This is an update on developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from March to June 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.
Early parliamentary elections were held in March 2023 as part of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s drive to create a ‘’new Kazakhstan’’ and promote political modernisation. Voters were offered more of a choice than in previous elections, with a total of seven political parties participating and part of the parliamentary seats being filled based on voting in single-mandate districts, where self-nominated candidates competed alongside those nominated by parties.
However, no genuine opposition party was able to obtain compulsory state registration ahead of the elections, preventing them from fielding candidates. In single-mandate constituencies, independent candidates faced various campaigning challenges, including being excluded from the race on spurious grounds. Independent international election observers also reported significant procedural irregularities, especially in relation to the vote count. According to the official results, the ruling Amanat party secured the most seats in parliament, both based on party lists and in single-mandate districts.
Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections are ushering in a legislature that may look a little different but will probably continue to act as before https://t.co/wpO6fn1v7V
— Eurasianet (@eurasianet) March 20, 2023
There were ongoing concerns about the lack of accountability for torture and other serious human rights violations perpetrated in connection with the ‘’Bloody January’’ 2022 events, when the authorities forcefully put down mass protests and evolving unrest. Many investigations opened into such violations have been prematurely closed, and few officials have been held accountable to date. It is of further concern that trials against alleged perpetrators, such as the trial against 11 security service officials accused of abducting and torturing over 50 people, which opened in May 2023, have been closed to the public. As previously, there were also concerns about the fairness of legal proceedings initiated against civil society and opposition activists charged with involvement in the January events.
According to a verdict issued in April 2023, the leader of the unregistered opposition Democratic Party, Zhanbolat Mamai was convicted of organising riots in Almaty during the January 2022 events, although the prosecution failed to present any credible evidence to support these charges. While Mamai avoided a prison term, he was given a suspended six-year sentence and banned from conducting political, civic or social media activities during the same period, thereby effectively preventing him from continuing his opposition campaigning.
Opposition activists Aigerim Tleuzhan and Kalas Nurpeisov went on trial in March 2023 because of their alleged involvement in events at Almaty airport on 5th January 2022. At the time, the authorities claimed that militants trained abroad had seized the airport. Despite the prosecution’s case relying primarily on witness statements, which confirmed that the activists had been unarmed, they were both subsequently convicted and handed prison sentences – an outcome decried by the activists, and their supporters and family members.
“What they are doing is unfair! But no matter how many years they lock me up, I will not bow my head. I will not bend my knees!” journalist and activist Aigerim Tleuzhan said.https://t.co/5WLG7t3hHd
— Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (@RFERL) July 11, 2023
In another case of concern, in May 2023, the leader of the initiative group behind the opposition party Alga Kazakhstan!, Marat Zhylanbaev, was placed in pre-trial detention in the capital Astana on charges of leading a banned extremist organisation. Alga Kazakhstan! has unsuccessfully sought state registration since the spring of 2022, with its application documents repeatedly returned because of alleged inconsistencies with registration requirements. However, the party has not been declared ‘’extremist’’ or banned by the court, rendering the charges against Zhylanbaev fully unfounded.
The authorities continued to systematically violate the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by denying permission to organise peaceful protests, dispersing protests held without advance permission, and detaining and penalising protesters, including people protesting alone – sometimes several days or weeks after the actual protests took place. In several cases, people who peacefully protested against the nature and outcome of the March parliamentary elections were detained and penalised. Participants in a so-called “People’s Assembly”, initiated by independent candidates in the parliamentary elections to voice discontent about the manner in which the elections were held, were penalised when gathering both publicly and non-publicly.
According to new regulations, which entered into force in March 2023, a public record of foreign-funded CSOs will be created based on information that such organisations are required to report to the government. This has sparked fears about new attempts by the authorities to control and stigmatise foreign-funded groups.
Following widespread criticism, a draft media law put forward by the government in February 2023 was revised before being submitted to parliament for consideration. However, media representatives called for additional revisions of the draft law to ensure that it adequately protects the freedoms of media and expression. The consideration of the draft law will continue after parliament’s summer recess.
Investigations continued in the criminal cases initiated over a series of acts of intimidation and harassment against independent media and journalists, which took place in the pre-election period, and in relation to which around 20 people were arrested in February-March 2023. At the time of writing, there has been no news on the investigations’ progress. Following the elections, there have been new cases giving rise to concern about journalists being targeted because of their work.
These and additional issues are covered in more detail below.
Early parliamentary elections took place in Kazakhstan on 19th March 2023. In accordance with constitutional amendments approved in 2022, the elections were held under a new, mixed electoral procedure, whereby 70 percent of the members of the lower house of parliament (Mazhilis) were elected based on party lists, and 30 percent from single-mandate constituencies.
