Set up to tackle sexual exploitation, especially of minors, and to monitor businesses like travel agencies and saunas that are suspected of running prostitution rings such as, the police unit in Bishkek has carried out numerous raids since it was set up last November.
Salamat Adylov, the head of the Department for Combating Human Trafficking and Crimes Against Public Morality, as the new unit is known, told IWPR that his team had instigated nine prosecutions against brothel owners, and tested more than 120 sex workers tested, of whom 65 per cent were found to have sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
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 STDs.
This enforced testing - a practice that was stopped in Kyrgyzstan in 2003 - has horrified activists, who say it is a clear violation of human rights.
Prostitution is legal in Kyrgyzstan, although associated activities like running a brothel are not. Sex workers nonetheless report widespread harassment and extortion by police.
Dmitry Kabak, head of the Open Position Foundation, told IWPR that sex workers were detained by police during the December raid. Although they were given the legal status of witnesses rather than suspects, their passports were taken, and they were photographed and then forced to undergo tests for HIV and other STDs. Only then they were given their passports back and released.
Kabak added that in cases like the December sweep, when the police invited 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
According to the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department, Kyrgyzstan is a both a source country and a transit route for trafficked women and children from neighbouring Central Asian republics.
(See Kyrgyzstan Becoming Regional "Sex Capital".)
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 organised a round table with officials from the new department, rights activists and representatives of international organisations to propose ending compulsory tests.
"The most important thing that we tried to put across [at the event] is that people shouldn't be forced to take a test," Islamova said.
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.
"If there is a police report involving someone who is infected, that's when action could be taken," she added.
Islamova is also concerned that sex workers will become more reluctant to contact her NGO, which has been working for more than ten years to win their trust and encourage voluntary anonymous testing for HIV and STDs.
Islamova said her organisation had received numerous complaints from sex workers since the launch of the new police unit.
"Why are they targeting sex workers, the most vulnerable of all?" she asked, adding that it was almost as if police harassment had been legalised.
Tais also used the round table to ask officers from the new vice squad to ensure that other police units woulod not carry out such raids under the guise of the department.
POLICE ACCUSED OF CORRUPTION
One madam who spoke to IWPR on condition of anonymity, said that she too welcomed the existence of a department to combat human trafficking. However, like Islamova, she believed the raids would be counter-productive.
According to the madam, sex workers prefer to stick together for security and work from hotel rooms.
If the raids continue, they will have little choice but to venture out alone rather than risk being intimidated by enforced medical checks. There have been instances in which sex workers have been badly beaten and even murdered when visiting clients, she added.
"It [prostitution] won't disappear, it will just go underground," the madam said.
She added that in her experience, the police had turned the new raids into a source of income by demanding money from detained sex workers before releasing them.
"I received a call that the women who work with me had been taken away, so I went to the city police department. There, I was threatened with being jailed for running a brothel," said the woman.
She said she paid a bribe of several hundred US dollars to avoid further trouble.
The police unit's chief, Adylov, denied all allegations of corruption, saying, "There's nothing like that in my department."
"We have nothing against these young women wanting to work, but they need to be healthy," Adylov said noting that as a result of the December raid, it emerged that two clients had passed STDs onto their wives.
"Why do they say we're violating citizens rights? We aren't," Adylov said.
Adylov rejected claims by activists that his department was focused more on cracking down on prostitution than on combating international trafficking.
"There are several cases under investigation that are ongoing," he said. "The problem with human trafficking is that often the crime itself is committed abroad, so it's very difficult to track criminals. But we're working on this."