Human Rights Watch says top regional researcher barred from Kyrgyzstan

BISHKEK (REUTERS) - Kyrgyzstan has barred the head of Human Rights Watch's office in Bishkek from entering the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday (Dec 4), after the group called for the release of a Kyrgyz dissident jailed for life and criticised what it saw as repressive legislation.

The mainly Muslim, Central Asian republic of six million people voted in October to keep a pro-Russian party coalition in power, which is likely to draw Kyrgyzstan further back into the orbit of its former Soviet master.

The New York-based group said Mihra Rittmann, its Central Asia researcher and Bishkek office director, had been declared "persona non grata" by Kyrgyz authorities and refused entry on Wednesday (Dec 2). HRW described the step as "unprecedented, unexpected, and a deeply disturbing sign".

A Kyrgyz foreign ministry spokesman said Rittman, a US citizen, had violated immigration laws, but gave no details.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev accused the United States in July of seeking to "create chaos" in his country by granting an award to dissident Azimjon Askarov, jailed for life on charges of inciting ethnic hatred. Kyrgyzstan terminated a cooperation accord with Washington in response.

US Secretary of State John Kerry sought a rapprochement with ex-Soviet Central Asian leaders when he toured the region in October and November, but achieved no apparent progress.

Ahead of Kerry's visit. HRW urged him to press Bishkek to release Askarov and reject draft bills that describe foreign-funded organisations as "foreign agents" and ban"homosexual propaganda". HRW has also criticised the Kyrgyz government for not doing enough to address issues such as domestic violence.

The bills in question remain at draft stage.