This report covers developments on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from January to March 2020, and was prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) based on KIBHR’s monitoring of the situation in the country.
The first three months of 2020 saw ongoing and systematic persecution of civil society activists, journalists, bloggers and other citizens exercising their right to freely express themselves. The situation is currently deteriorating, particularly in connection with the state of emergency, which was declared in the country on 16th March 2020 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Citizens who spoke up about the status of the pandemic in Kazakhstan and the authorities’ handling of it have on numerous occasions been criminally prosecuted. Political activists associated with two unregistered political parties – the new Democratic Party founded by Zhanbolat Mamay and the new movement “Street Party” – have faced persecution, administrative prosecution and significant harassment, both from the authorities and from unidentified persons. Their constituent party congress scheduled to take place in Almaty on 22nd February 2020 was also prevented from taking place by the authorities and unidentified non-state actors.
According to monitoring by human rights group Kaharman in February 2020 there were 625 cases of persecution of civil society activists in Kazakhstan. Of these, 71 activists were arrested on administrative charges and ten activists were fined for exercising their right to freely assemble, associate and express themselves.
From January to March 2020, Kazakhstan was confronted by several crises and tragic events, which had a direct impact on fundamental freedoms in the country. In February 2020, violent ethnic clashes occurred south of Almaty, leaving 11 dead and causing thousands to flee their homes. In late February 2020, well-known civil society activist Dulat Agadil died while in police detention, sparking outrage in the activist community and resulting in a series of peaceful protests across the country. However, following the introduction of the state of emergency the country has been locked down, with extreme limitations on freedom of movement.
In another concerning development, the lower house of Kazakhstan’s Parliament approved a new controversial draft law on assemblies in mid-March 2020, despite drawing criticism from human rights groups and the international community.
These major developments of concern are described in more detail below, followed by an update on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association during the period covered.
State of emergency introduced following COVID-19 outbreak
On 16th March 2020, Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency until 1st May 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. During the state of emergency, the movement and activities of citizens, organisations and businesses have been restricted. Most cities, including Almaty and Nur-Sultan, have been sealed off in quarantine, with entry and exit prohibited. Movement within cities has also been severely restricted. All protest actions and demonstrations have been banned. Bloggers and journalists who have reported on the situation concerning the pandemic have faced serious consequences. These cases are discussed in detail below.
Draft law on peaceful assembly initially approved by Parliament
A new draft law on holding peaceful assemblies has been a cause for concern, despite public assurances from the authorities, including President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, that the law will improve the regulation of peaceful assemblies. However, KIBHR’s analysis of the draft law shows that it merely makes cosmetic changes and that some of its provisions will result in more serious restrictions than before. Minister of Information and Social Development Dauren Abayev presented the draft law to the public on 12th March 2020. On 26th March 2020, the Mazhilis (the lower house of the bicameral parliament) approved the draft law and on 30th April 2020 it was approved by the upper house (the Senate). The law now awaits approval from the president. Director of KIBHR, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, left the draft law Working Group on 1st April 2020. On 22nd April 2020, 24 members of the Civic Solidarity Platform, including KIBHR, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and IPHR published an open letter to President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, expressing concern that the draft law is not compliant with international human rights standards because it:
- Introduces unjustified restrictions on the timing and place of assemblies;
- Retains the requirement for people to obtain government approval prior to conducting peaceful meetings, marches and demonstrations;
- Provides for extensive requirements for submitting notification and permit applications;
- Allows for assemblies (except single pickets) to be held only in certain locations designated by the local authorities;
- Stipulates that only Kazakhstani citizens will be permitted to organise and participate in assemblies;
- Provides for an extensive list of reasons why the local authorities can reject applications to hold public assemblies;
- Increases liability for the organisers and participants in public assemblies; and
- Prohibits spontaneous assemblies.
Signatories to the letter urged the Kazakhstani authorities to take into account recommendations from relevant international bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Panel of Experts on Freedom of Assembly and Association or the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, and to not rush it through approvals during the coronavirus pandemic.
Deadly ethnic clashes in Kordai District
On 7th-8th February 2020, in the Kordai border region located south-west of Almaty, a violent ethnic conflict erupted between groups of ethnic Kazakhs and Dungans, mainly targeting Dungans living in the villages of Masanchi, Aukatty, Sortobe and Bulan Batyr. Around 50,000 to 60,000 Dungans live in this district. Eleven people were killed, of whom nine were Dungans and two were Kazakhs. Two hundred people were injured, and more than 30 houses were set on fire. According to KIBHR monitoring, between 4,000 and 10,000 Dungans fled over the border to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Reports indicated that the burned houses and businesses belonged to Dungans, whereas some burned cars belonged to the alleged perpetrators, often ethnic Kazakhs, who had arrived from the regions of Zhambyl and Almaty. The Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan border became overcrowded with Dungan refugees and several border crossing points were temporarily closed following the incident. Following the tragic events, an inter-departmental group was created by the Kazakhstani authorities to investigate the incident. The group was led by the office of the Prosecutor General, which launched investigations in over 120 criminal cases, including the 11 killings. Initially, three Dungans were arrested, accused by investigators of “provoking a pogrom”. However, on 27th March 2020, Prosecutor General Yerlik Kenenbayev announced that an additional 25 alleged perpetrators had been detained, of whom seven were former prisoners. The investigation is ongoing at the time of writing. There is widespread disbelief in the human rights community and among journalists about the official explanation of the incident and the legal aftermath for the alleged perpetrators.
