When I worked at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek in 2007, two of our Uzbek students were called in for questioning as witnesses by the police in case that involved their neighbors. At the police station both of them were severely mistreated with all sorts of things, including Tasers, instead of being asked questions. At that time, Tasers were among the devices that the USA or Germany, but also the OSCE, liked to deliver to the Kyrgyz police in order to “enhance their nonlethal crowd-control” capacities.
This incident gave our Uzbek students so much to think about that they steadfastly refused to submit any sort of complaint, fearing that the next time it would be worse. “At least in Uzbekistan you know the reason when the militsia does this kind of thing to you,” they used to say.
That same spring, the cousin of a Kyrgyz acquaintance of mine was beaten to death in a police station that had been modernized and equipped through the OSCE Police Assistance Project (PAP). A year later, an open letter from Kyrgyz civil society representatives complaining about this and other incidents related to the PAP was suppressed by the OSCE Ambassador in Kyrgyzstan, and never reached the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna via the official channels.
These two incidents give you an idea of why the police sector in Kyrgyzstan—and in other Central Asian countries—is in serious need of reform, and the kind of problems that arrive with police reform projects that Western countries sponsor in this part of the world.
The characteristic problems of police and other internal security forces are similar in all of Central Asia despite differences in the local political contexts. They are politicized and used routinely by autocratic regimes to suppress dissent, and harass opposition and human rights activists. They are prone to conducting massive human rights violations. They are used by local strongmen for their own purposes, from intimidating opponents to being involved in the drug trade. They are deeply corrupt, basically rent-seeking enterprises with a firm place in the informal system of patronage that runs parallel to official institutions of the region. They lack capacity—experienced, professional staff, training, equipment, a command structure—that would make them more useful for what we in the West think of as traditional police roles.
These problems have not gone unnoticed by Western donors, and, in light of renewed interest in the region following the 9/11 attacks, the OSCE and UNODC took the lead in suggesting reform. Now, almost 10 years later, a new report by David Lewis for the Open Society Central Eurasia Project takes stock of what came out of this OSCE project.
The report points out that expecting technical projects to deliver good governance, or hoping that engagement with reformers within security agencies or governments will help them to push genuine liberalization, is not only naïve, but also tends to produce a lot of harm.
For example, Lewis reports that despite criticism, the OSCE project coordinator in Uzbekistan launched a canine training program to fight organized crime and terrorism, with virtually no oversight. Uzbek police are known to plant drugs on political opponents and other suspects, and then use sniffer dogs to detect the drugs. In at least one case an opposition journalist was arrested in Uzbekistan via this method, but misuse of these dogs is no doubt widespread.
Modernizing repressive law enforcement agencies, adding a notion of legitimacy to undemocratic regimes, and providing a human rights fig leaf for engagement with autocratic patronage systems basically amounts to promoting autocracy, even if it is by accident.
In the spring of 2011, when protesters pick up teargas canisters “made in USA” on Tahrir Square, or point out that the West is quiet when hospitals are raided by police in Bahrain and attribute this to the presence of the 5th U.S. Fleet, policymakers in Europe and the United States may want to think about the lessons in Central Asia.
As the OSCE develops new ways to combat “transnational security threats,” police training programs must contain meaningful human rights and good governance components, not just technical innovation. They must be requested by host countries' government and civil society as a full package, independently monitored, and provided with public oversight.