Justice advocates and government critics continue to feel the heat in Kazakhstan

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Following a spate of attacks, harassment and prosecutions Kazakhstan’s embattled civil society continues to be targetted for exercising fundamental rights. A recent court ruling requiring a human rights NGO to pay corporate income tax on foreign grants has set a worrying precedent for the operation of independent civic groups in Kazakhstan. As authorities adopt an increasingly repressive approach toward public gatherings, such as a feminist walk planned to be held last month, the already repressed right to peacefully assembly is increasingly under attack. Most worryingly, the vicious attack on a journalist rights’ advocate on his way to meet with foreign diplomats has highlighted the dangers faced by civic actors campaigning against injustice.

This update has been prepared for the Civicus Monitor by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) on the basis of monitoring carried out by KIBHR.

Association

On 6th April 2017, an Almaty court rejected a lawsuit filed by the NGO International Legal Initiative (ILI) against tax authorities. ILI contested  a the lawfulness of a tax inspection to which it was subjected last year, and attempted to repeal a decision ordering it to pay over 3,500 EUR in taxes and fines for allegedly failing to pay corporate income tax for funding received from foreign donors. According to Kazakhstan’s Tax Code (article 134), grants received by non-commercial organisations are tax exempt. When appearing in court, a representative of the tax authorities sought to justify the measures taken against the ILI by arguing that the NGO had received funds from “suspicious” donors such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House and the embassies of individual states. The representative noted that these donors also had funded programs in Ukraine and carried out activities such as human rights education and awareness-raising in Kazakhstan. These arguments, while irrelevant to the case, were employed to smear the organisation’s reputation. More information can be found in KIBHR’s report on the trial.

Two other NGOs were also subjected to tax inspections last autumn. Similarly to the ILI, Liberty was ordered to pay several thousand EUR in back taxes and fines. Dignity is still waiting for the outcome of the inspection against it. The tax inspections were carried out following the publication of an article on the nur.kz site that accused the three targeted organisations, as well as other foreign-funded human rights NGOs of threatening national stability.

Peaceful Assembly

The right to freedom of peaceful assembly continues to be systematically violated in Kazakhstan. As the following recent examples show, authorities interpret the term “assembly” in an overly broad manner and insist that organisers of informal gatherings need advance permission. Here is a recent example:

  • A movement called KazFem planned to organise an event called Women’s Historical Night, an initiative originating from Norway, in Almaty on 6-7th May 2017 to draw attention to the contribution of women to culture, science and other areas. A post published on the movement’s Facebook page invited “all who are interested” to participate in an educative walk along the streets of Almaty devoted to this topic. However, the day before the event, organisers were summoned by police and told that they should have informed local authorities in advance about the event since it may “may develop into a rally”. Afterwards one of the initiators wrote on Facebook: ”Now we know that to it’s only allowed to publish posts inviting women to participate in a street walk (!) after obtaining special permission (!!!) from the akimat [local government] two weeks before the event.”
  • On 30 March 2017, about a dozen people gathered outside Almaty City Court to draw attention to the fate of people who have been evicted after failing to make mortgage repayments. In a small protest, activists placed portraits of individuals who they said had died as a result of such evictions on the pavement, while conducting prayers and handing out bread to passers-by. Almost three weeks later, on 19th April 2017, two activists who participated in this event, Sagida Sultaniyazova and Arzygul Tillyabayeva were detained by police and brought to court. Following trials that lasted less than five minutes, Sagida Sultaniyazova was fined an equivalent of about 300 EUR and Arzygul Tillyabayeva given a warning for allegedly holding an assembly without prior permission from local authorities. In the case of Sultaniyazova, the trial took place in the absence not only of a lawyer, but also the prosecutor. Considering the questions surrounding the integrity of the judicial process, the two activists have stated that they do not intend to appeal these decisions.

Expression

In an alarming development, a journalist rights’ advocate was recently attacked on his way to meet with foreign diplomats. Early on 14th May 2017, Ramazan Yesergepov was assaulted and repeatedly stabbed in the abdomen by two unknown perpetrators on the overnight train from Almaty to Astana. When the train reached the closest station, in the city of Shu in the Jambyl region, he was hospitalised in a serious condition and underwent surgery. The attack took place when Yesergepov was on his way to meet with EU member state ambassadors to discuss the case of journalist Zhanbolat Mamay, who is currently in detention (see more below), as well as his own case. This is not the first time Yesergepov has been targetted, in 2009-2012, he was imprisoned on spurious charges of disclosing state secrets because of a publication in the independent weekly Alma-Ata Info, of which he was the chief editor. Since his release, he has been fighting for justice. In a decision issued last year, the UN Human Rights Committee concluded that his right to a fair trial had been violated during the proceedings against him. He subsequently turned to local courts, seeking implementation of this decision and most recently filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. Yesergepov has also campaigned for the rights of other journalists and civil society activists in his capacity as chair of the board of the NGO Journalists in Danger, head of the Zhanaozen 2011 Committee, and founding member of the recently established Committee for the Protection of Zhanbolat Mamay.

