This is an update on developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from February to March 2022. It has been prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) 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.
Excited to share a @ForeignPolicy piece where @Jon_Meyer7 and I assess Tokayev’s recent reforms. The “New Kazakhstan” will likely struggle with old barriers to democratization, local autonomy, & executive accountability. More genuine steps are in order.https://t.co/rKHV5prBTk
— Akbota Karibayeva (@akbotabox) April 4, 2022
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.
Concerns about response to January 2022 protests
As covered in our special update on the January 2022 events, during the security operations implemented in connection with these events, over 4,000 people were injured and over 200 killed. According to recent information provided by the General Prosecutor’s Office in mid-March 2022, a total of 230 people, including 19 representatives of the security and armed forces, were killed during the January events. Earlier in March 2022, when taking office, the new General Prosecutor, Berik Asylov, promised that the names of those killed during the January events would be made public. However, as of late March 2022, the names had yet to be published. The authorities’ lack of transparency on this issue is particularly troubling given reports about the excessive use of force, including lethal force, against protesters by security forces during the events. As covered in our special update, those killed also include peaceful residents (including several children) who did not take part in the protests but who were shot when they were moving around outside their homes during the days of security operations.
Moreover, law enforcement authorities detained around 10,000 people, including people who had only peacefully protested in connection with the January events. There were widespread allegations of due process violations and torture and ill-treatment of detainees, with eight detainees having died in custody, according to official information. President Tokayev called the reported cases of torture ‘’barbaric manifestations of the Middle Ages’’, saying that such practices were ‘’unacceptable’’ and that he had ordered all allegations of abuse to be ‘’thoroughly investigated’’. According to information from the General Prosecutor, as of mid-March 2022, the authorities had received over 300 complaints about torture and other “unlawful methods of investigation” in relation to the January 2022 events, with 243 criminal cases having been opened into such allegations and nine law enforcement officials having been arrested as a result of these investigations. However, as highlighted in an overview published by IPHR and the Kazakhstani NGO Coalition against Torture, the real number of cases of abuse is believed to be much higher as many victims have refrained from filing or following through on complaints due to fears of reprisals and the lack of confidence in obtaining justice. The Coalition against Torture is also concerned about the failure of the authorities to carry out thorough, impartial and effective investigations, consistent with international standards, in cases of alleged torture that the network and its lawyers are working on. It is of further concern that the suspected perpetrators have often been allowed to continue their work during investigations and that victims lodging complaints while in detention have not been adequately protected.
#Kazakhstan: Kazakhstani Coalition against Torture and IPHR are concerned that investigations into allegations of torture/ill-treatment of those targeted & detained in connection with the mass protests in January 2022 have not been conducted effectively https://t.co/wYZzwQC23t
— IPHR (@IPHR) March 30, 2022
Many of those detained during the January events were penalised for administrative offences, such as participating in unsanctioned protests. According to information provided by the General Prosecutor’s Office, 8,354 administrative cases relating to the January events had been considered by court as of mid-January 2022,, with 3,337 people having been given warnings, 1,653 people fined and 1,002 people sentenced to short-term detention on such charges. Some of these sentences were changed on appeal. Other people detained in connection with the January events were charged with various criminal offences, ranging from theft and intentional property damage to mass riots, attempted seizure of power and acts of terrorism. According to information from the Ministry of Interior, as of 28th March 2022, a total of 2,021 criminal cases relating to the January events were under investigation, while 185 cases had been submitted to court and 96 people had been convicted. Among those facing criminal charges are people who are not believed to have been involved in any unlawful or violent actions which would qualify as crimes in accordance with international standards, but who were apprehended when protesting peacefully (see more under Association on cases against civil society activists).
