Muffled protests and persecution of opposition movements, NGOs and trade unions
This report covers developments on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan during February and March 2021 and was prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by 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.
As described in detail below, the reporting period was characterised by the ongoing crackdown on opposition movements and civil society organisations and serious violations of the right to peaceful assembly.
On 9th February 2021, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan, in which it expressed concerns about the restrictions on fundamental rights marked during the January 2021 parliamentary elections, including growing pressure on civil society organisations. The Parliament called on the Kazakhstani authorities to cease exerting pressure on civil society and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. In response, the Kazakhstani Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “We are convinced that the text of the resolution distorts the real state of affairs in our country and was initiated by unfriendly politicians, fuelled by falsified information from destructive circles. Kazakhstan is purposefully and progressively realising its obligations in the field of human rights.” The Ministry further declared that the resolution “caused complete bewilderment and incomprehension with respect to the reliability of the information used.”
The reporting period saw several cases of pressure and obstruction of the work of trade unions and NGOs and continued persecution of activists from the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and the Street Party, opposition movements which have been banned as “extremist’’ by court decisions in Kazakhstan, although they do not advocate or endorse violence.
- On 5th February 2021, a court in Shymkent suspended the work of “The Industry Trade Union of Workers of the Fuel and Energy Factory” for six months, satisfying a claim from Shymkent’s Akimat. The Akimat had filed a lawsuit based on complaints from the Oil Construction Company, West Oil and Buzachi Trans Kurylys. The companies stated that the trade union did not comply with laws on registration and had not amended its constituent documents correctly. The trade union was also accused of having no structural subdivisions or affiliated organisations in most regions and in the three largest cities and of not being a member of the country-wide trade union association. The former head of this union, Yerlan Baltabay, was convicted in 2019 on charges of "embezzlement of union money" (see previous update). Baltabay received a prison sentence, which was converted to a fine.
- On 3rd March 2021, the Uralsk-based organisation Abiroi was fined 538,000 KZT (around 1,000 EUR or 1,200 USD) by the tax authorities and ordered to suspend its activities for three months. The organisation is headed by the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Uralsk Week, Lukpan Akhmedyarov.
Other significant cases concerning citizens’ right to freedom of association:
- A momentary break in the pressure on activist Serikzhan Bilash occurred on 2nd February 2021, when a case against the activist on charges of incitement to hatred (Article 174 of the Criminal Code) was terminated due to lack of evidence. Since April 2020, Bilash had been accused of offending “the national flag” with his statements. Bilash previously led an organisation that worked to raise awareness of violations of the rights of Kazakhs, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang region. As covered before, Serikzhan Bilash was first detained on incitement charges in March 2019 and was subsequently held under house arrest in the capital for over five months. He was eventually fined and banned from leading public organisations for seven years. In 2020, Serikzhan Bilash was forced to leave Kazakhstan due to the pressure he faced for his activism.
- On the night of 27th February 2021 in Uralsk, the car of activist, peaceful protester and election observer Serik Kayapkaliev was set ablaze. According to Kayapkaliev, on 8th January 2021, after he had expressed his desire to be an observer in the parliamentary elections, unknown persons also punctured the wheel of his car.
During the reporting period, according to KIBHR’s monitoring, more than 120 people were charged with participating in “a banned organisation” because of their alleged involvement in the DVK and/or the Street Party. The activists who were convicted on such charges were typically given sentences involving restriction of freedom (a non-custodial sentence entailing court-imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement of those affected), as well as bans on civic engagement. Below are some of the cases documented by KIBHR:
- On 4th March 2021, the Second City Court in Taraz sentenced activists Nazira Lepesova and Nazira Lesova to two years of restriction of freedom on charges of participating in a banned organisation. The two women were banned from participating in social and political activities for five years and banned from using social networks. They were accused of participating in the banned groups DVK and the Street Party.
- Roman Reikhert, an activist from Aktobe region, was hospitalised after sustaining a head injury while being detained by police on 22nd March 2021. He was detained in public in front of his three-year old child. Following his detention Reikhert complained of headaches and nausea. A case was allegedly opened against him for petty hooliganism and insulting a government official. As mentioned in a previous Monitor update, Reikhert was found guilty of participating in an extremist organisation in May 2020 and he is currently on probation.
- On 22nd February 2021, Karaganda-based civic activist Askar Nurmaganov was sentenced to one and a half years of restriction of freedom and forced labour on charges of participation in DVK and the Street Party. (He was also banned from participation in social and political activities for three years. At the time of his trial, Nurmaganov had been held in pre-trial detention for more than six months, and he told the court that he had been subjected to pressure in order to force him to confess.
