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No real space for opposition activities in “new Kazakhstan”
Panfilov Park, Almaty – Photo by Tore Khan/CC BY 2.0
No real space for opposition activities in “new Kazakhstan”
Panfilov Park, Almaty – Photo by Tore Khan/CC BY 2.0

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.

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.

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.

General developments

Early parliamentary elections

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.’’

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.

Peaceful Assembly

Fallout from the ‘’Bloody January’’ protests

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:

  • In May 2023, the trial began in Almaty in the case of 11 officers from the State Committee for National Security (known as KGB), who are accused of abducting people in the street and torturing them in an attempt to force them to ‘’confess’’ to carrying out acts of violence during the January 2022 protests. A total of 54 people have been recognised as victims in this case, one of whom died as a result of torture. Following the first hearing, the judge ruled to close the trial to the media and the public, at the request of the defendants. As transparency is a key element of the right to a fair trial, this decision reinforced concerns about the fairness and impartiality of the process. At the time of writing, the trial is still under way.

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):

  • Aigerim Tleuzhan and Kalas Nurpeisov, who are known for their opposition engagement and criticism of the authorities, are among those who went on trial on 30th March 2023 because of their alleged involvement in the seizure of Almaty airport during the January 2022 events. The two activists are accused of ‘’inciting unlawful acts’’ and ‘’organising riots’’ at the airport on 5th January 2022, when, as the authorities claimed at that time, militants trained abroad had seized the airport. Both activists have denied the accusations, while admitting that they were at the airport, as documented by video surveillance cameras. According to human rights defenders, the prosecution has failed to present any substantial evidence, with the charges against the two activists resting primarily on witness testimonies. However, in court, most witnesses did not even recognise Tleuzhan and Nurpeisov and some stated that they had been pressured to testify against the activists. Tleuzhan told reporters: “All 40 witnesses confirmed that we had no weapons in our hands. We didn’t have any firearms or even any crude weapons, we didn’t even have a knife or a stick in our hands. We were not wearing masks, we didn’t hide our faces, we didn’t threaten anyone.” On 11th July 2023, the court issued its verdict: both activists were found guilty and handed prison sentences. Tleuzhan received a four-year sentence and Nurpeisov an eight-year one. The defendants said they would appeal the verdict.

Ongoing violations of the right to peacefully protest

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.

  • On 20th March 2023, special forces detained around a dozen people in Astana who were attempting to protest against irregularities in the elections to parliament and local decision-making bodies held that day. According to KIBHR’s monitoring, one participant managed to hold up a poster saying “Stop lying” and called for Kazakhstan’s previous and current presidents, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to be brought to the International Criminal Court before she was detained. Others were apprehended as they were on their way to the protest. Those detained were taken to different local police stations, where they were held for several hours and requested to sign written explanations before being released. They were reportedly denied access to legal assistance.
  • On 25th March 2023, police in Almaty detained activist Vlada Ermolcheva from the youth movement Qyan, Qazakhstan! as she was holding a peaceful picket alone. Her picket only lasted a few minutes, as she was detained immediately after unfolding a poster saying ‘’They stole our elections’’. More than a month later, on 7th May 2023, a local court sentenced the activist to 15 days’ arrest for allegedly violating the rules for holding a picket, although the Law on Assemblies, as already mentioned, does not regulate single-person pickets. On the same day, another activist from Qyan, Qazakhstan!, Darhan Sharipov, was also sentenced to 15 days’ arrest in relation to a peaceful picket he staged alone in November 2022.
  • On 9th April 2023, around 40 representatives of the so-called People’s Assembly, a new platform initiated by independent candidates in the March parliamentary elections (see more under Association), held a peaceful rally in Republic Square in Almaty calling for new elections to be held. While the rally was allowed to take place without interference, participants were later held accountable for organising the rally without pre-approval from the authorities: three participants were sentenced to 15 days’ arrest, while six others were fined.
  • At a hearing held on 3rd May 2023, a local court in Astana sentenced activist Marat Zhylanbaev, the leader of the initiative group for the registration of the Alga Kazakhstan! opposition party, to 20 days’ detention because of a peaceful protest outside the delegation of the European Union and foreign embassies in the capital on 17th March 2023. At that rally, around a dozen activists called on the Kazakhstani authorities to cancel the ‘’illegitimate’’ elections scheduled for 19th March, register Alga Kazakhstan!, release political prisoners and allow for an international investigation into the January 2022 events. They also called on the West to impose sanctions on Kazakhstan, because of the government’s ‘’help to Putin’’ in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine. After serving out the 20-day sentence imposed on him, Zhylanbaev was arrested in a criminal case opened against him in apparent retaliation for his civic engagement (see more under Association).
  • On the morning of 31st May 2023, four activists from the so-called “31 May Committee” were detained by police in Almaty ahead of several planned peaceful actions in commemoration of victims of political repression during the Soviet era. They were held for several hours before being released. Two other activists were reportedly prevented from leaving their homes. While local authorities had not officially granted permission for the planned commemorative events, they had also not prohibited them, as a result of which they should have been considered sanctioned in accordance with the Law on Assemblies. In the end, one peaceful gathering took place.