President assesses January events and announces reforms
On 16th March 2022, President Tokayev delivered an address to the people of Kazakhstan in which he stated that the unrest of January 2022 threatened the very existence of the state. According to him, ‘’internal and external enemies of the state’’, including ‘’professional mercenaries, armed bandits and traitors among government officials’’ joined forces to seize power, using the people of the country for ‘’their criminal purposes’’. He said that all ‘’bandits and terrorists’’ involved in the January events would be held accountable. He also stressed the importance of ‘’publishing reliable information’’ and ‘’providing an objective assessment’’ of the events, noting the investigation under way by a so-called interdepartmental investigative task force. When commenting on Tokayev’s speech, Human Rights Watch noted that the president failed to acknowledge that the task force in question is not an independent body and expressed disappointment that he did not provide any assurances that the January events would be independently investigated.
In his address, President Tokayev also announced a series of reforms to roll back the ‘’super presidential’’ rule put in place by his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev and create ‘’a new Kazakhstan’’. He said that he was convinced that sustainable progress was not possible without political modernisation, and pointed to political and economic monopolisation as a cause for the January events. Among others, Tokayevproposed to require the president in office to give up positions in political parties, to ban the president’s close relatives from holding high-ranking state positions and to reduce the president’s powers to remove lower-level officials from office. He also proposed to introduce a mixed parliamentary electoral system instead of the current proportionate one, to increase the role of the lower house of parliament and to make it easier for political parties to register, in particular by decreasing the number of signatures needed for registration. In addition, he proposed to revise the media law to facilitate the work of media outlets and to improve dialogue between authorities and civil society through so-called public councils. According to President Tokayev, more than 30 provisions of Kazakhstan’s Constitution will be amended and more than 20 new laws adopted by the end of the year to implement the announced reforms.
The announced reforms were met with scepticism by civil society. While steps to improve good governance, democratic decision-making and human rights protections are welcome, civil society representatives are concerned that the announced reforms might not translate into concrete improvements in practice, unless more systematic measures are taken to address current repressive practices. An analytical Foreign Policy article about the president’s speech concluded that: ‘’these reforms risk becoming little more than window dressing if the underlying structural barriers to democratisation, transparency, and executive accountability remain unaddressed.’’ For example, the announced steps to liberalise the requirements for the registration of political parties will not result in any real progress if the authorities continue to obstruct attempts by opposition parties to register. Only two days before the president’s speech, opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamai, who has unsuccessfully sought to register the opposition Democratic Party, was remanded in custody on charges believed to be politically motivated (see more under Association). In 2020, the Democratic Party was forced to cancel its founding congress (required by law to apply for registration) due to pressure on its initiators and supporters, and Mamai and other party activists have been subjected to ongoing harassment.
Mamai is the leader of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, which he says has been denied registration because it is an opposition party.https://t.co/hxTc1REk7y
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) March 14, 2022
It was also disappointing that President Tokayev stated that there would be no further reform of the 2020 law on assemblies, which the authorities have hailed as progressive but human rights defenders have criticised for being contrary to international standards. The president claimed that the current law has allowed activists, including opposition activists, to ‘’hold rallies without hindrance and freely express their opinions’’, although the right to hold assemblies remains seriously restricted in both law and practice in the country, as also documented in this update (see more below).
Continued selective approach to assemblies, new detentions
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly remains seriously restricted in Kazakhstan. The revised law on assemblies, adopted in 2020 de-facto retains the requirement to obtain advance permission for holding assemblies, although it formally provides for a notification procedure. The authorities selectively apply this law, obstruct peaceful protests held without pre-approval, and detain participants and potential participants.
In a welcome development, several peaceful assemblies sanctioned by the authorities took place without interference during the period covered by this update. These included peaceful protests against Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, one of which gathered more than 3,000 people in Almaty – an unusually high number.
Around 3,000 people turn out for anti-war rally in Almaty- far bigger than any previous sanctioned rallies in #Kazakhstan – and a real cross-section of people – young and old, hipsters and babushky, Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans + more #Ukraine #Russia pic.twitter.com/pIXfZbkoJw
— Joanna Lillis (@joannalillis) March 6, 2022
However, other requests to hold peaceful protests against the war in Ukraine were rejected, and police carried out detentions in connection with several unsanctioned protests, including in these cases:
Полиция Алматы задержала участников движения Oyan, Qazaqstan!, вышедших на антивоенный пикет к консульству России.