Death of activist in detention
Civil society activist Dulat Agadil from the Akmola region was detained on 24th February 2020 after he had earlier attended a peaceful protest in Nur-Sultan. On 25th February 2020 police issued a statement stating that Agadil had died in detention. Social media videos showed that the night before his death Agadil was forcibly taken from his home by an unidentified man in civilian clothing.
Agadil was taken into custody because of an alleged violation of the terms of his house arrest. He had been placed under house arrest on charges of contempt of court, which were under investigation. According to the police, 43-year-old Agadil died of acute heart failure, although he was not known to have had any health problems. The police also stated that Agadil had been mildly to moderately intoxicated upon arrival at the detention centre, that he became ill during the night and vomited several times. Agadil continued to be sick in the early hours of the next morning but no medical assistance was given to him until an ambulance was called at around 7:30 am. The ambulance took almost half an hour to arrive and Agadil was pronounced dead at around 8:20 am. On 28th February 2020, the Deputy Prosecutor of Nur-Sultan, Eldos Kilymzhanov claimed that the lesions on Agadil’s body were indicative of a natural death and were marks that would appear after cardiac arrest.
Agadil’s death sparked outrage among journalists, activists and members of civil society. There was widespread mistrust of the official claim that his death was caused by ill health and intoxication. Some people reported that injuries and wounds were visible on a video showing Agadil’s body in the morgue, indicating that he could have been beaten before death. Prior to his death, Agadil had participated in numerous peaceful protests, among others, in support of mothers with many children and political prisoners. He was also connected to the new Street Party and was a known critic of the regime. The protests spurred by Agadil’s death in custody are described in detail in the section on Peaceful Assembly below.
Several activists and groups were subject to pressure, court-imposed obstacles and threats during the reporting period. Many of the cases affected unregistered organisations, parties and movements.
- The Almaty-based eco-activist Saltanat Tashimova stated that during the night of 2nd to 3rd January 2020 unknown attackers threw stones at the windows of her apartment, smashing three of them. On the evening of 6th January 2020 someone threw a Molotov cocktail at her kitchen window. Fortunately, her apartment did not catch fire. Tashimova says that she fears for her life. She filed a complaint with Bostandyk police department in Almaty. Tashimova is active in the Kok-Zhailau movement which aims to protect a wildlife site in the mountains near Almaty from real estate construction.
- In a case previously covered on the Monitor, the Uralsk-based election observation organisation Movement for Independent Observers has repeatedly been denied registration. On 14th January 2020, the Supreme Court rejected the movement’s appeal against the repeated refusals of the Ministry of Justice to register the organisation.
- On 17th February 2020, two uniformed police officers accompanied by unidentified civilians carried out a search on the office of the unregistered foundation “Nagyz Atajurt”. They photographed the whole office but did not ask any questions and filled out a form. One of the police officers stated that it was not a search but rather a “check” as the police had received a statement complaining that “illegal gatherings” were being held inside the office. The foundation is a spin-off of the Atajurt Foundation, whose leader Serikzhan Bilash faced a fine and ban from leading public associations last year and for incitement to national discord, as mentioned in a previous Monitor update. After Bilash left the organisation, his supporters created the new unregistered “Nagyz Atajurt”, as his associates had lost control of the original organisation after it was legally registered. “Nagyz Atajurt” works to raise awareness and support for the ethnic Kazakhs who have disappeared in the Chinese Xinjiang internment camps. Almost two weeks after the office search, on 4th March 2020, Serikzhan Bilash announced that the unregistered foundation “Nagyz Atajurt” had dissolved itself. It appeared that this was as a result of pressure.
- As reported previously by the Monitor, the group behind the new and unregistered party “The Democratic Party of Kazakhstan” has faced problems when holding meetings across the country. The group announced that several of their members had faced police pressure ahead of the planned constituent party congress in Almaty on 22nd February 2020.
- In Zhanaozen, five political activists from the Democratic Party were taken in for questioning on 12th March 2020 at the Mangystau Regional office of the Committee for National Security (KNB). They were informed that criminal proceedings against them were under way for violating Article 174 of the Criminal Code – incitement to social discord. The five activists had earlier recorded a video demanding the release of an imprisoned associate. The video is now being examined by the authorities.
- One member, Abzal Dostiyarov, stated that on 15th January 2020 the police had come to his house when he was not at home and questioned his family members about his activities in the party.
- Political activist Maksat Aisautov was sentenced to five days’ administrative imprisonment in Uralsk on 17th February 2020. He was imprisoned for not complying with a court decision, where in 2018 he had failed to pay two court-ordered fines of around 30,000 KZT (63 EUR or 69 USD). Aisautov was detained by law enforcement as he was leaving Uralsk for the party congress in Almaty scheduled to take place on 22nd February 2020. His supporters believed that the imprisonment was an attempt to prevent him from participating in the party congress.
- On 17th February 2020, police also detained party delegates in Atyrau. The Administrative Court sentenced Kasym Kozhantaev to five days of administrative imprisonment for not abiding by a court decision on the repayment of a loan. However, Kozhantaev maintains that he does not have any outstanding loans, casting doubt on the nature of the charges. Political activists Talgat Ayan and Daria Ulzhagalieva were also detained by police and interrogated for several hours, which led to them missing their train to the congress in Almaty. Activist Altyngul Ishimova was also summoned by police for interrogation. Ishimova managed to catch the train but was removed from it by police.
- On 17th February 2020 in Zhanaozen, political activist Muratbai Zhumagaliev’s car was set on fire by unknown persons. Zhumagaliev, who found a set of gloves and matches near the car, filed a police complaint. He is a supporter of the new Democratic Party and was supposed to take a train to Almaty to attend the party congress but missed the train due to the arson incident.
There were also a few incidents related to the organisation Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). In an ongoing and long-lasting trend, citizens are accused and prosecuted for participating in and supporting this organisation (under article 405 of the Criminal Code) on vague grounds.
- On 9th January 2020 in Shymkent, 52 people were called as witnesses with entitlement to legal defence in a criminal case regarding their alleged membership in the banned DVK. All have previously participated in peaceful demonstrations. A lawyer from KIBHR is representing them.
- On 29th January 2020 East Kazakhstan Regional Court sentenced welder Serik Idryshev to one year’s restriction of freedom and a three-year ban on societal activities for participating in a banned extremist organisation. According to the investigation, Idryshev had “criminal intentions aimed at DVK-participation” because he had allegedly recorded a video message on his phone in support of DVK and posted it on Instagram.
- On 15th March 2020 in Almaty, a criminal case was opened against 15 people who are under suspicion for supporting the banned DVK. At the investigator’s request, all the suspects had their bank accounts blocked before learning that a criminal case had been opened against them.
- On a positive note, the Second City Court of Semey granted parole to opposition associate Mukhtar Dzhakishev on 3rd March 2020 after he had spent nearly 11 years behind bars since his arrest in May 2009. Dzhakishev was originally sentenced on corruption charges. Many believe that his sentence was related to the fact that he was a friend of exiled opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov from the banned DVK.
During mid to late March 2020, several incidents related to an unregistered political movement called “Koshe Partiyasy” – Street Party – were recorded. Street Party is an unregistered organisation without a leader which aims to improve living conditions in Kazakhstan and a peaceful transition of power.
- According to KIBHR monitoring, a civic activist from Shymkent was sentenced by the Administrative Court on 12th March 2020 for violating the laws on public associations and participation in activities of unregistered associations. The activist was fined 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 307 USD) for distributing leaflets containing information about the Street Party.
- On 16th March 2020 political activist Aliya Isenova was detained by police and fined 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 307 USD) for violating the law on public associations (Article 489 of the Administrative Code). Adenova had recorded a video message in support of the Street Party.
- On 16th March 2020 Aidan and Aidar Baisagatov were detained and taken to the police station in Oskemen after distributing leaflets with information about the Street Party. They were administratively fined 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 307 USD) for violation of the law on public associations – Article 489 of the Administrative Code.
- According to the KIBHR monitoring, three political activists from Semey were each fined 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 307 USD) for violation of the law on public associations – Article 489 of the Administrative Code – after recording a video message in support of the Street Party.
- On 18th March, political activist Kairat Sultanbekov from Lenger in Turkestan Region received a second summons for interrogation for handing out leaflets with information about the Street Party.
- On 26th March 2020, civic activist and ambulance doctor Andrey Pakhotnov from Almaty was fined 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 307 USD) for violation of the law on public associations – Article 489 of the Administrative Code. Pakhotnov had written a post on Facebook in support of the Street Party.
- On 30th March 2020, police called political activist Kerbez Yeginbayeva and demanded that she come to the police station for a “talk”. Yeginbayeva told the police that she could not leave the house due to the coronavirus quarantine measures. The police asked for her address, which she refused to give. They later called her again to say that if she did not come to the station, she would be charged with violation of the law on public associations – Article 489 of the Administrative Code – due to a video message she recorded on Facebook on 26th March 2020 in support of the Street Party.
- In a positive development, there were also two more notable releases of activists imprisoned on charges related to their rights to freely associate in the reporting period.
- On 12th February 2020, civil society activist Kaiyrly Omar had his prison time reduced in accordance with legislative changes regarding the calculation of prison days and was subsequently released at the end of February 2020. As previously covered on the Monitor, police arrested Omar on embezzlement charges in July 2018 and he received a two year-sentence. Omar leads the Zher Taghdyry (“The fate of the earth”) movement, which opposes land reforms in Kazakhstan and has been actively involved in peaceful protests on this and other issues. Omar was included on a civil society list of political prisoners in the country for his political resistance to Kazakh land reforms, compiled by the organisation “Tirek”.
- Shymkent-based trade union leader Yerlan Baltabai was released on 20th March 2020 due to legislative changes regarding the calculation of prison days. In August 2019, Baltabai was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment on charges of embezzlement but was later pardoned before being imprisoned again for not paying court fines, as mentioned in a previous Monitor update.
Peaceful assembly continues to be restricted in Kazakhstan. At present citizens must seek permission from the authorities to hold a demonstration – a request which is usually denied. This means that most peaceful demonstrations carried out in Kazakhstan are ‘unsanctioned’, as they have not been allowed by the authorities. Such unsanctioned demonstrations are usually dispersed by the police and protesters are often administratively charged and face up to 15 days of imprisonment, or varying fines. Despite promised changes in the new draft law approved by the Majilis and the Senate in the spring of 2020 (as mentioned above), the law seems to impose further restrictions on citizens’ right to peaceful assembly.
In the reporting period, there were numerous incidents related to citizens exercising their right to peacefully assemble. In most cases, activists were administratively fined and imprisoned for short periods of time for allegedly violating the law on peaceful assembly and disobeying police.
- In Almaty on 13th January 2020, the Special inter-district Administrative Court found six political activists guilty of violating the law on peaceful assembly. On 8th January 2020, Darkhan Ualiev, Yerkin Sabanshiev, Askhat Zheksebaev, Ruslan Iminakhunov, Dametkan Aspandiyarov and Yermek Koziev had participated in a small demonstration of about 20 people against the extradition of the Kazakhstani blogger and activist Zhanara Akhmet from the Ukraine. Ualiev, Sabanshiev and Zheksebaev were sentenced to fifteen days’ detention. Iminakhunov and Koziev were given fines of 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 310 USD), while Aspandiyarov received a fine of 53,020 KZT (113 EUR or 124 USD).
- Journalist and activist Daniyar Inzhigaliev staged a single picket outside the Uralsk police department’s headquarters on 15th January 2020 demanding the resignation of police chief Makhsudkhan Ablazimov. The next day Inzhigaliev was detained while leaving his home and informed that a criminal case had been opened against him. Police however did not notify him under which article the charges were made. After Inzhigaliev returned home, he learned that the owners of the apartment he rents had been fined 20,000 KZT (43 EUR or 47 USD) and his wife fined 9,000 KZT (19 EUR or 21 USD), allegedly for illegal rental.
- On 23rd January 2020, the Second City Court in Kostanay convicted political activists Askar Ibraev, Medet Yeseneev and Vyacheslav Mamin of participating in a banned extremist organisation – the DVK. In August 2019, the three activists allegedly held up a banner criticising former President Nazarbayev, proclaiming support for the DVK and allegedly painting similar statements on walls. Although no witnesses were present in court, the judge found the three men guilty and sentenced Ibraev and Yeseneev to one year’s imprisonment. Mamin received a six-month prison sentence after pleading guilty.
- On 27th January 2020, Bagdat Kurmantay staged a single picket on a square in Shu, in support of political prisoners in Kazakhstan. He was quickly detained by police, taken to the police station and then directly to court. In the Administrative Court, he was found guilty of violating the law on peaceful assembly and sentenced to ten days of administrative detention. Kurmantay was held in a temporary detention facility in another city, Taraz over 200 km from Shu.
- On 4th February 2020 Shymkent Administrative Court found Activist Sabit Syzdykbek guilty of violating the law on peaceful assembly and sentenced him to five days’ administrative detention. On 26thJanuary 2020 Syzdykbek had staged a single picket. On the day of his detention he had also held a single picket in Shymkent’s Independence Park, where he demanded that the authorities stop persecuting people who exercise their right to peaceful assembly and that ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev should be released from his duties as head of Kazakhstan’s security council.
- On 6th February 2020, Atyrau Administrative Court issued an official warning to a local resident for violating the law on peaceful assembly. On 25th January 2020 the resident used the Telegram messaging app to make a call to join a demonstration to reduce the taxation on cars imported from within the Eurasian Economic Union. Before the court issued the warning he was detained by police and had his phone taken for examination.
- Seven people were convicted by Almaty Administrative Court on 14th February 2020 and sentenced to five and fifteen days’ administrative detention for violating the law on peaceful assembly after they had participated in a peaceful protest at the Old Square in Almaty on 11th February 2020 against the installation of the “Sergek” traffic surveillance cameras. Another activist, who had left the demonstration before the detentions began, was also sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention on 20th February 2020.
- The Second Administrative Court in Uralsk ordered the detention of civic activist Baurzhan Alipkaliev on 15th February 2020. He was placed in administrative detention for ten days after holding a single picket on 23rd January 2020 demanding that Nazarbayev Avenue be given back its former name – Druzhba (Friendship) Avenue.
- On 18th February 2020, civil society activist Sanavar Zakirova was sentenced to five days’ administrative detention by Nur-Sultan City Court for disobeying police orders. Almaty-based activist Madina Kuketaeva was also arrested in the capital on the same grounds. Both women were arrested together with another activist – Kanagat Takeeva – near the President’s residence where dozens of people had gathered to protest against mortgage conditions and construction shareholders.
- On 18th February 2020, Aktau Administrative Court sentenced eight activists to five days’ administrative detention for violating the law on peaceful assembly after they announced they were going on a hunger strike at the Manustau Regional Courthouse on 5th and 6th February 2020 to demand a fair hearing for Zhambyl Kobeysinov. As covered in the previous Monitor update, Kobeysinov was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in December after being found guilty of slander when he accused a local police chief of abuse of power.
- On 20th February, activist Nurbol Onerkhan from Birlik village in the North-Kazakhstan Region was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention for violating the law of peaceful assembly after he encouraged others to participate in DVK’s demonstrations set to take place on 22nd February 2020 (see below).
Several demonstrations were scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan on 22nd February 2020, both called for by DVK and the new Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, respectively. The organisers had not obtained permission for the assemblies from local authorities, as required by national law.
- The first demonstration was announced in Almaty by the new Democratic Party (founded last year by Zhanbolat Mamay and others). Seventy party members – non-resident party congress delegates staying in one hostel – were detained by police early in the morning of 22nd February 2020. At around 11:00 am about 50 other party supporters gathered near Asan Square, where party member Tulegen Zhukeev made a speech. Shortly thereafter, police detained almost all demonstrators gathered at the square. Zhukeev was brought before a judge the same day and ordered to pay a fine. Zhanbol Rakhmatulla, also from the party, was also detained and sentenced to 15 days’ administrative detention. Rakhmatulla’s nose was reportedly injured by police when he was detained. The leader of the party, Zhanbolat Mamay, had been sentenced to two days’ administrative detention on 21st February 2020 for calling for an unsanctioned demonstration at an earlier press conference.
- The second demonstration by the banned DVK movement was scheduled for 12:00 pm at Astana Square in Almaty. The theme of the demonstration was “work and a worthy life”. The police cordoned off the entire area nearby and detained anyone they found close to the site. Around 100 people were arrested. One detainee, Yerbol Alin, was arrested with such force that a rib was broken and his collar bone was damaged. Six people were brought before an administrative court. Two were ordered to pay fines and four others sentenced to administrative detention periods ranging from seven to fifteen days.
- DVK demonstrations were also held in other cities, including in the capital, where about 100 people were detained, according to KIBHR monitoring.
- On 22nd February 2020, KIBHR recorded around 300 detentions in 16 cities across the country. In at least three cases, the police reportedly used excessive force (two cases in Almaty, and one in Uralsk). Most of those detained were released without charge, but 26 people were brought before an administrative court. Thirteen were sentenced to between three to fifteen days of administrative detention (including two activists from the new Democratic Party) and thirteen people were fined (the number includes Tulegen Zhukeev, mentioned above). Between the 17th and 21st February 2020, before the announced demonstrations, police had also carried out preventive detentions of 73 people, of whom 33 were sentenced to periods of administrative detention.
As mentioned in the introduction, there were many protests directly related to the death of the activist Dulat Agadil in police custody:
- After the news of Agadil’s death, on 25th February 2020, 50 people gathered outside the police headquarters in the capital, demanding information about the circumstances of Agadil’s death in custody. When no reaction was received from the police services, dozens of protesters began to close off Independence Avenue (Prospekt Nezavisimosti), demanding an explanation from police officials. Special forces then detained at least 50 protesters. One detainee reportedly broke his arm. All those detained were released that same evening.
- Following Dulat Agadil’s funeral on 27th February 2020, some mourners gathered near a conference hall in Nur-Sultan to discuss further action. Special forces arrived and detained about 40 people, including some bystanders. Some people who attempted to avoid detention were allegedly beaten by officials of the special forces, who also forbade journalists from filming the incident. Those detained were released either the same evening or the next morning without being charged.
- Activist Dianara Mukatova, who works as a volunteer at KIBHR’s office in Atyrau, risks imprisonment after a court hearing on 18th March 2020 for allegedly violating the terms of her previous sentence, which included a ban on using social networks. Mukatova had posted comments on Facebook in connection with the death of Dulat Agadil and about how she was illegally detained and beaten by the prosecutor and police officers. In 2019 Mukatova had been sentenced to one year’s restriction of freedom and a ban on using social media, for participating in a “banned extremist organisation” – the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) – mentioned in a previous Monitor.
On 1st March 2020, several (unsanctioned) demonstrations were also announced across the country by “Oyan, Kazakhstan”, DVK, the new Democratic Party and other movements, demanding an investigation into the death of Dulat Agadil. All the locations which were announced for demonstrations were cordoned off by police, who also made preventive arrests of activists and random bystanders near the designated areas. The main events are described below.
