This is an update on developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from September 2022 to February 2023. 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.
In early presidential elections held in November 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was re-elected without being meaningfully challenged, according to the assessment of international observers. As a result, he secured a new seven-year term in office to continue with his proclaimed agenda of creating ‘’a new Kazakhstan’’.
Tokayev, re-elected with landslide, has been promising democratisation, but short run-in to presidential election was ‘a problem in a political field devoid of viable actors, the result of decades of repression and co-optation’ – @eurasianet #Kazakhstan https://t.co/NsmIkSLsav
— Joanna Lillis (@joannalillis) November 21, 2022
Early parliamentary elections will take place on 19th March 2023 under a new mixed electoral procedure, where most members of parliament will be elected based on party lists as previously, but part of the seats will be filled based on voting in single-mandate districts, with part of the candidates having been self-nominated. Ahead of the parliamentary elections, two new political parties were granted state registration, with a total of seven registered parties running in the elections, including the ruling Amanat party. However, as in previous elections, no opposition party is able to take part as no such party is registered in the country. The difficulty with obtaining registration experienced by opposition parties is illustrated by the case of the Alga Kazakhstan! party whose application documents were repeatedly returned on technical grounds during the reporting period. While the self-registered candidates running in single-mandate districts included some lawyers, civil society activists and journalists, such candidates reported facing various campaigning obstacles and some of them were de-registered on spurious grounds.
A year after the ‘Bloody January’ 2022 events, when the authorities forcefully put down mass protests and evolving unrest, there was still widespread impunity for human rights violations perpetrated in connection with these events, including excessive use of force and related killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture and ill-treatment. As of the beginning of 2023, only a few law enforcement and security offers had been charged and even fewer convicted for their actions during the January 2022 events. Many investigations have been prematurely closed because of the alleged lack of evidence of crimes on the part of officers. In comparison, hundreds of participants in the January 2022 protests have been charged and convicted for various crimes.
In November 2022, the president signed an amnesty law for those prosecuted in relation to the January 2022 events, except for those facing particularly serious charges. While the amnesty law was presented as an act of humanism and reconciliation, human rights defenders were concerned that its implementation might result in some law enforcement and security officers escaping accountability for human rights violations, thereby undermining justice. The amnesty law also granted scope for denying amnesty to some civil society and opposition activists, who are believed to have been charged over the January 2022 events because of their peaceful civic engagement, on the grounds of the nature of the charges against them.
Among the activists prosecuted over the January 2022 protests is Zhanbolat Mamai, the leader of the unregistered opposition Democratic Party, who went on trial in November 2022. After the start of the trial, the prosecution re-initiated charges against him of organising riots after previously reclassifying these charges as organising an unsanctioned assembly, which is a less serious crime. The prosecution has accused Mamai of instigating the unrest which took place in Almaty during the January 2022 events, in an apparent attempt to make him the main scapegoat for the violence and in retaliation for his opposition activities and criticism of those in power. He could face up to ten years in prison if convicted.
“Calling for political reforms is not a crime, but locking Mamay away for 10 years most certainly would be.” says @hrw‘s @MihraRittmann on the charge faced by Zhanbolat Mamay, the opposition leader of the unregistered Democratic Party of #Kazakhstan https://t.co/YWM0qH4fyH pic.twitter.com/R0d8VkcIrW
— HRW Brussels (@HRW_Brussels) February 6, 2023
During the reporting period, outspoken civil society and opposition activists also faced intimidation and harassment outside the context of the January 2022 events, including criminal charges brought in retaliation for their peaceful civic activities. In a case that human rights defenders believed to be politically motivated, a group of seven activists was detained a few days before the presidential elections for allegedly planning to organise riots and seize power on election day.
A series of threats and attacks against independent media outlets and journalists were reported, which demonstrated the vulnerability of such actors. As the number of attacks peaked in January 2023, President Tokayev called for thorough investigations to identify both those who perpetrated and those who ordered attacks. Police later reported having arrested a group of people accused of involvement in numerous attacks on media and journalists, including a suspected coordinator and his accomplices, and an alleged organiser of the attacks who argued to have acted based on ‘’personal grievances’’ against media outlets and workers. Human rights groups called on authorities to ensure that those arrested are investigated and tried in fair proceedings and that all those responsible for attacks are held accountable and given appropriate penalties.
Media organisations and journalists raised the alarm over a draft media law put forward by the government that if adopted would seriously increase state control over the activities of media. They also objected to the fact that the draft law ignored recommendations made by media and civil society representatives. In response to the criticism, the government promised to revise the law.
The authorities continued to systematically violate the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by selectively denying permission to hold peaceful protests, dispersing protests held without advance permission, and detaining and penalising protesters. Among others, activists were detained in connection with peaceful assemblies held in relation to the Russian and Chinese leaders’ visits to the country, the early presidential elections and the anniversary of the January 2022 events.
These developments are described in more detail below.
In the aftermath of the January 2022 events, President Tokayev initiated a drive to promote political modernisation and create ‘’a new Kazakhstan’’. As covered before, in June 2022, a constitutional referendum was organised, during which voters approved a set of amendments to the constitution which, among others, reduced the president’s powers in some areas, introduced a new electoral system for parliament and strengthened parliament’s role in certain aspects. Other new legislation has also been initiated as part of the reform drive. Civil society representatives have criticised the limited nature of the reforms and the lack of substantial changes in practice.
When delivering his annual state of the nation address on 1st September 2022, President Tokayev called for holding early presidential and parliamentary elections, saying that this was necessary to ensure the successful implementation of the reforms initiated by him.
In the early presidential elections held on 20th November 2022, President Tokayev was re-elected with over 80 percent of the vote without facing any real competition. Local election monitors documented numerous violations during the presidential elections and an election observation mission deployed by the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued a critical assessment which, among others, concluded that the election ‘’took place in a political environment lacking competitiveness’’ and that the incumbent ‘’was not meaningfully challenged in a low-key campaign’’. Kazakhstan’s government was not pleased with this assessment. In an official response, the Foreign Ministry claimed that ODIHR’s statement was characterised by ‘’a lack of objectivity’’, contained ‘’unsubstantiated accusations’’ and ‘’called into question’’ ODIHR’s effectiveness as an OSCE institution.
In accordance with newly adopted legal amendments, Tokayev’s new presidential term will be seven years, compared to five previously, but he will not have the right to be re-elected next time. Tokayev was first elected president in June 2019, as a hand-picked successor to ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down after ruling the country for three decades. Following the January 2022 protests, when protesters expressed resentment about Nazarbayev’s legacy and continued political influence, Tokayev has sought to distance himself from his predecessor and has initiated legislation to limit the influence of the latter and his family.
Early parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan on 19th March 2023, when members of the parliament’s lower house will be elected (see also the section on Association below). These elections will also be monitored by an ODIHR mission. In accordance with recent legislation, NGOs wishing to monitor the elections are required to obtain official accreditation, unlike previously, and only those whose statutes stipulate election monitoring as an activity can be accredited. While NGOs expressed concerns about the new requirements when they were initiated, no NGOs are known to have experienced difficulties with obtaining accreditation so far.
The reporting period saw the first anniversary of the ‘Bloody January’ events, when peaceful mass protests for social and political change evolved into unrest and clashes between security forces and people in the crowd, with over 230 people killed and several thousand injured. To date the authorities have failed to carry out impartial, thorough and transparent investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations committed by law enforcement and security officials during the January 2022 events, including the use of excessive force, arbitrary detentions, due process violations and torture and ill-treatment, and to take effective measures to bring those responsible to justice.
While hundreds of participants in the January 2022 protests have been charged and convicted for various criminal offences – ranging from theft and property damage to mass riots and terrorism related offences, only a few law enforcement and security officials have been charged and even fewer convicted for violations of the rights of protesters and other individuals during these events.
As highlighted in a January 2023 report published by IPHR, KIBHR and Kazakhstan’s NGO Coalition against Torture, together with the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), the authorities have in particular failed to ensure accountability for widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people detained during the January 2022 protests, as a result of which at least six people died in detention.
