Human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan are concerned that a new police department tasked with combating human trafficking is forcing sex workers in the capital to undergo testing for sexually transmitted diseases.
Police in Bishkek have set up a new unit to tackle sexual exploitation and to monitor businesses suspected of running 'prostitution rings'. Numerous of these establishments have been raided since the unit was set up in November of last year.
The forced testing of sex workers came to light when the head of the Department for Combating Human Trafficking and Crimes Against Public Morality as the new police unit is known told a news source that the unit is pursuing nine prosecutions of brothel owners and that they forcibly tested more than 120 sex workers for STIs
During a two-day police operation on December 26-27 targeting hotels in Bishkek, which was widely covered in Kyrgyzstan’s media, 70 sex workers were detained, with 61 forced to undergo testing for HIV and other STIs.
This forced testing – a practice that was stopped in Kyrgyzstan in 2003 – has horrified activists, who say it is a clear violation of human rights. Sex work itself is decriminalised in Kyrgyzstan although activities surrounding sex work such as managing a brothel are illegal. Sex workers face widespread harassment and extortion by the police. Sex workers had their passports taken, were photographed and forcibly tested for HIV and STIs. Sex workers who were detained during the December raid had been given the status of witnesses rather than suspects and only had their passports returned to them once they submitted to forced HIV and STI testing. Furthermore, the police tend to invite the media to accompany them on raids; sex workers had no guarantees that their faces would not be shown publicly, a clear violation of their right to privacy.
NEW TACTIC RISKS ALIENATING SEX WORKERS
Kyrgyzstan has been identified as a both a source country and a transit route for trafficked women and children from neighbouring Central Asian republics in the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department.
Shahnaz Islamova is the director of the Tais Plus NGO, which works with some 7,500 sex workers across Kyrgyzstan, a third of them in Bishkek. She says her organisation is not against the creation of the new police department or its efforts to combat sex trafficking. However, she opposes forced medical testing, which she fears will drive the sex trade underground. Disease prevention should be tackled through education instead, she says.
On January 24, Tais Plus organised a round table with officials from the new department, rights activists and representatives of international organisations to propose ending compulsory tests. Islamova said it was wrong to justify subjecting sex workers to such an ordeal by arguing that police needed to catch those avoiding treatment – which was not a crime. In Kyrgyzstan, only knowingly infecting someone with an HIV virus is an offence. There are also concerns that forced testing will make sex workers more reluctant to contact NGOs who work in the field of HIV and STIs who offer anonymous testing and counselling.
Tais Plus also used the round table to ask officers from the new vice squad to ensure that other police units would not carry out such raids under the guise of the department.