- In the early morning of 1st March 2020, in Almaty’s Kaskelen district, unknown people in civilian clothes tried to prevent the founder of the new Democratic Party, Zhanbolat Mamay, from leaving his house. His pregnant wife Inga Imanbai began filming the incident on her phone but was pushed by one of the attackers and fell, hitting her head on an iron fence and sustaining mild concussion. The attackers took her phone and ran off.
- According to KIBHR monitoring, police in Almaty detained around 30-40 people near Old Square. All were released by the evening without being charged.
- In Nur-Sultan, at least 14 people were detained near the Abay-monument. Around 14 people were also detained near the office of the OSCE.
- In Aktobe, 15 people were detained near the regional municipal office (the oblast Akimat). Some were sentenced to two to ten days’ administrative detention.
- In Uralsk, at least three people were detained.
- In Shymkent, at least 15 people were detained.
- n Atyrau, the police detained around ten people near the central square. Among the detainees was the regional representative of KIBHR, Assel Nurgazieva, who was there as an observer. Nurgazieva was subsequently given an official warning by the court.
Two activists were also fined for their involvement in the feminist march on International Women’s day on 8th March 2020, when more than 50 activists carried out a peaceful – yet unsanctioned – march on a pedestrian street in Almaty. On 12th March 2020 Almaty Administrative Court ordered two activists from the feminist group KazFem to pay fines. Arina Osinovskaya was found guilty of minor hooliganism, violating the law on peaceful assembly, not being legally registered in Almaty and fined 84,832 KZT (179 EUR or 195 USD). Fariza Ospan was fined 31,812 KZT (67 EUR or 73 USD). Both women pleaded not guilty. No detentions were made during the march.
On 18th March 2020, several activists gathered outside Aktobe Regional Court requesting that they attend the trial of Asylkhan Zhaubatyrov, one of many “investors” participating in a pyramid scheme known as “Gold Aktobe LTD”. Zhaubatyrov was on trial for violating the laws of peaceful assembly after he urged victims of fraud to gather in front of the office of “Gold Aktobe LTD”. As the activists gathered outside the courthouse, they learned that the trial would not take place on that day. Instead, they made a joint video urging the authorities to stop the persecution of civic activists. Zhaubatyrov, who was also outside the courthouse, was immediately detained by police and taken to the Specialised Administrative Court of Aktobe where he was convicted of disobeying police orders in an expedited trial. An official warning was issued to him. Another activist who had participated in making the video outside the courthouse, Berik Nogayev, was detained, put on trial and ordered to pay a fine of 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 307 USD). Two other activists, Alibek Moldin and Aitzhan Temirgaziev, were also detained and respectively spent the night in two different police stations. On 21st March 2020, Moldin, Temirgaziev and activist Karagoz Bayshigulova, were taken to the Administrative Court for violating the State of Emergency (which was declared on 16th March 2020). Zhaubatyrov and Moldin were sentenced to ten days’ administrative detention and Bayshigulova received a fine of 26,510 KZT (57 EUR or 62 USD).
In a tragic turn of events, on 28th March 2020 the body of activist Amanbike Khairolla was found on the outskirts of Aktobe – it is believed that she committed suicide. The day before, Khairolla had apparently posted a letter of apology to her children and parents on social media, where she stated that she was accused of “pro-regime sentiments”, among other things. However, her contacts and friends doubt that Khairolla herself wrote the post on Facebook due to the many grammatical mistakes in the post. On 7th March 2020, Khairolla had made a written complaint to the police on the messaging app Telegram in relation to anonymous threats she had received and had attached a list of suspects. The police had opened a criminal case. Throughout the past year Khairolla had participated in peaceful protests in Aktobe. Local activists have filed a case with the police, alleging that Khairolla was driven to suicide.
The reporting period featured numerous violations of freedom of expression, particularly hampering the work of journalists and bloggers, and the systematic persecution and prosecution of journalists, human rights professionals and other citizens for their social media activity.
In several cases, journalists were prevented from carrying out their work during the reporting period:
- In the Kyzylzhar District Court of the North Kazakhstan Region, on 11th February 2020 a court case began against journalist Farkhat Tastambekov from the local newspaper “Kyzylzhar”. The journalist was sued by the head of the Petropavlovsk Department of Education, Sara Ramazanova, for allegedly insulting her honour, dignity and business reputation. She accused him of posting comments on Facebook regarding the privatisation of kindergartens, using the word “mafia”.
- On 14th February 2020, police detained the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper “Saryagash-Info” Amangeldy Batyrbekov as he attempted to enter the hall where a public meeting with the regional akim (mayor) of Turkestan was taking place. Reportedly, Batyrbekov was not informed of the reasons for his detention. Batyrbekov has been convicted of libel in relation to his journalistic work on several occasions.
- On 22nd February 2020, journalists in Uralsk were harassed by law enforcement officials. Two journalists from the independent media Uralsk Week were arbitrarily detained. The same day, Editor-in-Chief Lukpan Akhmedyarov was summoned twice for interrogation by the police. Blogger Askar Shaygumarov reported seeing police officers surveilling his home. The police actions were believed to be related to a call to hold an unsanctioned demonstration in the city that day by the banned movement “Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan” (DVK), led by exiled opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov, which has been labeled an extremist organisation and banned by the court.