The joint report “We don’t even cry anymore. Torture, ill-treatment and impunity in #Kazakhstan in connection with the #BloodyJanuary events” by @bureau_kz, Coalition against Torture in Kazakhstan, IPHR & @omctorg is online!
in English & Russian: https://t.co/94LMH5G39O
— IPHR (@IPHR) February 1, 2023
The authorities have acknowledged the use of torture and ill-treatment against detainees during the January 2022 events and have opened investigations into complaints filed by people alleging to have been subjected to such treatment. However, many investigations into complaints of torture have been prematurely closed because of the alleged lack of evidence of crimes. As of late December 2022, the investigations into 104 out of 190 torture complaints, which the NGO Coalition against Torture had processed, had been closed on such grounds. The same pattern is confirmed by official figures. In early January 2023, Olzhas Bektenov, the head of the Anti-Corruption Agency – the state body which has had main responsibility for investigating torture allegations – stated that his agency had investigated a total of 432 complaints of prohibited treatment relating to the January 2022 events and that 347 cases had been closed due to the alleged lack of evidence of crimes. He also claimed that complaints about torture ‘’in most cases were filed in order to avoid criminal liability for unlawful actions’’, thus suggesting that the complaints were not filed in good faith.
As of the beginning of February 2023, convictions had only been handed down in two cases involving law enforcement officials charged with the use of torture during the January 2022 events:
The number of torture complaints received by authorities is believed to constitute only a fraction of all cases of abusive treatment against those rounded up during the January 2022 events. Many victims of torture and ill-treatment among the around 10,000 people detained have been reluctant to file complaints about their experiences for fear of reprisals and the lack of confidence in obtaining justice.
The authorities have also failed to take effective measures to investigate and ensure accountability for the killing of protesters, activists and passers-by during the January 2022 events. According to information provided by authorities, more than 200 criminal investigations were opened in cases where people died during these events. However, many investigations have reportedly been closed on the grounds that the actions of law enforcement officers involved did not constitute a crime.
The decision to close the investigation in this case prompted particular outrage:
Four-year-old Aikorkem Meldekhan was shot dead in Almaty in January 2022 when she and other members of her family were in a car on their way to a grocery store. The vehicle was sprayed with at least 20 bullets.https://t.co/X2iKabo7na
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) January 6, 2023
During the reporting period, only one conviction was handed down over a killing of a civilian related to the January 2022 events, in a case where the victim was not a protester:
In several cases, people killed during the January 2022 events have been charged and convicted posthumously, although the circumstances of their deaths have not been clarified. This is one example of such a case:
In an initiative described as an act of humanism and reconciliation, President Tokayev announced amnesty for people charged with criminal offences in relation to the January 2022 events during his state of the nation address on 1st September 2022. Two months later, on 2nd November 2022, the president signed the corresponding law. According to the amnesty law, those charged with crimes of minor and medium gravity might be cleared of charges and freed from penalty, while those charged with more serious crimes might have their sentences reduced. However, people charged with certain serious crimes such as terrorism, extremism and the organisation of riots are not eligible for amnesty. In addition to protest participants, the amnesty law also affects law enforcement and military officials charged in relation to the January events, except officials charged with particularly serious crimes such as torture and intentional murder. According to official information, the amnesty law was expected to benefit around 1,500 people in total, with courts deciding on its application in individual cases.
While the idea of amnesty was welcomed, human rights defenders expressed concerns that the implementation of the adopted amnesty law might allow law enforcement and security officials guilty of human rights violations related to the January 2022 events to escape responsibility, if charges initiated against them concern crimes subject to amnesty or if the charges are reclassified into such crimes. HRDs also voiced concern that some civil society and opposition activists believed to have been charged over the January events because of their peaceful and legitimate activities (see more under Association) would not be able to qualify for amnesty because they have been charged with crimes that are exempted from the scope of the law (such as the organisation of riots or extremism-related offences).
The authorities continued to systematically violate the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. As covered before, the law on assemblies adopted in 2020 de-facto requires organisers of assemblies to obtain advance permission from local authorities, although it formally provides for a notification procedure. According to KIBHR’s monitoring, during the reporting period, less than a dozen assemblies took place with official permission across the country while many more requests to hold protests were rejected, especially – but not only – when the proposed topics concerned issues perceived as sensitive by those in power. When issuing rejections, local authorities typically argued that other events had already been planned to take place at the proposed times and venues. However, in violation of the law of assemblies, they failed – as a rule – to propose any alternative venues or any alternative times for the gatherings.
In a well-known practice, small-scale peaceful protests held without advance permission continued to be dispersed by police, with participants being detained – often with the use of disproportionate force – and in many cases subsequently penalised for allegedly violating the rules for holding assemblies. Law enforcement authorities also continued to detain well-known civil society and opposition activists to prevent them from taking part in planned or potential protests.
