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BISHKEK (Reuters) - A draft law banning "homosexual propaganda" in Kyrgyzstan could be the last straw for the Central Asian country's frightened gay community.
Some are thinking of leaving the mainly Muslim state bordering China if the law is passed by parliament, mirroring a move last year by Russia that outraged the West and was seen by critics as part of a broader crackdown on civil society.
Backed by Muslim clerics who say homosexuals are "psychologically ill" and should be cured, the law follows what gays say is growing intimidation, police abuse and beatings.
The law would impose a one-year jail term for "forming a positive attitude to untraditional sexual relations" among minors or in the media.
However, the draft does not clarify exactly what would contravene the legislation relating to minors or what the media may not publish, leading critics to say that in its current shape the law is vague and leaves a lot of room for interpretation and abuse by authorities.
The law's backers have made clear they expect it to go much further than the protection of minors or curbs on the media, and they predict a crackdown on a wide spectrum of activities, such as gay rallies, clubs and cafes.
The law has already won initial approval in the first of three readings in parliament and will require President Almazbek Atambayev's signature to become law, which is expected to happen in due course given deep-rooted homophobia in Kyrgyzstan.
"If this draft law, which is still being debated, is finally adopted, I will be forced to leave the country, along with the others (gays)," a smartly dressed 23-year-old man told Reuters, giving his name only as Sultan for fear of retribution.
"The entire atmosphere is getting more threatening," he said, recounting how he and a small group of friends were beaten up by waiters in a bar when they realized they were gay.
Sultan spoke in a small house hidden in a maze of crooked alleyways on the edge of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, one of a handful of safe meeting places for the local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender) community.
Bishkek, a city of 1 million people, has only one gay club - with bouncers on guard for homophobic visitors.
He said gangs in Bishkek had started to "hunt" for members of the LGBT community, sometimes befriending them on social media sites, arranging a meeting and then beating their victims or threatening them before extorting money.
In August, one such group kidnapped a gay man and drove him into the countryside where they told him to dig a grave for himself before beating him up, Sultan said.
Consensual sex between men was a crime in Soviet times but Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished country of 5.5 million, adopted a new criminal code in 1998 that made it legal.
Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have also taken similar steps but the two other ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have not. Kyrgyzstan would, however, be the first of them to ban "gay propaganda" among minors.
Backers say the law will protect traditional values, similar reasoning given by Russian lawmakers whose "anti-gay" law prompted some Western leaders to boycott the Winter Olympics hosted by President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.
"We supported this bill, because it reflects the hopes and expectations of our voters willing to protect the traditional family," Kurmanbek Dykanbayev, one of the initiators of Kyrgyz bill, said. "And from now on, there will be no possibility to arrange gay clubs, gay cafes or to hold gay rallies."
The next reading could be held as early as this week.
Maksat Hajji Toktomushev, Kyrgyzstan's grand mufti, said there should be no discussion of gay issues.
"These are psychologically ill people, their psyche is destroyed," he told Reuters. "They need to be cured ... I would have banned from the very beginning any discussion of this."
"This is bad, this is decay and depravity. God does not tolerate this issue, even mere discussion of it."
The U.S. embassy in Bishkek has urged Kyrgyzstan not to adopt the law, saying it is discriminatory and will hurt civil society in the country, which is struggling to build the first parliamentary democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia.
Two presidents have been deposed by popular revolts since 2005. Atambayev, 58, won a presidential election after the second revolt toppled Kurmanbek Bakiyev as president in 2010.
Atambayev has given up some of his predecessor's wide powers and has in general shown a readiness to compromise with the opposition to preserve a fragile peace, but has not indicated whether or not he will sign the law.
Mihra Rittmann, a Central Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), called the law "discriminating, homophobic and repressive".
"If it is adopted, this could have negative consequences for the marginalized LGBT community in Kyrgyzstan," she said.
In a report based on interviews with 40 gay and bisexual men in Kyrgyzstan, HRW listed allegations of police violence which it said stemmed from "pervasive homophobia" in the country.
"Violence, blackmail and extortion by police, and a lack of accountability for these crimes, are all too common in Kyrgyzstan, but those who belong to minority groups are particularly vulnerable," it said.
Many of the men interviewed by HRW also reported ill treatment when in police detention, including being punched, kicked or beaten. Several said police had threatened to rape them with objects such as a bottle or coat hangers.
Zhorobai Abdraimov, a spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's police, said he had not seen the report but denied the facts it cited.
"There is no police repression against LGBT people," he said. "There are no registered facts of them (gays) being beaten or tortured. Where do they get these facts? They don't report to us, they concoct these reports."
Human rights groups say pressure is fierce for men in Kyrgyzstan to conform to stereotypical male appearances, marry women and have children.
Sultan's mother was shocked when he told her he was gay and she took him to see mullahs, priests, psychologists and psychiatrists. The doctors said he was not ill but his father still says Sultan has "smeared his honor" and must get "that nonsense" out of his head.
When Sultan was beaten up by waiters, friends persuaded him not to report the incident to the police or complain to the bar owner so as "not to make things worse".
Echoing rights activists' concerns about the similar Russian law, some critics say the legislation could be used to muzzle anyone who speaks openly about gay rights including journalists, civil society activists and human rights groups.
Abdraimov dismissed such concerns, saying it was important "to respect our mentality and not to fan passions".
"This is a forbidden theme and one need not get people excited," he said. "How many gays are there in Kyrgyzstan? Two or three? On this issue, we must listen to the majority."
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood