At the end of this week, early parliamentary elections will be held in Kazakhstan. These elections are taking place in an increasingly repressive climate for freedom of expression and pluralism of views. A new report published by Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) documents recent key trends affecting freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly and other fundamental rights in Kazakhstan ahead of the elections. The report is based on monitoring by KIBHR.
The Kazakhstani authorities continue to stifle freedom of expression and open debate, in particular in the context of the ongoing economic crisis and the early parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 March 2016. There has been a series of recent arrests and criminal cases targeting journalists, civil society activists and other critical voices. It is of particular concern that broadly and vaguely worded Criminal Code provisions banning “inciting” social, national or other “discord”, as well as “deliberately spreading false information” have increasingly been used against individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression, including on social media. This has contributed to fostering a growing climate of intimidation and to suppressing discussion on social media.
In a resolution adopted on 10 March 2016, the European Parliament denounced violations of freedom of expression in Kazakhstan, including in particular pressure on independent media outlets, as well as arrests and convictions of journalists, bloggers and other outspoken individuals. It called for a review of Criminal Code articles that “can be used to criminalise lawful behaviour protected by human rights law”.
These are recent individual cases of concern in view of the right to freedom of expression and other fundamental rights:
In a rare not guilty verdict, on 29 February 2016, journalist Yulia Kozlova was acquitted of narcotics possession charges brought against her after police allegedly found a prohibited substance when searching her apartment. The judge also ordered an examination into serious flaws in the investigation of the case, which were revealed during the trial. While this was a welcome development, there are serious concerns that other journalists and activists have been convicted, although the proceedings against them have been marred by fair trial and due process violations. The trial against Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin was particularly egregious in this respect, as documented by KIBHR, and the trial went ahead in spite of urgent health issues of the defendants. Other individuals inconvenient to the authorities, including opposition party leader Vladimir Kozlov have been in prison for years after being convicted in unfair trials.
The government Committee on Communications and Information closely monitors online content and warns and initiates measures to block websites featuring allegedly unlawful content. Under current legislation, access to sites can be fully blocked on such grounds following either a court decision or a request from the General Prosecutor’s office. Some websites have been blocked for prolonged periods of time without any official explanation. For example, the Ratel.kz and Zonakz.net news sites were inaccessible for several months until they became available again at the beginning of February 2016.
The adoption of new rules for monitoring on- and offline publications of media outlets, as well as plans to introduce a compulsory national security certificate for internet users have given rise to concerns that the authorities may further step up internet control and censorship.
New NGO legislation, which has been widely criticized for unduly restricting the freedom of association of NGOs, entered into force in mid-December 2015. NGOs have been given a deadline at the end of March 2016 to provide information for inclusion in a new database to be created under the law. Failure by NGOs to provide required or “correct” information for this database could result in that they are fined or suspended for three months.
Many trade unions have experienced difficulties in re-registering in accordance with the requirements of the new Trade Union Law adopted in 2014. For example, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, as well as a new trade union of media employees were finally registered in February 2016 and December 2015, respectively, following lengthy processes involving the repeated resubmission of application documents. Other independent trade unions continue to operate without registration and the members of such unions have reportedly faced intimidation and pressure by employers to join state-controlled state union structures.
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly continues to be seriously restricted in the country, as highlighted by a new KIBHR report on the results of its countrywide monitoring in this area in 2015. Over 90 percent of a total of 71 peaceful protests monitored by KIBHR last year were held without the advance permission required by law, and about one third of them ended with dispersal and detentions of participants. The total number of protests decreased significantly from previous years and not a single political opposition rally was held, which can be attributed to the increasingly repressive climate in the country.
This report has been prepared within the framework of the project “A Transnational Civil Society Coalition in Support of Fundamental Rights in Central Asia”, which is jointly implemented by KIBHR, Nota Bene, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and IPHR.