Echoing the calls made by KIBHR and other national human rights groups, IPHR expressed serious concerns that the brutal assault on Yesergepov was politically motivated and called on authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the attack. In a statement, IPHR said: “…it is particularly important that the EU and other international actors call on the Kazakhstani authorities to ensure that the attack on Ramazan Yesergepov is properly investigated with due consideration of the possibility that he was targeted because of his civic engagement and rights advocacy.”

On 25th May 2017, the EU delegation and the EU member state embassies in Kazakhstan jointly responded to the assault on the journalist, saying:

“The EU strongly condemns the reported brutal attack” [and that they] “expect the authorities to swiftly and thoroughly investigate the case including the real motives behind the attack, and to bring all those responsible to justice.”

While authorities have opened an investigation into the attack, at the time of writing, no suspects are known to have been identified. There are also concerns that investigators have sought to insist that the attack was the result of a supposed altercation between Yesergepov and co-passengers, which he has denied. On 16 May, Yesergepov was transferred to Almaty for further treatment.

Criminal cases against critical voices

As KIBHR and IPHR have already reported, Kazakhstan’s authorities have initiated a growing number of criminal cases against journalists, human rights defenders, civil society and trade union activists, social media users and other critical voices. Currently over a dozen individuals are in prison after being convicted on charges relating to their exercise of freedom of expression and other fundamental rights, while other individuals prosecuted on such grounds are at the risk of imprisonment.

Convictions of trade union activists

In the following cases, two trade union leaders were convicted after standing up for the rights of workers:

  • On 7th April 2017, an Astana district court sentenced Nurbek Kushakbayev, labour inspector of the trade union at the Oil Construction Company (OCC) in the Mangystau region to 2.5 years in prison on charges of calling for an unlawful strike. These charges were brought against him under a new Criminal Code provision that was applied for the first time. The court also banned him from engaging in trade union and other civic activities for two years upon his release and ruled in favour of a request filed by the OCC for compensation of alleged damages suffered by the company at a total of 25 million Tenge (some 70 000 EUR). The sentence against Kushakbayev was decried by both national and international civil society representatives as retaliation for his defence of workers’ rights. His lawyers said that they would appeal the verdict. As previously featured, Nurbek Kushakbayev was arrested in connection with a worker hunger strike launched to protest against the decision to close down the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (CITUK) in January this year.
  • Amin Yeleusinov, head of the trade union at the OCC was arrested together with Nurbek Kushakbayev following the worker hunger strike at this company in January 2017. He was charged with embezzlement of trade union funds, as well as insulting, disobeying and using violence against police in connection with his arrest. In the course of the trial, it was announced that Yeleusinov had reached a settlement with the prosecution, according to which he admitted his guilt in exchange for a less harsh sentence. His lawyer stressed that this did not mean that they agreed with the charges. Hundreds of trade union members, whose fees Yeleusinov allegedly embezzled, submitted written petitions in his support. On 16th May 2017, the same court that handed down the sentence against Kushakbayev, announced the verdict in this case: Yeleusinov was sentenced to two years in prison. In addition, the court prohibited him from engaging in trade union or other civic activities for five years upon his release and ordered him to pay 8.2 million Tenge (over 20 000 EUR) in compensation to the OCC’s trade union. This verdict was also criticised by international human rights groups.

As previously reported in the CIVICUS Monitor, a third trade union leader, CITUK President Larisa Kharkova is also facing charges on embezzlement believed to have been initiated in retaliation for her trade union activities.

Cases against journalists

In this case, charges of economic crimes have been brought against the chief editor of one of the few, remaining independent newspapers in Kazakhstan:

  • Journalist Zhanbolat Mamay remains in pre-trial detention, with a local court having extended his arrest until 10 July 2017. As previously featured, Mamay was arrested in February this year on charges of money laundering and has been accused of being an “accomplice” of former BTA Bank Head Mukhtar Ablyazov, a government opponent living in exile against whom a trial held in absentia began in April 2017. Mamay has said the charges against him are groundless and aimed at penalising him for his journalist activities as chief editor of the independent Tribuna-Sajasi kalam newspaper. Media watchdogs and human rights groups have called for his release, and a committee in his support has been established by well-known human rights defenders, journalists and public figures in Kazakhstan. At an early stage of his pre-trial detention, he reported being subjected to ill-treatment by fellow detainees. Requests by the defence that Mamay be released pending trial have been rejected by court.

