At World's Crossroads, Backlash
Police raids on gay organizations in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and in Turkey have underscored the fragile position of LGBT peoples in those two countries.
On April 8 in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishek, police forced their way into the premises of the LGBT group Labrys, which was in the midst of hosting a dinner for 30 domestic and international advocates. Members of the Kyrgyz Anti-AIDS Association and other local groups were joined by international partners from organizations including COC, the Dutch LGBT association that is the world's oldest gay group, and Gender Doc-M, an LGBT group in Moldova.
Police threatened to arrest anyone who did not produce identification papers, and proceeded to search the private files of Labrys. Founded in 2004, Labrys opened its social center and library just two months ago as a safe meeting place for LGBT Kyrgyzstanis as well as a shelter for transgenders and women who have been victims of violence.
Kyrgyz law does not require citizens to carry passports or identity cards, and according to the report on the raid on Labrys' English-language website, "This was a problem for nearly half of the guests, who had not expected that they would be asked to show their passports and questioned on their registration details. It is not exactly a common thing for ordinary citizens to be always carrying their passports wherever they go unless there is a specific governmental decree demanding to do so."
According to Labrys, the police, who had no warrant, made "allegations... that the Community Center was a cruising den or some other suspicious place."
The Labrys account went on to relate that police reinforcements soon arrived, but after phone calls appealing for help so did lawyers for the organization and human rights activists. A deal was negotiated with a senior police commander, in which no arrests were made and Labrys promised to provide documentation about its work to authorities.
Labrys has been a legally registered non-governmental organization since February 2006.
In a previous raid on its office on June 4, 2006, Labrys said that "the officers had trashed the door, demanding to be let in and threatening that everyone would be raped or otherwise violated if they were not. Thankfully, this time there were no such excesses with the exception of an allegation of the Community Center being an illegal cruising place."
"However," said Labrys, the absence of such threats this time "may have been the case because of the presence of our foreign partners and highly qualified and professional allies from national partner organizations."
Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked, mountainous nation of some five and a half million people which borders China and was originally settled by nomads, has a population that is 75 percent Sunni Muslim, although their religious practice, in an impoverished, largely agricultural country, is heavily influenced by indigenous shamanism and Sufi mysticism.
The nation has been ruled since 2005 by increasingly authoritarian President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose highly corrupt regime has been accused of betraying the so-called "Revolution of the Tulips" against the dictatorship of President Askar Askayev, who fell on March 13 of that year when 15,000 people rallied at the presidential offices, invading and occupying them.
Meanwhile, on April 7, police in the largest Turkish city, Istanbul, raided the premises of LGBT organization Lambda Istanbul's Cultural Center, seizing the group's membership list and other documents. The warrant for the raid cited suspicions that Lambda "facilitates prostitution, acts as a go-between [and] provides a place for [prostitution]."
Lambda Istanbul, founded in 1993, is Turkey's oldest LGBT organization, and has organized small Gay Pride marches every year since 2003.
The organization has been under attack from Istanbul's governor, Muammer Güler, since 2007, when his office brought a legal action to close the organization, claiming that Lambda violates both the Penal Code, as an association in violation of "law and morals," and Article 41 of the Turkish Constitution, which is concerned with "the peace and welfare of the family."
Güler was appointed in 2003 by the country's ruling party, the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development), which has governed the nation since 2001.
The case against Lambda Istanbul is still pending after four court hearings, and a lawyer for the group was told by prosecutors that it has been under renewed surveillance since March of this year.
Although Turkey has a strong secular tradition dating from the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- who led the revolution that abolished the Caliphate and established the republic, of which he was president from 1923 to 1938 -- the AKP's rise to power has created ever-increasing concerns about erosion of the country's secular traditions. These concerns, sparked by measures like abolition of a ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities and the prohibition of alcohol in restaurants in AKP-run municipalities, have mobilized hundreds of thousands of secular Turks in street demonstrations across the country in the last year and a half.
In a press release, Human Rights Watch denounced the raid on Lambda Istanbul this month as "the latest incident in an escalating pattern of harassment of gay rights groups."
In December 2006, the editor of Kaos GL, Turkey's only magazine for LGBT people, 29-year-old gay activist Umut Güner, was indicted under a vague statute banning "obscene" material, and faced up to three years in prison. Authorities seized the magazine's entire press run (see this reporter's August 10-16, 2006 article, "Crackdown on Turkey's Gays," and December 13-19, 2006 article, "Turkish Gay Editor Faces Prison," the urls for which appear in the online version of this article.) Güner was acquitted last year.
The year before, Ankara's deputy governor, Selahattin Ekmenoglu, also an appointee of the Islamist AKP, attempted to close down the LGBT association, also named Kaos GL, that publishes the magazine. The legal maneuver was ultimately nixed in the justice system, where Turkey's secular tradition remains hearty.
See the English-language website of Kyrgystan's LGBT group Lambrys, and Lambda Istanbul's English-language website page. An extensive LGBT history of Turkey in English is on Kaos GL's website. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.