In Kyrgyzstan, Where Kidnapping Brides Is An Accepted Tradition

Forced marriages in this central Asian country are not simply about arrangements between families, but also strangers abducting women to be their wives.

A wedding dress in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek
A wedding dress in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek
Frank Nienhuysen

BISHKEK - "Kidnapping the bride" is something of a German tradition – as when some of the groom’s friends lure her to the nearest pub and wait until he shows up to pay for the drinks.

But where Dinara Isakova is from, the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, kidnapping brides is nothing to joke about.

Isakova (not her real name) was whisked away on her mother’s birthday by a male colleague she barely knew. He was at a concert she attended and afterwards offered to drive her home. "I thought why not, I was in a hurry, we were going to celebrate my mother’s birthday.” The school teacher never made it back to the family home.

A male friend of the colleague’s was also in the car, and shortly after leaving the concert venue they stopped at a street corner to let another male friend in – that meant there were three men and Isakova in the car. They drove out of the city of Osh in the south of the country, and after three hours reached his parents’ house.

"I kept trying to talk him out of it, to explain that what he was doing was wrong.” Inwardly, she says, she kept vacillating between the desperate hope that her parents would somehow come to her rescue, and the idea that this was her destiny.

"At the time I didn’t have the feeling much less the knowledge that I had any rights,” she says. "I only knew that once he got me inside the house there was no going back.”

Isakova tried to resist but it didn’t work. She wrote her parents a letter saying she was fine, telling them where she was and asking her to come get her – but that last part of the letter was cut away by her captors. A week later, she was married.

That was 10 years ago, and she has divorced since. But there are thousands of cases like Isakova’s in Kyrgyzstan where kidnapping brides is still a very widespread practice. In fact, some 15,000 women are kidnapped and forced into marriage every year. In many regions, the practice is either justified as tradition or just simply accepted.

Source: Wikimedia

Laws are often not enough

In Bishkek, the country’s capital, however, the spirit of democracy and a desire to adapt to Western practices prevail. So Parliament has hammered through a new law to fight the practice: for any victim of 17 years of age or over, the kidnapper now faces a prison sentence of up to seven years, 10 if the victim is younger than 17.

Until now, kidnappers usually avoided any kind of possible legal trouble by keeping a low profile – because although “bridenapping” is a tradition, even under the old law it was illegal. However after the fall of the Soviet Union the practice took on such huge proportions that it exceeded law enforcers’ ability to keep up with it.

"It was time for a new law," says Bubusara Ryskulova, who heads the Sesim crisis psychology center in Bishkek. "Democratization of both the government and society have helped get us this far, and now we need to make sure the law’s enforced."

She says raising awareness of the new law by talking about it in schools, families, in street campaigns, is essential: women have to know they can bring charges, and men that they are committing an act that could land them in prison.

Some 15,000 women are kidnapped and forced into marriage every year (Irene2005)

However: "mostly in kidnapping cases it’s not just the future husband who’s involved but a whole group of people with him," says Ryskulova. So – particularly in cases where the bride’s family agrees to go along with the practice – having the courage to file charges with the police could still pose a problem, she admits.

What’s more, many consider that the honor of a family has been tainted if the bride leaves her new unwanted family and her unloved husband so the result can be violence, particularly in rural areas. Since the beginning of 2012, seven women have come to Ryskulova’s center for help, and that’s only a tiny percentage of cases.

For Dinara Isakova, the ordeal was short-lived: she and her husband got divorced a month after their marriage. "I rebelled, behaved badly in various ways also in public, we did nothing but fight," she says. And so the man she never wanted got tired of the marriage pretty quickly. She now lives in Bishkek, but when she goes back to provincial Osh, she says, people talk. They don’t think getting a divorce was right. Isakova says by now she’s used to it, or at least tries not to let it get to her.

When she divorced she was aware she’d have to deal with this problem, and “if they talk about me today, tomorrow it’ll be somebody else,” she says philosophically.

What does she think of the new law? “It’s important,” she says. “Women aren’t objects that you can simply appropriate.”

In the capital, the message has hit home. It certainly took a while, in fact the first parliamentary initiative to tighten the law failed. But as time went on media and political debates have been increasingly open. "The number of people who grasp the problem here has grown,” says Ryskulova at the Bishkek crisis center for women. Now that grasp has to start gain foothold in the rest of the country.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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