sex workers to conduct HIV prevention interventions: distribute condoms, offer testing, conduct awareness-raising activities, and consultations.
“Since the start of the “purge”, our organization has been monitoring the dynamics in the coverage of sex workers with prevention programmes in Bishkek,” says the head of Tais Plus NGO. “In a year and a half, the coverage has reduced twice, and in the second quarter of 2017 the actual indicator went down to 39% of the planned coverage.”
Activism in the challenging environment
Mass raids of 2016-2017 echoed almost in every region of the country. Groups of people who explained their actions with the “religious motives and interests of the society” helped law enforcers in their “fight” against sex workers. As the end of 2017 approached, things calmed down: sex workers got used to the new conditions, while the pressure from the side of police weakened a bit and the mass raids ended. However, “police marks” stipulating sex workers paying money to the law enforcers for the so-called “protection” and “permit to work” are still there.
“Currently, in most cases pimps are the ones to keep contact with police, while there are almost no girls who work on their own,” says Nadezhda Sharonova, director of the Podruga Charitable Foundation about the situation in Osh. “Recently, our street lawyer has been more and more often reporting complaints of sex workers against their pimps who beat and blackmail the girls.”
Despite the fact that civil society organizations in Kyrgyzstan offer legal support, sex workers rarely report their offenders. Representative of the Tais Plus NGO thinks that this fact is easy to explain: to go through all the legal prosecution process, one needs boldness and strength as well as certain savings – not to cover the legal expenses, but to be able not to work for a while and keep out of the law enforcers’ sight.
At the same time, the sex workers movement is growing and becoming stronger. The Shah-Aiym Network unites sex workers in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia. The network documents human rights violations and provides support to the victims of human rights violations, actively protects the interests of sex workers’ community and publicly campaigns against violence towards sex workers. The network ensures conditions for strengthening activists’ capacity to claim and defend their rights.
“We have seen cases when sex workers defend themselves,” says Shahnas Islamova. “For instance, at the court hearings on administrative offenses some sex workers now openly say that they are engaged into sex work and do not violate any laws, while the police has violated the law when detaining them. As a result, such sex workers have left the courtroom free from any accusations.”