  • In response to an inquiry by the Today.kz news site, the Ministry of Interior confirmed that the amnesty law adopted in connection with the 25 years’ anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence applies to Seytkazy Matayev, imprisoned chair of the Union of Journalists and head of the National Press Club. Seytkazy Matayev was sentenced to six years in prison on dubious charges of tax evasion and fraud in October 2016. Given that he is over 60 years old, his sentence will be reduced to two years and eight months under the amnesty law. His son, KazTAG News Agency Director Asset Matayev is serving a five-year prison sentence on similar charges.

Misuse of criminal code provision on “inciting discord”

In a well-documented trend captured in the CIVICUS Monitor, broadly worded charges on inciting national, social, religious or other discord are regularly used against individuals who are inconvenient to the authorities. International human rights bodies and national and international human rights defenders have repeatedly criticised the relevant provision of the Criminal Code (article 174).

This case remains one of the most high profile “incitement” cases:

  • On 14 April 2017, the Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal filed by civil society activists Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan against the court ruling issued in their case in November 2016. They had requested that this ruling, as well as the decision of a lower level court to uphold it on appeal be repealed. As previously covered, the two activists were found guilty of “inciting social discord”, “disseminating information known to be false” and “violating the procedure for holding assemblies” and sentenced to five years in prison each. They were charged in relation to their role in peaceful land reform protests that took place in Kazakhstan in spring 2016. The sentences against Bokayev and Ayan have been widely condemned, with both civil society and representatives of the international community calling for their release.

These recent convictions of two religious believers are also of serious concern:

  • On 2nd May 2017, a local court in Astana convicted Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov on charges of “inciting religious discord” and sentenced him to five years in prison. The charges were brought against him because of his discussions on religious issues with a group of young people. During these discussions, which took place in private apartments, he made statements about other faiths that the prosecution claimed were offensive. The young people in question pretended to be students but appeared to have been engaged by security services to initiate the discussions, pose provocative questions and record the conversations. According to Forum 18, Akhmedov was allegedly subjected to beatings in pre-trial detention and denied access to treatment for gastro-intestinal tumours with which he has been diagnosed. Akhmedov’s fellow believer Asaf Guliyev, who was arrested together with him in January this year, was previously convicted on the same charges and sentenced to five years’ restricted freedom. During this period, he will be subjected to court-imposed restrictions on his freedom of movement and activities.

This NGO leader has been accused of “inciting national discord”:

  • In mid-April 2017, Olesya Khalabuzar, head of the Almaty-based Association of Young Professionals, was summoned by police and informed that she is under investigation for “inciting national discord”. The charges against her are related to documents supposedly containing agitation against potential Chinese land investors in Kazakhstan, which police claimed were confiscated during searches of her apartment, as well as the office of her organisation in March this year. Those searches were carried out as part of the investigation into another criminal case initiated against Khalabuzar on charges of creating or leading a public association whose activities are detrimental to the health of citizens. Olesya Khalabuzar has campaigned against the adoption of legislation that critics fear would allow foreigners to purchase land in the country and was briefly detained for discussing plans on social messaging platform WhatsApp to organise an event in February 2017. In a video posted on social media, members of her organisation threatened to engage in self-immolation to protest the lack of access to justice. Khalabuzar has been ordered not to leave Almaty pending the investigations against her. In mid-May 2017 it was announced that she had been forced to step down from her position as head of the Association of Young Professionals as a result of the criminal cases brought against her.  Shortly after this, she posted on the social media platform, Facebook that she was “renouncing public activism”, describing her previous engagement as “mistaken” and saying that she regretted using “counterproductive” methods. Other activists believed that she was coerced into making this statement.

Criminal defamation case

Defamation remains criminalized in Kazakhstan and such charges have repeatedly been used against outspoken individuals.

  • Civil society and social media activist Berik Zhagiparov risks a conviction on defamation charges because of Facebook posts. The head of staff of the KAZ Minerals (previously Kazakhmys) company in the town of Zhezkazgan where Zhagiparov lives has objected to allegations posted by the latter regarding corrupt schemes relating to recruitment, promotion, and compensation policies at the company, arguing that these posts were damaging to his honour and reputation. Berik Zhagiparov believes he is being targetted because of his and his efforts to draw attention to violations at the mining company, as well as to establish an independent trade union. If found guilty of defamation, Zhagiparov could face imprisonment. The trial began in early May 2017.