A new report issued by three Central Asian and one European NGO provides an overview of human rights developments in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in October 2014 – January 2015. The report is based on monitoring conducted by Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Nota Bene (Tajikistan) and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (based in exile in Austria), while International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium) has assisted with compiling and editing it, as part of a joint project implemented by the four organizations. The report addresses, in particular, issues related to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, as well as equality before the law, non-discrimination and access to justice.
Summary of major developments covered by the report:
The human rights situation in Kazakhstan was the subject of several international reviews. The second UN Universal Periodic Review of the country was held in October 2014, and the following month the UN Committee against Torture examined its compliance with the corresponding convention. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association visited Kazakhstan in mid-January 2015.
The EU also held another human rights dialogue with Kazakhstan in November 2014, shortly after concluding negotiations on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that is intended to deepen mutual ties but still has to be ratified.
In what appeared to be a response to the enhanced international attention to Kazakhstan’s human rights record, its authorities took some steps such as releasing strike movement leader Roza Tuletaeva from prison and lawyer Zinaida Mukhortova from forced psychiatric care. However, other individuals remained imprisoned on politically motivated grounds and harassment of opposition groups and media continued, even though the president publicly denied the existence of censorship or political persecution in the country.
The forced closure of the Adam bol journal was another blow to media freedom and the latest in a series of such closures in the last two years. Blocking of websites continued, and the Havas Wordwide advertising agency was ordered to pay massive damages in a defamation case initiated over an LGBT-themed poster.
In December 2014, the activities of the opposition Communist Party were suspended by court for three months over the alleged failure to meet membership requirements and the party now risks closure. There were concerns that a draft law on public grant-making may result in increasing control also over non-state funding of NGOs.
Appeals by imprisoned opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov and poet and dissident Aron Atabek relating to their treatment in prison were rejected by court, and the unfair and disproportionate prison sentence against lawyer Yevgeniy Tankov was upheld on appeal.
As the Kazakhstani authorities continued to seek the extradition of exiled opposition figures, a French court ruled in favour of extraditing Mukhtar Ablyazov to Russia where he is also wanted, while his former associate Muratbek Ketebaev has been ordered not to leave Spain pending a court hearing to consider his extradition to Kazakhstan. There are serious concerns that these individuals may face unfair trials and torture if extradited.
Unable to obtain justice in Kazakhstan, a growing number of victims of human rights violations have submitted petitions to UN human rights mechanisms. During this period, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a precedent-setting decision on a complaint concerning restrictions on peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan. In another case welcomed as progress on ensuring access to justice, a local court granted compensation to a torture victim in accordance with a decision by the UN Committee against Torture.
The date for the upcoming parliamentary elections was set to 1 March 2015. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights concluded that while amendments to the elections law adopted in 2014 were in line with some of its recommendations, other recommendations remain unaddressed. Major concerns include restrictive candidacy requirements and a restrictive campaigning environment.
The many Tajikistani labour migrants who live in Russia will have limited opportunities to vote in the elections due to new provisions on where polling stations can be opened abroad.
The practice of arbitrary blocking of websites continued. Many of the websites that were affected by the mass blocking of websites in early October 2014 remained inaccessible for weeks. New restrictions on access to social media sites were reported shortly before New Year. A temporary printing ban imposed on the weekly Nigoh, which covers socio-political issues in a critical manner, also gave rise to concerns about censorship.
New draft legislation on NGOs prepared by the Ministry of Justice was widely criticized by civil society as an attempt to restrict access to funding of NGOs. The proposed amendments require NGOs to register foreign grants with the government. Civil society also objected to the lack of transparency surrounding the draft law, which currently remain under consideration by the government. In response to this criticism, civil society was invited to a discussion on the draft law in December 2014.
A new law on assemblies, which was signed by the president in December 2014, contains provisions that are problematic in light of international standards. It requires the organizers of assemblies to obtain permission in advance and contains other provisions that unduly restrict the right to hold peaceful assemblies. The announced plans to carry out an opposition rally in Dushanbe in October 2014 were met with unprecedented security measures by the authorities, and the group who called for holding the rally was declared extremist.
Well-known lawyer Shukhrat Kudratov was sentenced to nine years in prison on bribery and fraud charges in early 2015. The charges against him are believed to have been motivated by his work on politically sensitive cases, such as that of businessman Zaid Saidov, as well as his involvement in an opposition party. Another of Saidov’s lawyers, Fahriddin Zokirov was released after spending months in custody on similar charges.
A new draft law on lawyers is under consideration by the parliament. There are concerns that this law may undermine the independence of the legal profession, in particular by introducing a new qualification procedure for lawyers. Recommendations made by civil society on this issue have not been reflected in the draft law.
During this period, the authorities continued to closely control media, and top media officials who did not please the president were reprimanded and replaced. The authorities also continued to cover up information on “sensitive” issues that risk putting those in power in a bad light, such as information on an accident involving a presidential motorcade vehicle in which a number of children were killed. Recently, however, the government admitted that this accident has taken place.
A new internet law adopted at the end of 2014 sets out that the government will take measures to promote internet access. However, at the same time, it introduces new restrictions on accessing online content, e.g. in the name of preventing “slander” and protecting “family values.” It also states that internet-regulating bodies may cooperate with public associations “whose activities are aimed at detecting illegal information in the internet.” The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media expressed concern about vaguely defined restrictions contained in the new law.
Journalists working with foreign media remained in a highly vulnerable position, as illustrated by the case of a correspondent of the Turkmen service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who was detained and questioned when taking photos in the food market. Another journalist who had cooperated with foreign media was killed under unclear circumstances.
While public protests remain a rare occurrence in Turkmenistan, TIHR reported about several cases of spontaneous protests during this period when citizens expressed discontent on concrete issues affecting their everyday lives, such as gas shortages.
Turkmenistan was again ranked by Transparency International as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, and there were new reports of arbitrary and corrupt actions by authorities. These included, among others, new initiatives to dismantle private satellite dishes and air conditioners that are argued to spoil the appearance of buildings, the imprisonment on prostitution charges of women who have entered into unofficial polygamous marriages, and abusive and unlawful measures by law enforcement officials seeking personal gain.
A number of individuals convicted for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief were released under one of the two presidential amnesties that were executed during this period. No other individuals held on political grounds are known to have benefited from them, such as individuals convicted in show trials after the alleged assassination attempt on late President Saparmurad Niyazov in 2002.
At its session in Geneva in mid-January 2015, the UN Child Rights Committee reviewed the protection of the rights of children in Turkmenistan.