Наш корреспондент сообщил, что в акции участвовали десять человек. В руках у них были плакаты «Украина. Нет войне», «Украiна — незалежна!».
Видео: Медиазона pic.twitter.com/pJF5AFYFlF
— Медиазона. Центральная Азия (@mediazona_ca) February 24, 2022
Cases involving activists detained in connection with the January 2022 events
As covered in our previous, special update, dozens of civil society, human rights, trade union and political activists were among those detained, subjected to torture and ill-treatment and penalised for their participation in unsanctioned protests in connection with the January 2022 events. In addition, numerous activists detained during the January events are facing criminal charges believed to be retaliation for their civic and pro-democratic engagement. Below we provide an update on some of the cases described before:
Update: Karima #Haidarbekova was released from the detention center on her own recognizance not to leave. Mother of six children is prosecuted under Article 272 part 2 (“Participation in mass riots”) #ActivistsNotExtremist #Kazakhstan @EamonGilmore pic.twitter.com/VimRosrNeY
— Aliya Baltabayeva (@aliyadusembaev5) March 17, 2022
As covered before, opposition activist Zhanbolat Mamai was briefly detained and attacked by unknown perpetrators when peacefully participating in the January 2022 protests. He has also been questioned as a witness as part of an investigation on charges of ‘’mass riots’’ (article 272 of the Criminal Code) concerning the January events. In addition, during the reporting period, he was remanded in custody on criminal charges related to his political activism:
As covered in our special update, civil society activists were among those hit by gunfire when security forces were dispersing the January 2022 protests, resulting in some activists being killed and others injured. In the following case, a civil society activist was seriously injured when peacefully protesting in the city of Semey:
As security forces opened fire against protesters in the central square of Semey on 6th January 2022, panic broke out and civil society activist Daulet Mukhazhanov and others were running to get away from the gunfire. As the activist stopped to help a girl who had fallen to the ground, he was hit by a bullet in his spine. He and other activists were also allegedly kicked by riot police. Mukhazhanov subsequently underwent surgery to remove the bullet, resulting in his legs being paralysed and he is now in a wheelchair. As he was undergoing treatment, police reportedly came to the hospital and attempted to round him up, but doctors refused to hand him over. On 17th January, the day he was discharged, he was immediately taken to a local police station for questioning and is now treated as a witness in the ongoing investigation into the January events. Mukhazhanov told the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that he has not filed any complaint with police about his own injuries as he ‘’does not see any point’’ in this and does not believe that it would result in the responsible individuals being held to account. He is currently looking for funds to undergo urgent, expensive treatment abroad aimed at improving mobility in his legs. Mukhazhanov has been participating in peaceful protests for years and has also engaged in charity work. As the January protests began in the city of Zhanaozen, he appealed to the residents of his home city to support the protesters there as they were speaking out against the increase in fuel prices. On 5th January 2022, he was detained outside his home as he was on his way to an announced protest in Semey and held for several hours before being released.
Political prisoner reports pressure
A number of civil society and opposition activists recognised as political prisoners by civil society continue to serve prison sentences handed down in previous years. One of these activists, Erzhan Elshibaev, who was imprisoned in 2019 after standing up for the rights of the unemployed and organising a series of peaceful rallies to this end in the city of Zhanaozen in the oil- and gas-rich Mangystau region, reported renewed pressure in prison:
In a related development, in March 2022, unemployed people holding a several weeks’ long protest outside the mayor’s office in Zhanaozen, demanding jobs in the oil sector, reported being subjected to pressure by local authorities.