On the same day, elections were also held for regional and local decision-making bodies under new election procedures.
Prior to the elections, two new political parties were granted registration: the green party Baytak and the Respublica party, bringing the total number of registered parties to seven. However, all registered parties have taken pro-government positions and, as previously, no genuine opposition party has been able to obtain registration in the country – and, thus, no such party was able to take part in the elections (see more under Association). Moreover, while the candidates running in single-mandate constituencies included self-nominated candidates, in addition to those nominated by political parties, a number of independent candidates were denied registration or had their registration cancelled on spurious grounds. Others reported facing pressure during campaigning.
An election monitoring mission deployed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) concluded that recent legislative changes, such as the possibility for self-nominated candidates to stand in single-mandate districts, as well as revised registration requirements for political parties, ‘’increased the range of political options.’’ However, the mission also pointed out that some political groups continued to be prevented from participating in elections, and that administrative obstacles negatively affected campaign opportunities for self-nominated candidates. While the mission found that election day was calm and orderly, it documented ‘’significant procedural irregularities’’ and found that ‘’important safeguards were often disregarded during counting and tabulation, undermining transparency of the process.’’
#Kazakhstan’s parliamentary #elections offered voters increased choice, although limitations on fundamental freedoms and participation remain, international observers say. Learn more: https://t.co/MKWkdPTvUn pic.twitter.com/FfBdXevoWQ
— OSCE/ODIHR (@osce_odihr) March 20, 2023
Despite the changes made to the electoral procedure, the ruling Amanat party again secured the most seats in parliament, with its candidates elected both on the basis of party lists and as candidates in single-mandate districts. According to the official results announced by the Central Election Commission, Amanat received close to 54 percent of the votes and won 40 out of 69 parliamentary seats on offer through the party list distribution system, while candidates nominated by Amanat won 22 of 29 seats in single-mandate contests. Five other registered political parties also won seats in parliament, with the largest receiving around 11 percent of the vote.
During the reporting period, there were ongoing concerns about the failure of the authorities to carry out impartial, thorough and transparent investigations into allegations of serious human rights violations committed by law enforcement and security officials in connection with the January 2022 protests and to take effective measures to bring those responsible to justice. While the authorities received several hundred complaints of abusive treatment related to the January events, only about a dozen law enforcement and security officials have been convicted and imprisoned on such charges to date. The legal proceedings against more than a dozen other officials are still under way, but many investigations have been prematurely closed due to an alleged lack of evidence, as a result of which most cases will never reach court. In addition, legal proceedings initiated against suspected perpetrators of violations during the January events have sometimes been classified and closed to the public. This is one example:
As previously, there were also concerns about the fairness of charges and legal proceedings initiated against individuals charged with involvement in unlawful acts during the January events. This is one such case, where the trial started during the reporting period (for additional examples, see the section on Association):
People chanted “shame” as activist Aigerim Tleuzhan and her co-defendants were jailed over Bloody January airport seizure – but where were the 20,000 terrorists Tokayev spoke of? @eurasianet on anger over latest activist jailings in #Kazakhstan
— Joanna Lillis (@joannalillis) July 11, 2023
The pattern of systematic violations of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly continued. The authorities routinely deny permission to opposition and civil society activists to hold peaceful protests on political and socio-economic issues, typically without providing any proper explanations or offering any alternative venues. Peaceful assemblies held without advance permission are dispersed by police, and participants are detained and penalised by being fined or locked up for up to 15-20 days. Even those holding individual pickets – a type of protest not regulated by the Law on Assemblies – are detained. In some cases, participants in unsanctioned peaceful assemblies are held accountable several days or weeks after the protests, resulting in ‘’delayed’’ punishments for their civic engagement. In addition, the authorities have carried out an increasing number of ‘’preventive’’ detentions of activists prior to planned or expected protests.
Below we describe a few of the cases documented by KIBHR in which the right to freedom of peaceful assembly was violated during the reporting period.
As previously covered on the Monitor, numerous civil society and opposition activists were charged with rioting (under Criminal Code article 272) and other offences relating to the January 2022 events under circumstances suggesting that the charges were initiated in retaliation for their peaceful, legitimate civic engagement.
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. During the reporting period, a conviction was issued in his case:
The main charges initiated against Mamai relate to the January 2022 events, when he is accused of having instigated unrest in Almaty, despite the lack of any credible evidence to support these charges. Mamai denied the charges, stressing that he only peacefully protested for political and social change.
