The CIVICUS Monitor, an initiative aimed at tracking civic space worldwide has posted the following new update about the situation in Kazakhstan on the basis of information provided by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR):
Kazakhstan’s parliament recently adopted constitutional amendments that President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed into law on 10th March 2017. The amendments have been described as a step forward in strengthening democratic governance in the country by delegating some presidential powers to the legislature and the government. The president still retains broad powers, however, and, as commentators have pointed out, no real democratisation can take place as long as the parliament consists of only deputies from pro-presidential parties, and there is no genuine political opposition or opportunity for open political debate in the country. Moreover, as previously featured on the CIVICUS Monitor, these constitutional reforms, thought to be part of a process to prepare for an eventual post-Nazarbayev transition, were pushed through in a deteriorating environment for free expression and civic space.
— ConstitutionNet (@ConstitutionNet) March 10, 2017
As the KIBHR and IPHR reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, as of 2016, all Kazakh NGOs are required to provide annual information on their activities for inclusion in a government database on NGOs. The deadline for NGOs to report information about their activities in 2016 expired on 31st March 2017. A pilot version of the database was made public shortly before the deadline. While the government has argued that the database will enhance transparency in the sector, NGOs have criticised the fact that the new requirements add to the already extensive reporting obligations to the state. In addition, NGOs assert that the policy is discriminatory as it does not apply to any other legal entities. Organisations that fail to provide information for the new database or that provide “incorrect” information may face sanctions.
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Almaty-based human rights NGOs International Legal Initiative (ILI) and Liberty faced drawn-out inspections from the tax authorities during the second half of 2016 and were subsequently leveled several thousand EUR each in back taxes and fines for allegedly failing to pay corporate income tax on grants received from foreign donors. Both NGOs appealed the decisions. On 6 April 2017, a local court rejected the appeal filed by the ILI. The president of the NGO, Aina Shormanbayeva commented on this decision by saying that she considers it a threat to all NGOs receiving foreign funding in the country.
As reported by the KIBHR, late in the evening on 2nd March 2017, law enforcement authorities searched the office of another Almaty-based NGO, the Association of Young Professionals, as well as the homes of its director, Olesya Khalabuzar, and her mother. Police confiscated documents, mobile phones, and equipment. Khalabuzar was informed that a criminal case had been opened against her and an investigation is currently under way under a criminal code provision that bans creating or leading a public association whose activities are detrimental to the health of citizens. The reason cited for this investigation is the publication on social media of a video in which several members of the organisation led by Khalabuzar declare their intention to engage in self-immolation to protest the lack of access to justice. The searches took place the week after Khalabuzar was detained by police for supposedly planning to hold an unsanctioned gathering to protest against a proposed constitutional amendment on property rights (see more below in the section on assembly).
The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (CITUK) was closed down in January 2017 for allegedly failing to confirm its status as a nation-wide trade union. This decision was upheld on appeal on 28th March 2017 at a court hearing that lasted only an hour and where the decision was read in less than two minutes. In January 2017, oil workers launched a hunger strike to protest the CITUK’s closure. The authorities declared the strike unlawful, and its participants were penalised. The authorities have also initiated criminal cases against the CITUK’s head and two local trade union leaders:
“We call on the President to release those arrested without delay, and to cease the repressive measures aimed at workers who are simply standing up their right to set up and join unions of their own choice and take action to defend decent work, as guaranteed under international law”.
— Joanna Lillis (@joannalillis) March 15, 2017
In a comment published in mid-March 2017, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, criticised the measures taken against the CITUK and the trade union leaders, stressing that the right to form and join independent trade unions:
“…is a central component of the right to freedom of association…A nation cannot call itself democratic when it sweeps social conflicts under the rug; our differences must be constructively aired, debated and confronted. These differences may not always be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but refusing to even acknowledge them is a sign of a failing system”.
Following a visit to Kazakhstan in 2015, Kiai published a detailed report on key concerns regarding freedom of association and assembly in the country. He also provided a set of recommendations to the authorities on how to improve respect for these rights. Along with other NGOs, IPHR and the KIBHR welcomed the report and urged Kazakhstan’s international partners to push the government on implementing the recommendations in it.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is seriously restricted in law and practice in Kazakhstan. Peaceful protests are regularly dispersed and the participants detained, fined and imprisoned. Civil society activists are often detained ahead of planned protests as a ‘preventative’ measure, and journalists have repeatedly been detained while reporting on protests. Law enforcement authorities have increasingly targeted civil society representatives who use social media and other online platforms to announce and discuss plans for protests.
These are two recent cases of violations of the right to peaceful assembly documented by the KIBHR:
In 2016, hundreds of people were detained and civil society activists, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, were each sentenced to five years in prison for participating in peaceful protests over changes to the Land Code, which critics feared would allow foreign investors to gain control of land in the country.
— IPHR (@IPHR) December 1, 2016
In late March 2017, a proposed amendment to the criminal code posted on the Ministry of Justice’s website caused a public outcry. This amendment introduced a new criminal code provision banning “serious harm to vital interests of the republic of Kazakhstan, as well as threatening the existence and stability of the state and society”. The proposed amendment included harsh penalties such as lengthy prison sentences, life imprisonment and even the death penalty. As experts noted, the extremely vague language in this draft provision would have made it applicable to any behaviour deemed undesirable by the authorities, including expressions of dissent. KIBHR Director, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, concluded that the proposed provision, reminiscent of Soviet-era legislation on “enemies of the people”, seriously violated the principle of legal certainty. Following a wave of criticism, the proposed provision was removed from a package of draft amendments to various laws published on the Ministry’s website. However, the fact that such an amendment was even proposed is alarming. In another concerning development, the draft amendments proposed by the Ministry of Justice also include depriving a person of citizenship as a penalty for a number of crimes, including “inciting” national, social, religious and other discord – a broadly worded provision that has repeatedly been used against civil society activists and other outspoken individuals.
The few independent and opposition media outlets still operating in Kazakhstan face constant pressure, including defamation lawsuits from public officials and other public figures demanding large sums in moral compensation. This is a recent example of such a case:
There has been a re-occurring pattern of websites being arbitrarily blocked. For example, in January 2017 the global Avaaz community site was blocked after a petition against new residential registration rules was posted on the site, drawing thousands of signatories. The site was later operational and the petition now has over 8000 signatures.
IPHR and the KIBHR have drawn attention to the alarming trend in which a growing number of journalists, civil society activists and social media users who have recently been arrested, charged with criminal offences and imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms.
This uptick in rights violations shows no signs of abating. Leading Kazakh civil society representatives issued a joint statement in February 2017, voicing concern that independent journalists and activists are increasingly persecuted and that fair trial standards are disregarded in these cases. As the joint statement declared,
“It is with great concern that we have to state that the fight against terrorism, corruption and crime more and more frequently ends up in the persecution of independent media, journalists and civil society activists. Whenever this persecution takes place, national and international norms and standards of a fair trial are thrown aside in a gross and harsh manner shrinking down the information playing field, in glaring defiance of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech”.
A few recent cases of serious concern for the KIBHR and IPHR include:
— CPJ Eurasia (@CPJ_Eurasia) February 21, 2017
Image featured with post: thedakotakid / CC BY