- On 26th February 2021, Karatau District Court in Shymkent began hearing a criminal case against Zhanmurat Ashtaev, Nurzhan Abildaev and Erlan Fayzullaev, who were facing charges of participating in extremist organisations because of their alleged support for the DVK and Street Party. The indictment stated that the three activists had expressed support for these organisations in a live stream on Facebook in October 2020. The court case is continuing at the time of writing.
- On 2nd March 2021, the Second City Court in Taraz sentenced activist Zhazira Kambarova to two years of restriction of freedom on charges of organising and participating in the activities of the banned Street Party. The court also prohibited the activist from engaging in social and political activities for five years.
- On 25th March 2021, Kapshagai City Court in Almaty Region rejected activist Aset Abishev’s petition for parole, citing insufficient grounds. Abishev is one of the first in the wave of political prisoners related to the banned movements DVK and Street Party. In 2018, Abishev was sentenced to four years in prison for posts on social media in support of DVK and its exiled leader Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Several activists, prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of association, were included in a revised list of political prisoners in Kazakhstan:
- On 24th February 2021, Maksut Appasov, a civil activist from Ekibastuz, was detained in relation to his participation in the DVK and Street Party. He was recognised by KIBHR and other human rights organisations in Kazakhstan as a political prisoner in March 2021.
- Abzal Kanaliev, a civil activist from Aktau, was placed under house arrest in November 2020 pending an investigation of charges of participation in an extremist organisation initiated against him. On 23rd February 2021, the court changed his house arrest to pre-trial detention. As a result of this measure, he was recognised by KIBHR and other human rights organisations in Kazakhstan as a political prisoner in March 2021.
- Merey Korbakov, a civic activist from Mangystau Oblast, is facing charges of using violence against a representative of the authorities (under Article 380 of the Criminal Code). On 18th November 2020, his house was searched and he was subsequently taken into custody, accused of sympathising with the aims of the DVK. During the pre-trial investigation period he was held in custody. He was recognised by KIBHR and other human rights organisations in Kazakhstan as a political prisoner in March 2021. Prior to his detention Korbakov had publicly criticised the work of a local politician and had stated his intention to be an election observer.
- Medet Yeseneyev, a civic activist from Kostanay, was sentenced to one year of restriction of freedom in January 2020 for allegedly participating in a banned extremist organisation – in this case the DVK. On 4th September 2020, Yeseneyev’s sentence was changed to imprisonment based on a court decision due to his alleged violation of the terms of his restricted freedom sentence. He was recognised by KIBHR and other human rights organisations in Kazakhstan as a political prisoner in March 2021.
- Aidar Syzdykov, a civic activist from Nur-Sultan, is facing charges of allegedly participating in a banned extremist organisation - the Street Party - and has been held in pre-trial detention since 21st March 2021. He was recognised by KIBHR and other human rights organisations in Kazakhstan as a political prisoner in March 2021. The investigation against Syzdykov is still ongoing.
Despite the fact that Kazakhstan has officially had a notification system for holding peaceful assemblies since May 2020, in practice it is implemented as a system of permission, and individual citizens and initiative groups are often denied official approval for peaceful assemblies, and even single pickets, under various pretexts. Although in a positive development, the number of sanctioned demonstrations has increased, it is undermined by the significant tendency on the part of the authorities to use preventive detention (detaining people who the authorities believe might take part in a demonstration) to undermine people’s right to peaceful assembly. Calls for peaceful assemblies and expressing the intention to take part are often equated to committing an administrative offence. The authorities also continue to arrest and prosecute citizens for administrative offences months after an unsanctioned demonstration has taken place. Furthermore, the authorities have begun to systematically switch off internet connectivity in parts of Almaty during demonstrations. In addition to interfering with the communications among protest participants and observers, these actions paralyse the work of shop keepers, as most payment terminals stop working, and is of great annoyance to the general public.
As mentioned in the previous update, the police have begun to actively use the tactic of "kettling" against protesters in Kazakhstan. (Kettling is a police tactic used to control large crowds and involves cordons of police officers who contain protesters in a small area). During the reporting period, there were cases when the police used kettling against protesters for over ten hours at a time. When confined, demonstrators are not allowed to leave, get food or go to the toilet, and they can also be subject to attacks from provocateurs. Only if a person loses consciousness or experiences serious health problems are they allowed to leave -- in an ambulance.