- The Kazakh language newspaper “Zhas-Alash”, known for being critical at times towards the authorities, came under significant pressure in February and March 2020. On 5th March 2020 Askhat Asan, a former journalist for the paper, was taken to Medeu District Police station in Almaty for questioning in relation to an article he wrote entitled: “Will the day come when the ex-president is wanted by Interpol?” A criminal case was initiated under Article 174 of the Criminal Code (incitement to social hatred). The print version of the article appeared when Inga Imanbai (also known from the new Democratic Party) had been appointed Editor-in-Chief of the paper. The police asked Asan about the role of Imanbai in the publication of the article. Asan stated that the article was written through his own initiative. Imanbai resigned as Editor-in-Chief on 24th February 2020, due to pressure because of the paper’s critical coverage of protests and other issues. Three journalists left the publication as well – Yrysbek Dabey, Askhat Asan and Yesdaulet Kyzyrbekuly.
- On 30th March 2020, civic activist Yuriy Malenkikh was sentenced to two days’ administrative detention for allegedly disobeying the police when he was covering the use of road blocks around Almaty city as part of the measures taken to seal off the city during quarantine in mid-March 2020. On 26th March 2020, Malenkikh and blogger Gennady Krestyansky filmed a road with police at checkpoints. (https://vlast.kz/novosti/38313-osvesavsego-situaciu-na-blokpostah-almaty-aktivista-arestovali-na-dvoe-sutok.html) Krestyansky also faced similar charges and was sentenced to 10 days’ detention.
Several journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society activists came under pressure for social media posts during the reporting period:
- Freelance journalist Indira Kakimova from Oskemen was met by two police officers as she left her home on 24th February 2020. The men asked her to come to the police station. When Kakimova attempted to film the police officers, one of them grabbed her phone. She was then taken to the police station and held there for seven hours, before being released without any explanation. Kakimova had earlier written on Facebook that on 24th February 2020 she intended to report on an opposition meeting taking place nearby.
- On 26th February 2020, Yesil and Sary-Arka District Courts in the capital ruled to disbar lawyers Yerlan Gazymzhanov and Amanzhol Mukhamedyarov based on a lawsuit filed by the Ministry of Justice. The lawyers were disbarred for publishing a video on social media, which was filmed in a courtroom. The video showed Judge Gulzhakhan Ubasheva, whose behaviour, the defendants claimed, violated court ethics. Gazymzhanov and Mukhamedyarov had posted the video in 2017.
- On 26th February 2020, Zhambyl District Court found Abai Zhundibaev guilty on charges of defamation, insult and slander. The local akim (mayor) had filed a lawsuit with the police against Zhundibaev after he published a video on social media accusing the mayor of illegally felling trees in a village. Zhundibaev did not deny posting the video but stated that the lawsuit was filed against him because he “talks openly about problems”. Zhundibayev was sentenced to a year’s conditional detention.
- On 23rd March 2020, a criminal case was initiated against medical doctor Duman Aitzhanov from Almaty Region for allegedly disseminating false information (Article 274 of the Criminal Code). Aitzhanov was fired from his job. Earlier in January 2020, Aitzhanov had sent a video message warning his friends about the danger of the coronavirus in a private WhatsApp group chat. In the video, Aitzhanov claimed to know of 70 infected persons in Almaty (the first official case was reported two months later, in March). Later, in what was believed to be as a result of pressure by the authorities, on 31st January 2020 Aitzhanov had published a video publicly refuting his earlier statements, referring to his earlier video message as ‘a joke’.
- In Aktobe, Dana Zhanai and Altynai Tuksikova from the human rights initiative Qaharman were threatened with criminal charges by police because of a Facebook post from 23rd March 2020 titled “About a hunger strike in the administrative detention centre”. The post referred to a hunger strike by some of the 70 arrested people in the administrative detention centre in Aktobe. On 25th March 2020, activist Karagoz Bashigulova was fined 106,040 KZT (227 EUR or 246 USD) for reposting the publication on Facebook. They were all found guilty of violating the state of emergency.
- On 24th March 2020, Aiya Sadvakasova from Stepnogorsk was summoned for questioning “as a witness”, allegedly in connection with a video she posted demanding the government’s resignation. In Aksu in Pavlodar Region, police also summoned Amangeldy Smagulov on 25th March 2020 for a “preventive” talk at the police station. Smagulov had recorded and posted a video demanding the resignation of the government. The police warned Smagulov that he could be prosecuted for “extremism” if he continued to shoot such videos.
KIBHR has documented many similar cases in recent months.
