International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) have prepared a new update on developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from February to March 2022 as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor.
During the reporting period, the situation in Kazakhstan continued to be affected by the fallout from the January 2022 events, when mass protests for social and political change were met with excessive force by the authorities and parts of the crowd resorted to violence. Representatives of the international community have repeatedly expressed concerns about the human rights impact of these events and called for an effective and impartial investigation into them. For example, when speaking at the Human Rights Council on 7th March 2022, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet deplored the excessive use of force, mass detentions, torture and ill-treatment in detention and other violations of Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations in relation to the January events. She further stated: ”I note the first steps towards investigation that have been taken, and urge that they be thoroughly and independently conducted, delivering accountability. I also strongly encourage further steps towards comprehensively addressing the grievances that led to these demonstrations, including allegations of corruption and deep underlying inequalities.”
In an address to the people of Kazakhstan delivered on 16th March 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also stressed the need for an ”objective assessment” of the January events, which he described as a joint attempt by ”internal and external enemies” to seize power and discredit the country’s current leadership. However, he failed to provide assurances that the events would be independently and impartially investigated, instead referring to the work of an internal government investigative task force. President Tokayev also announced a series of political reforms to move away from ”super-presidential rule” and create a ”new Kazakhstan”, acknowledging that monopolisation of power had contributed to the January events. While welcoming reforms in principle, civil society representatives feared that the announced reforms might largely amount to window dressing, unless combined with more systematic reforms to strengthen democratic governance and human rights protections.
As of late March 2022, the authorities had yet to publish the names of the more than 200 people killed during the January events, although the new General Prosecutor taking office earlier that month stated that this information would be made public. The authorities had to admit the widespread nature of allegations of torture and ill-treatment against people detained in connection with the January events, with eight deaths in custody officially confirmed and over 300 complaints filed with authorities about abusive treatment. The overall number of cases of torture and ill-treatment is, however, believed to be considerably higher as many victims are reluctant to report their experiences.
While most of the estimated 10,000 people detained during the January events received administrative penalties, over 2,000 criminal cases relating to these events had been initiated as of late March 2022, with charges ranging from theft and intentional property damage to mass riots, attempted seizure of power and acts of terrorism. Convictions had already been handed down in several dozen cases, while the other cases were pending investigation and trial. It is of serious concern that those charged with rioting and other criminal offences include activists believed to have been targeted in retaliation for their peaceful and legitimate civic engagement. Some activists, including women’s rights campaigner Karima Khaidarbekova, human rights defender Raigul Sadyrbayeva and civil society activist Kuat Shamuratov were released from custody as their detention was replaced by other measures of restraint pending trial. However, other activists remained in detention. Activists detained in connection with the January events have also reported being subjected to torture and ill-treatment and due process violations, while some activists were injured and even killed when hit by bullets as security forces opened fire against protesters.
In a high-profile case, opposition party leader Zhanbolat Mamai was placed in pre-trial detention on spurious criminal charges of ”knowingly spreading false information” and ”insulting law enforcement officers” after first having been locked up for 15 days on administrative charges of organising an unsanctioned public event to commemorate the victims of the January events. Mamai has vocally criticised the authorities, including over the January events. In another case that gave rise to concerns about the misuse of the vaguely worded criminal code provision on ”knowingly spreading false information”, a journalist-blogger devoted to disclosing fake news came under investigation on such charges after re-posting a fake video on Facebook featuring security forces calling for political change. In another case, similar charges were dropped against a journalist who had been accused of spreading ”false information” when giving an interview to an independent Russian media outlet about the January events.
There were fears that draft legislation argued to be aimed at protecting children from cyberbullying could result in arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression. Draft provisions, passed by parliament on second reading in March 2022 would require foreign social media platforms to promptly remove content deemed to amount to cyber bullying based on complaints received from citizens. In response to widespread criticism of the draft legislation, it was amended to reduce the powers of the government body in charge of receiving complaints before being finally approved by parliament in April 2022 and sent to the president for signature. However, concerns remain as to how the new requirements would be implemented in practice.
While allowing some peaceful assemblies to take place during the reporting period, the authorities refused to permit others on arbitrary grounds and detained participants and potential participants in peaceful protests held without permission. For example, while a large peaceful rally against the war in Ukraine was sanctioned in Almaty, other requests to hold protests on this issue were rejected, and activists who gathered to protest without permission were detained. In several cities, police detained activists ahead of planned peaceful rallies called for by opposition groups on 13th February 2022 to call for justice for the victims of the January 2022 events, and several people were penalised after organising a peaceful event to this end in Almaty.
Independent trade union activities continue to be restricted in Kazakhstan, with another trade union being denied registration without receiving an adequate explanation of the reasons for this decision. As workers from different companies in the oil and gas rich Mangystau region were protesting for salary increases and improved working conditions, there were new cases in which employers turned to court requesting peaceful strikes to be declared unlawful. Activists standing up for the unemployed in the city of Zhanaozen reported pressure by local authorities and Erzhan Elshibaev, who was imprisoned on charges considered politically motivated in 2019 after defending the rights of the unemployed in this city, attempted to commit suicide in prison due to harassment.