New restrictions on trade union and strike activities
The activities of independent trade unions remain restricted in Kazakhstan, as criticised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The repressive 2014 Law on Trade Unions sets out significant obstacles to the registration of independent unions, despite some amendments adopted in 2020, and such unions have repeatedly been denied registration on arbitrary grounds. Among those are several branches of the Trade Union of Workers of the Fuel and Energy Industry. Most recently, on 10th February 2022, the local department of justice rejected the application for registration filed by the Almaty branch of this trade union because the union had allegedly failed to address a previous remark made by the department. In that remark, dated 11th January 2022, the justice department simply informed the trade union that its registration process had been suspended for a month without explaining the grounds for this decision or telling the union what it was requested to do. Despite repeated attempts, the trade union was unable to obtain additional information about the grounds for the suspension and any alleged problems related to the application it had submitted, which made it impossible for it to take any measures to address such issues. The Ministry of Justice dismissed an appeal filed by the trade union. KIBHR is providing the trade union with legal assistance.
There are also concerns about restrictions on the right to strike in Kazakhstan. In recent months, there has been a growing number of protests among employees working in the oil and gas-rich Mangystau region, with workers recording collective video appeals to the president and other authorities, and initiating strikes to demand higher salaries in response to increasing price levels and other improvements in working conditions. In a problematic trend, employers have repeatedly turned to court to request that strikes be declared unlawful and workers involved have been threatened with sanctions. These are two examples from the reporting period:
Impunity for attacks on journalists during January protests
As described in our special update on the January 2022 events, media workers covering these events faced different forms of harassment, including physical attacks perpetrated by security forces and non-state actors, resulting in several journalists being injured and one person affiliated with a media outlet dying. None of those responsible for these attacks are known to have been held accountable.
Criminal charges for free speech
In several recent cases, charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’ (article 274 of the Criminal Code) have been initiated for legitimate free speech relating to the January 2022 events. These developments illustrate the problematic nature of this vaguely worded provision of the Criminal Code, which has repeatedly been used against critical voices in recent years.
As covered under Association, opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamai has also been charged with ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’, as part of a case believed to be politically motivated.
Controversial draft social media law advances
On 9th March 2022, on second reading, the lower house of parliament passed a package of legal amendments on the protection of children, containing controversial provisions relating to the operation of foreign social media and messenger platforms in Kazakhstan. This draft legislation, initiated by members of parliament for the stated purpose of fighting against cyber bullying of children, was previously passed by the lower house on first reading in September 2021.
In accordance with the proposed provisions, foreign platforms with more than 100,000 visitors a month would be required to appoint legal representatives in the country for interacting with the Ministry of Information and Public Development on issues concerning allegedly unlawful content. These legal representatives would be expected to respond within 24 hours to requests from the Ministry to remove posts deemed to amount to cyberbullying against children based on complaints submitted by parents or other citizens. Failure to respond to such requests could result in access to the resources in question being restricted.
Human rights defenders criticised the proposed provisions, expressing concern that the objective of protecting children was being exploited to restrict freedom of expression on social media and messenger platforms. The Adil Soz Foundation for the Protection of Freedom of Speech warned that the law might result in arbitrary decisions undermining freedom of expression, with the lack of any clear definition of what cyberbullying constitutes and the Ministry of Information and Public Development being in charge of determining what content amounts to such bullying rather than the courts. Online petitions protesting against the new draft provisions gathered thousands of signatures.
In response to the widespread criticism of the draft legislation, the upper house of parliament initiated several changes when considering it. In particular, in accordance with these amendments, complaints about online material allegedly featuring cyber bullying of children would be considered by a group of experts rather than the Ministry of Information and Public Development itself, and the Ministry would not be able to initiate the suspension of the operations of entire online resources based on individual complaints received but the focus would be on ensuring the removal of specific content in cooperation with foreign platforms. However, it is still unclear how the new provisions would be implemented in practice, especially since the Ministry would be tasked with determining the procedures for the establishment of the new expert group and for the examination of complaints by it, and concerns remain that the law might result in undue restrictions on free speech.
The lower house of parliament approved the revised version of the draft legislation in mid-April 2022, after which it was sent to the president for signature.