- Journalist Maria Melnikova from Azattyq (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) was summoned for questioning by police on 25th March 2020. Melnikova was informed that she was a witness with a right to defence in a case concerning the distribution of false information (Article 274 of the Criminal Code). Melnikova believes she was summoned for questioning because she had published a screenshot from social media about the missing statue of the Kazakh poet Abay at a central square in Uralsk. The police also seized her phone for investigation. Melnikova has previously worked for the independent media Uralsk Week and has for several years been targeted by authorities. She has been detained numerous times in relation to her work as a journalist.
- Human rights lawyer Elena Semenova, known for advocating for prisoner rights, stated on 27th March 2020 in Kostanay that medical staff of prison UK-161/2 had instigated a libel suit against her for allegedly violating their honour and dignity. The staff claim that on 26th October 2019 she published false information on prison violence and ill treatment on her Facebook page. According to Sememova, she received a collective complaint from 30 people, who protested against the “illegal actions” of the employees of prison UK-161/2. Semenova further stated that her publication contained important facts from the complaint, including a video where inmates report being beaten and forced to sew uniforms for the prison guards.
- Youtuber Dias Moldalimov was arrested by police in Almaty on 28th March 2020 and taken to the police station for questioning. The day before, he had posted a video message called “Coronavirus in Kazakhstan” on YouTube, where he asked the authorities to consider the fates of those who are not able to survive on the state emergency fund, which offers once-off support of around 42,500 KZT (90 EUR or 99 USD). The emergency funds are offered to citizens affected by unemployment or forced leave during the state of emergency. In the video message, Moldalimov laid out reasons for citizens’ unhappiness and warned of the potential consequences of this. A criminal investigation was initiated on distributing false information (Article 274 of the Criminal Code) during a state of emergency. However, Moldalimov has still not been officially charged and is currently considered a witness in the case.
- In the early morning of 31st March 2020, a group of police officers entered the home of Roman Reikhert and his wife Regina Belalova, in the village Martuk near Aktobe. The police conducted a search, where they confiscated a smart phone and an inflated balloon. Belalova attempted to film the actions of the police but they confiscated her phone, referring to a “ban on filming during investigation in accordance with the pre-trial proceedings”. After the search, Reikhert was taken to Martuk District Police Department for questioning in relation to participation in a banned extremist organisation (Article 405 of the Criminal Code). Belalova was interrogated for four hours. Her phone was examined, but nothing illegal was found. Reikhert had earlier published a video message online criticising the authorities for failing to provide adequate social support during the coronavirus pandemic. He had earlier been subjected to pressure from the authorities for participating in protests and expressing his views.
In addition to the above-mentioned cases, there were several other incidents related to restrictions on freedom of expression worth mentioning:
- Uralsk-based blogger Aibolat Bukenov faced new court proceedings. As covered in the previous Monitor update, Bukenov was previously found guilty of “slight infliction of bodily harm” (an administrative offence) and detained for five days following a complaint filed by pro-government journalist Dana Duisekenova. Duisekenova took Bukenov to court again on 6th February 2020, demanding compensation for moral damages on the same grounds. The case is widely believed to be politically motivated. The Uralsk regional police also filed a lawsuit against Bukenov on 17th January 2020 for allegedly violating the honour and dignity of the police, in relation to a statement he made on TV when he claimed that police had broken the law 92 times in 2018 and 2019. This case was closed on 24th February 2020, as Bukenov agreed to refute the statement he had given on TV and issue an apology to the police.
- On 17th January 2020, Shu District Court fined Bagdat Baktybaev 132,550 KZT (284 EUR or 310 USD) for violating the law on religious practice. During prayers, Baktybaev had asked a local Imam about Muslims in the Chinese Xinjiang internment camps and the failure of the Muslim clergy in Kazakhstan to respond to the situation.
- On 6th March 2020, Uralsk Administrative Court found activist Aliya Abulkhairova guilty of minor hooliganism and fined her 10,000 KZT (21 EUR or 23 USD). The case was related to an incident in court in December 2019, when she read out a monologue from the theatrical comedy “Woe from Wit” by Alexander Griboyedov to the court after she lost her appeal against a sentence for disobeying police orders.
- On 13th March 2020 in Almaty, the police detained the Petropavlovsk-based blogger Azamat Baikenov as he was out walking with his wife and young daughter. Baikenov was subsequently put under house arrest during the investigation of a criminal case against him, which is believed to have been brought in retaliation for his exercise of freedom of expression – potentially related to a comment Baikenov made at a press conference at KIBHR’s office three days earlier, on the authorities’ongoing prosecution of activists by associating them with DVK. In December 2019 (see previous Monitor update), Baikenov was informed that the police had initiated a criminal investigation against him on alleged charges of incitement to social hatred (Article 174 of the Criminal Code), but later the charges were amended to participation in a banned extremist organisation (Article 405), for posting DVK-related content on social media. Baikenov denied the charges. Baikenov is known for making videos and blogs on political themes.
- On 14th March, Nur-Sultan based activists Serik Askarov, Asel Olnabekkyzy and Saltanat Barykbaeva were summoned to the General Prosecutor’s office. They discovered that a criminal case had been opened against them under Article 274 (disseminating false information) after they shared a video alleging that Dulat Agadil had been beaten.