In a statement issued on Mamai’s conviction, IPHR expressed relief that the activist was not imprisoned, but denounced his sentence as an attempt to silence him in violation of Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations. IPHR called for his sentence to be overturned.
Mamai appealed the sentence. However, on 29th June 2023, an appeal court upheld it unchanged.
The party led by Mamai, the Democratic Party, has been unable to obtain registration (see more on this issue below) and his co-activists have also been subjected to ongoing intimidation and harassment.
IPHR regrets the recent politically motivated sentence handed down to opposition party leader Zhanbolat Mamai in Kazakhstan. It violates Kazakhstan’s international obligations re. the freedoms of expression, association & assembly and should be overturned: https://t.co/1rCHnUjs7n
— IPHR (@IPHR) April 19, 2023
A conviction was also issued in the following case related to the January events:
In a welcome development, a civil society activist convicted over the January events was eventually acquitted:
Despite the political modernisation drive initiated by President Tokayev following the January 2022 events, and legislative changes made to simplify the process of registering political parties, opposition parties continued to face difficulties with obtaining registration. Since spring 2022, the opposition party Alga Kazakhstan! (“Forward Kazakhstan!”) has repeatedly had its application for registration returned because of alleged inconsistencies with the technical registration requirements. Thus, in May 2023, the initiative group behind the party applied for registration for the 15th time, resulting in yet another refusal by the authorities to accept it.
Just before the new application was submitted, a criminal case was opened against the leader of the initiative group behind the party, Marat Zhylanbaev, a well-known marathon runner:
Суд Астаны арестовал на два месяца лидера незарегистрированной политической партии «Алға, Қазақстан!» и супермарафонца Марата Жыланбаеваhttps://t.co/dCH9AbJcq0
— Власть (@Vlastkz) May 26, 2023
There were concerns about new efforts by the authorities to control and stigmatise CSOs receiving funding from abroad. In accordance with existing legislation, CSOs that receive foreign funding for activities that include legal assistance, surveys, as well as data collection, analysis and dissemination are required to report about their funding to the government. This information is included in a database, which up to now has only been accessible to government bodies. However,
in accordance with an order adopted by the Ministry of Finance, as of March 2023, the information will be published. As a result, a public record of foreign funded groups and individuals will be created, which is likely to negatively impact the public’s perception of them. The initiative also sparked fears that further measures targeting foreign-funded groups might follow.
On two occasions in April 2023, non-public gatherings of a newly initiated so-called “People’s Assembly” took place in Almaty, with around 50 participants. The participants, including independent candidates who were denied registration, were removed from the race or who failed to be elected in the March 2023 parliamentary elections, criticised the unfair nature of the election process and its outcome. At least 15 participants in the People’s Assembly gatherings were subsequently fined for their alleged involvement in an unregistered association under article 489 of the Code of Administrative Offences. Rysbek Sarsenbayuly, a public figure, was fined the largest sum, amounting to almost EUR 700. Previously, the relevant provision of the Code on Administrative Offences has typically only been applied to members of so-called “non-traditional” religious associations.
As covered in the previous update, a new draft media law put forward by the government in February 2023 attracted widespread criticism from the media community. Media organisations and journalists voiced concerns that the draft law, if adopted, would increase state control over the activities of media. They also criticised the fact that the draft law had been elaborated without consultation with media and civil society and failed to reflect recommendations made by journalists and NGO representatives as part of a government working group previously established to develop draft media legislation.
Due to the criticism, the draft media law was revised and several improvements made before it was submitted to parliament for consideration. However, media representatives remained concerned that the draft law failed to adequately protect the freedoms of media and expression in accordance with international standards and called for additional revisions of it during its review in parliament. They also expressed readiness to take part in this work. Parliament will continue its review of the draft law following its summer recess.
As covered in our previous update, in the months leading up to the parliamentary elections held in March 2023, a series of incidents of intimidation and harassment targeting independent media outlets and journalists was reported. The police arrested around 20 people accused of involvement in these attacks, as well as a suspected organiser of the attacks, who had allegedly acted based on ‘’personal grievances’’ against media outlets and journalists. During the reporting period, the investigations into these cases continued, but there was no news on the progress made.
Journalists remained at risk of attacks, as illustrated by this case:
Kazakh authorities should swiftly investigate a recent suspected arson attack on a vehicle belonging to journalist Viktor Sutyagin and hold those responsible to account.https://t.co/IXpU5WUtsZ
— CPJ Europe and Central Asia (@CPJ_Eurasia) May 12, 2023
During the reporting period, there were several cases of criminal investigations against journalists relating to their professional activities, which were of concern to human rights defenders. This is one of these cases:
— КазТАГ (@kaztag_kz) April 21, 2023