Below are examples of cases in which the right to peaceful assembly was violated during the reporting period, based on KIBHR’s monitoring and media reports.
In several cases, civil society activists were detained when attempting to hold peaceful protests in connection with visits of foreign leaders to the country:
A series of detentions and pre-emptive detentions of protesters were carried out in connection with the presidential elections held on 20th November 2022:
What kind of political modernization is this, Mr. Tokayev? Activists from the opposition Democratic Party again forcibly detained in Kazakhstan when peacefully protesting & demanding the release of their leader who’s behind bars on trumped-up charges. https://t.co/hbem9SO2w7
— IPHR (@IPHR) October 6, 2022
Following the elections, new violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly were reported, such as in the following cases:
During the reporting period, there were a growing number of incidents of intimidation and harassment targeting independent outlets and journalists.
The chief editor of “Orda” 🇰🇿 news outlet Gulnara Bazhkenova received a package with pig’s head and her torn photo. She’s received a number of threats, https://t.co/G8b6LNlotn was blocked several times and filed a complaint with police about the attacks and threats to her. https://t.co/XWXbk2wKZj
— Aigerim Toleukhanova (@aygeryma) October 5, 2022
Этой ночью подожгли автомобиль Динары Егеубаевой.
В своем эфире в инсте Динара сказала: «Я расцениваю это как покушение на свою жизнь… Это токаевский новый Казахстан. Вы голосовали за этого человека, который стрелял по людям, и который устраивает покушение на других людей». 1/ pic.twitter.com/NHj4RvioY9
— Timur Nusimbekov (@mr_mysyk) January 13, 2023
The perpetrators of acts of intimidation and harassment against media outlets and journalists, particularly those orchestrating and ordering such attacks, go unpunished. It was therefore welcome that a spokesperson for President Tokayev publicly stated on 20th January 2023 that the president had ordered a “thorough investigation” into the recent series of attacks, saying that “not only the perpetrators, but also those who ordered these illegal acts” must be identified. The EU delegation also issued a statement about these attacks, stressing that ‘’All cases must be investigated and those responsible for these wrongdoings should be brought to justice.’’
In February 2023, the police announced that a total of 18 people had been arrested on suspicion of involvement in unlawful acts against journalists taking place since September 2022, with investigations in these cases being under way. Later the same month, the police reported that a professional hacker had been arrested on suspicion of coordinating attacks against media and journalists for the purpose of ‘’discrediting’’ President Tokayev and his ‘’democratic reforms’’. Four of the hacker’s accomplices were also identified. In yet a further development, the police reported that an individual suspected of organising the recent attacks had been arrested and charged with multiple crimes. He had allegedly been driven by ‘’personal grievances’’ against media outlets and journalists – thus a different motive than that of the suspected coordinator — and had allegedly acted on his own initiative. IPHR and KIBHR called on the authorities to ensure that the investigations and legal proceedings against arrested suspects fully correspond to international due process and fair trial standards and that all those responsible for attacks are brought to justice and given appropriate penalties.
Draft media law
In another worrying development, a new controversial draft media law was put up for public discussion by the government in early February 2023. Media organisations and journalists voiced concerns that it would seriously increase state control over the activities of media if adopted. They also criticised the fact that the draft law was introduced in a way that side-stepped the activities of a government working group, including NGO representatives and journalists, which has been discussing new draft media legislation for several months, and thereby ignored recommendations made by civil society members of this group.
Among others, the draft media law included controversial provisions to designate internet resources as media outlets, thereby extending the law’s scope beyond traditional media outlets; to introduce a registry of accredited journalists while setting out broad grounds for denying accreditation; and to impose extensive restrictions on the work of media and journalists in ‘’exceptional circumstances’’, including through a requirement for articles to be approved by relevant officials before publication in such situations, which could result in censorship. The draft law also did not define any statute of limitations for initiating defamation lawsuits over journalistic materials, which could result in journalists being sued over articles years after their publication.
Following an outpouring of criticism, which included an appeal to the president signed by a large number of journalists and media representatives, the ministry of information indicated readiness to revise the draft law and take into account the feedback received.
