November 2, 2015 at 10:17 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Kerry mum on anti-gay bill during Kyrgyzstan trip

Kyrgyzstan, Almazbek Atambaev, John Kerry, gay news, Washington Blade

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on Oct. 31, 2015. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday did not publicly discuss Kyrgyzstan’s proposed ban on so-called gay propaganda during his trip to the former Soviet republic.

Kerry met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in the country’s capital of Bishkek.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev told reporters during a joint press conference with Kerry that the meeting was “devoted to important issues of bilateral cooperation and multilateral cooperation in between Kyrgyzstan and the U.S.”

Abdyldaev during the press conference said his country has been “strengthening a strong civil society” since it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“This is very important in the environment of our multiethnic communities, and because taking into consideration opinions of the — all the people is an important condition for sustainable development of the state,” said Abdyldaev, speaking through a translator. “Public opinion in our country affects considerably the decisions to be made on internal and foreign policy. The power of our poly-ethnic society is in strengthening it into ethnic harmony, permanent support of dialogue, and collaboration between all groups and players of the society.”

Abdyldaev did not mention the propaganda bill.

David Clark of Agence France-Presse during the press conference asked about the State Department’s decision to award Azimjon Askarov, a Kyrgyz journalist who is serving a life sentence for allegedly inciting ethnic violence, its Human Rights Defender Award in July.

Askarov claims authorities beat and tortured him after his 2010 arrest. The Kyrgyz government ended a decades-long agreement with the U.S. in response to the State Department’s decision to honor Askarov.

“Our country certainly is founded on our fundamental commitment to and values regarding individual rights — the right of speech of assembly, of protest, of human rights, basically,” said Kerry. “And we’re always going to speak to them. But we want to do so in a way that obviously encourages people’s understanding of exactly what we’re saying and meaning in a particular award.”

“The lifetime work of this particular individual is what was being honored, and it certainly was not intended to somehow interfere with any judgments with respect to one particular event or incident — which I am not speaking to now, but simply reaffirming that our department will continue to stand up for and speak for human rights on a global basis,” he added. “Because that’s part of what defines the United States of America.”

Kerry and Abdyldaev earlier in the day took part in a ceremony that marked the official opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.

U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Sheila Gwaltney was among the officials who attended the event.

“Our countries are natural partners in developing, strengthening and promoting democratic values and ideals,” said Abdyldaev. “We believe that with goodwill, mutual respect and equality, we can articulate and resolve the most complex tasks.”

Kerry traveled to Austria before arriving in Kyrgyzstan.

He arrived in Uzbekistan on Sunday where he met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Kerry on Monday met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev before co-chairing a meeting with his counterpart from the former Soviet republic.

Kerry is scheduled to travel to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and the U.K. before returning to D.C. on Wednesday.

The U.S. continues to seek additional economic and security ties with the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, despite persistent criticism from advocates and their supporters over their respective human rights records.

The State Department in its 2014 human rights report describes Uzbekistan as an “authoritarian state” that has a policy of “government-organized forced labor,” among other things. The same document concludes Turkmenistan “has an authoritarian government controlled by” President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov and his party.

Propaganda bill ‘extremely harsh’ and ‘homophobic’

Human Rights First last week called upon Kerry to speak “forcefully and directly” with Kyrgyz officials about the propaganda bill.

“Secretary Kerry’s trip comes at a time when Kyrgyzstan’s extremely harsh homophobic bill is on the precipice of becoming law, and presents a key opportunity to demonstrate U.S. leadership in advancing human rights protections in Central Asia,” said Shawn Gaylord of the Washington-based advocacy group.

Kerry and Abdyldaev did not discuss the propaganda bill during their meeting at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. The State Department on Saturday referred the Blade to the transcript of the two men’s remarks in the Kyrgyz capital.

The propaganda bill, which is similar to a 2013 Russian statute that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors, would face either a fine of up to $100 or a year in jail. Anyone found guilty of committing what Labrys, a Kyrgyz LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade earlier this year as committing “actions aimed at creating a positive attitude towards non-traditional sexual relations among minors” would face a $115 fine or up to a year in jail.

Kyrgyz lawmakers in June for the second time approved the propaganda bill. Advocates expect a final vote on the measure will take place in the wake of last month’s parliamentary elections.

U.S. Reps. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and more than 20 other members of Congress earlier this year signed a letter that urges Kyrgyz lawmakers to vote against the propaganda bill. The Kyrgyz Ministry of Justice, the European Parliament and the U.N. Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights have also spoken out against the proposal.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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