Association

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:

  • On 10th April 2023, an Almaty court convicted Mamai of organising mass riots and knowingly spreading false information (under articles 272 and 274 of the Criminal Code) and handed him a suspended six-year prison sentence, which could be turned into a real prison sentence if he is found to violate the terms of his probation. The court also prohibited Mamai from conducting political, civic or social media activities during the same period, thereby effectively preventing him from continuing his opposition campaigning.

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.

A conviction was also issued in the following case related to the January events:

  • On 11 April 2023, a local court in the Almaty region sentenced activist Erkin Kaziev to two years in prison on charges of using violence against a representative of the authorities and involvement in a banned ‘’extremist’’ organisation (under articles 380 and 405 of the Criminal Code). As covered before, the first charges were pressed against Kaziev because of an art performance that he and several of his co-activists held in in the city of Kaskelen during the January 2022 protests. During the performance, the activists chained themselves to a large cage on wheels and shouted slogans such as ‘’We support Zhanaozen’’ and ‘’Freedom for political prisoners’’. As they were stopped and detained by law enforcement officers, who reportedly used force, Kaziev sprayed water on the police using a toy water gun, which was the basis of his being accused of using violence against police. The second set of charges was initiated against him later because of his alleged support for the banned opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement. On appeal, Kaziev’s sentence was upheld unchanged.

In a welcome development, a civil society activist convicted over the January events was eventually acquitted:

  • In a decision issued on 14th March 2023, the Supreme Court ruled to overturn a previous conviction against activist Zhanmurat Ashtaev on charges of participating in riots during the January events, and to immediately release him from detention. The Supreme Court also found that he had been subjected to ‘’unlawful actions’’ during the investigation into his case, and that he is entitled to compensation for the harm inflicted. Previously, in July 2022, a local court in Shymkent handed Ashtaev, as well as his co-activists Lyazzat Dosmambetova and Kairat Sultanbek three-year prison sentences under article 272 of the Criminal Code, although the prosecution failed to provide any compelling evidence to support the charges, and the activists insisted that they only protested peacefully. Dosmambetova and Sultanbek have been granted amnesty under the amnesty law adopted in relation to the January events.

Continued obstruction of opposition party’s registration and criminal case against leader

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:

  • On 23rd May 2023, Zhylanbaev was due to be released after spending 20 days in detention because of a peaceful protest that he and his co-activists organised outside the office of the EU delegation and foreign embassies in Astana on 17th March 2023 (see more under Peaceful Assembly). However, he was instead transferred to a pre-trial detention centre on charges of leading a banned extremist organisation (a crime punishable under article 405 of the Criminal Code), even though Alga Kazakhstan! has not been declared ‘’extremist’’ or been banned. A local court approved Zhylanbaev’s pre-trial detention for two months. The same day, police also carried out a search of his home. At the time of writing, Zhylanbaev remains in detention.

Public record of foreign funded CSOs to be created

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.

Fines issued to participants in meeting critical of elections

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.

Expression

Concerns about draft media law remain despite revisions

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.

Intimidation and harassment of media outlets and journalists

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:

    • Journalist Viktor Sutyagin, a local correspondent for the state Kazinform news agency, reported that his car was set on fire by an unknown perpetrator early in the morning of 11th May 2023. The actions of the perpetrator were caught on video by a neighbour’s surveillance equipment. A few days later, on 14th May, the police arrested the suspected perpetrator. While the police did not provide any information about the motives of the suspect, Sutyagin believed the attack to be linked to his professional activities. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on the authorities to thoroughly investigate the attack, establish whether it was related to Sutyagin’s journalism, and hold all perpetrators to account, including anyone who may have ordered it. The organisation stated that the attack was ‘’yet another worrying reminder of the dangers and harassment journalists in Kazakhstan face’’.

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:

  • On 20th April 2023, police in Almaty arrested journalists Vladimir Severny and Nargiz Severnya – a married couple – for allegedly receiving money in exchange for refraining from publishing negative information about the head of a local company. The day prior to the arrest, Nargiz Severnya had published a social media post expressing concerns about possible retaliatory measures being prepared against her husband because of his coverage of problems in the army. According to her, a government official had openly threatened her husband and warned him that he might be imprisoned. Vladimir Severny was subsequently placed in pre-trial detention and Nargiz Severnya under house arrest on charges of extortion. At the time of writing, they remain subject to these measures. The Adil Soz Foundation for the Protection of Free Speech called for a transparent, comprehensive and impartial investigation into the case of the two journalists, and for due respect for their rights.

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