As part of his post-January 2022 initiative to promote political modernisation and create ‘’a new Kazakhstan’’, President Tokayev pledged to make it easier for political parties to obtain compulsory state registration. The legal requirement regarding the number of members or supporters needed for the registration of a political party was subsequently reduced, and during the reporting period two new parties were granted registration: the green party Baytak and the Respublica party, allowing them to take part in the March 2023 parliamentary elections. However, neither these nor any of the previously registered parties challenged those in power and, as previously, opposition parties faced difficulties with obtaining registration. For example, the Ministry of Justice again repeatedly returned the application document of the opposition party Alga Kazakhstan! (“Forward Kazakhstan!”) because of alleged inconsistencies with the technical requirements for the registration of political parties. In February 2023, the group reportedly applied for registration for the 11th time, after having its application documents returned each previous time when attempting to register since April 2022.
On February 22, 2023, members of the organizing committee for the creation of the opposition party “Alga #Kazakhstan” for the eleventh time (starting from May 2022) submitted a list of the initiative group to the Ministry of #Justice to start registering the party.@hrw @OSCE pic.twitter.com/rPaQynxreg
— Aigul_Nurpeis 🇰🇿🇺🇦 (@Aigul_Nurpeis) February 23, 2023
In accordance with constitutional amendments approved at the June 2022 referendum, the March 2023 parliamentary elections will be held under a new a mixed electoral procedure, where 70 percent of the members of the lower house of parliament (Mazhilis) will be elected based on party lists, and 30 percent from single-mandate constituencies. According to official information, a total of 435 candidates were approved to run in single-mandate constituencies, out of which 76 had been nominated by political parties and 359 were self-nominated. The registered self-nominated candidates included some lawyers, civil society activists and journalists. This was welcome; however, independent candidates reported facing various obstacles in their campaigning and struggled to gain visibility during a campaign dominated by those connected to the political establishment. In addition, there were reports that independent candidates were de-registered on spurious grounds.
During the reporting period, persecution of civil society and opposition activists continued, with activists being subjected to intimidation and harassment ranging from threats and surveillance to detention and politically motivated prosecution.
As previously covered, more than 30 criminal cases related to the January 2022 events were initiated against activists on rioting (under Criminal Code article 272) and other charges despite the lack of evidence of their involvement in violent, unlawful actions. In several cases, activists were charged with ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’ under a vaguely worded Criminal Code provision (article 274) which has repeatedly been used to stifle legitimate free speech. While the criminal cases against some activists had been closed, and some activists were granted amnesty, others were serving sentences issued against them or were still under investigation as of early 2023.
The most high-profile case of an activist charged over the January 2022 protests is that of Zhanbolat Mamai, the leader of the unregistered opposition Democratic Party:
Zhanbolat Mamay, leader of Kazakhstan’s unregistered Democratic Party, faces renewed, bogus charges for his role in last year’s protests. His arrest calls into question the govt’s commitment to an independent investigation of the Bloody January tragedy. https://t.co/mxx1arT4kG
— Freedom House (@freedomhouse) January 27, 2023
These are updates on the cases against some other activists charged over the January 2022 events:
9 января апелляционный суд в городе Шымкенте оставил без изменения решение суда первой инстанции об отказе в амнистии активистке Ляззат Досмамбетовой, осуждённой в связи с Январскими событиями https://t.co/PQcZ6TuEiI
— Радио Азаттык – Казахстан (@RadioAzattyq) January 10, 2023
In addition, outside the context of the January 2022 events, the authorities continued to target supporters and alleged supporters of the banned opposition movements Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the Street Party (Koshe Partiyasy) because of their peaceful civic activities. This is one example:
In the following case, alleged supporters of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and Street Party faced more serious charges:
Another issue of ongoing concern was the use of charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’ against activists and other outspoken individuals. Figures quoted by General Prosecutor Berik Asylov in November 2022 reinforced concerns about the increasingly frequent application of this vaguely worded criminal code provision. According to him, 100 investigations were opened on charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’ during the first nine months of 2022. Out of these, seven cases had been submitted to court, 19 were still under investigation, 28 had been suspended and 46 closed.
This is one example of a case in which an activist was convicted under this provision during the reporting period:
Some activists continued to serve prison sentences handed down in earlier years on charges considered to be in retaliation for their civic engagement and criticism of authorities. These are two of them:
Photo on top: President Tokayev by UN Geneva/CC BY 2.0