- On 28th February 2021, supporters of the unregistered Democratic Party and the banned opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) held demonstrations in Almaty. Activists from the Democratic Party intended to hold a demonstration on Republic Square to call for political reform, for Kazakhstan to comply with the requirements of the recent European Parliament resolution (see above) and cease leasing Kazakh land to foreigners. DVK supporters gathered for a rally near the former Gorky Park demanding the release of political prisoners and compliance with the European Parliament resolution. About 30 activists from the Democratic Party were rounded up by the police at Republic Square and “kettled” for over ten hours before being allowed to go home. The police also used force to detain some 60 potential demonstrators and random passers-by near Gorky Park. Those detained were eventually released without charge and, at the time of writing, no one had been prosecuted in relation to their participation in the demonstrations that day. There were also attempts to hold protest actions in other Kazakhstani cities, and some citizens were detained there. For example, ten civil activists were detained in and around Auezov square in Semey. In the city of Atyrau, Max Bokayev and his supporters were forced to call off their demonstration when the police attempted to kettle them. In Aktobe, some ten demonstrators went to the central stadium, and were promptly detained as they began to voice their demands.
- On 16th February 2021, the Almaty City Prosecutor issued a statement claiming that the kettling of protesters on 10th January was not illegal (see previous update). The statement was made in response to an appeal by the Oyan, Kazakhstan! member Ayzat Abilseit. On 1st March 2021, during an interview with Radio Azattyq, the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan - the Ombudsman - Elvira Azimova called the kettling of demonstrators "a security measure".“There are OSCE recommendations on this matter. This is a pure security measure. The application of this measure should be approved as a standard based on open dialogue with public activists.”
For over two months there have been daily demonstrations staged by around 12 people at the Chinese Consulate in Almaty. The demonstrators are people whose relatives are either known to be in the Chinese Xinjiang internment camps or who have disappeared. Police occasionally arrest the demonstrators and have also prevented journalists from reporting on the protests.
- On 1st February 2021, Almaty Administrative Court issued a warning to Baybolat Kunbolatuly, who was detained near the Chinese Consulate. He had demonstrated outside the Consulate for the release of his younger brother, who is a Chinese citizen, and is held in the Xinjiang internment camps. On 8th and 9th February 2021, a group of people demonstrated outside the consulate, stating that their relatives in Xinjiang had been convicted on groundless charges, or were unable to leave for Kazakhstan because the Chinese authorities had confiscated their passports. On 9th February 2021, Kunbolatuly was sentenced to ten days of administrative detention. On 26th February, the Specialised Interdistrict Administrative Court in Almaty sentenced Marat Kurbanov, who had also participated in a demonstration outside the Consulate on 23rd February 2021, to 12 days of administrative detention.
- On a positive note, after almost five years behind bars,political prisoner Max Bokayev was released from prison after completing his sentence in Atyrau on 4th February 2021. However, on 18th February 2021, the Second City Court of Atyrau ruled that Max Bokayev should be kept under “administrative supervision” for a period of up to three years, at the request of the city police department. Bokayev is now prohibited from leaving Atyrau for three years without written police permission; prohibited from leaving his home on weekdays from 22:00 to 06:00, as well as on holidays and weekends, except for business purposes. He is also prohibited from discussing socially important issues and expressing opinions in public places and outside. During the period of administrative supervision, the activist is obliged to report to the police in Atyrau regularly. Before Bokayev’s release, the Atyrau court sentenced him to three years of administrative supervision at the request of the regional Department of the Committee of the Penitentiary (prison) System. On 19th February 2021, Max Bokayev received a warning from the Department of the Penitentiary System of the Atyrau Oblast region for giving an interview after his release. On 16th March 2021, the Atyrau Oblast Appeals Court rejected Max Bokayev's complaint about the restrictions. Max Bokayev was arrested in 2016, at the height of the nationwide land reform protests. In November 2016, the Second Atyray City Court found Max Bokayev andactivist Talgat Ayan guilty of incitement to social discord and disseminating knowingly false information, through social media, as well as of violating the procedure for holding assemblies (Criminal Code Articles 174, 274 and 400). Both of them were sentenced to five years in prison, banned from engaging in public activities for three years upon release, and fined 530,250 KZT (about 1,500 Euros at the time). The two activists were convicted following a politically motivated and unfair trial.
Other general cases violatingcitizens’ right to peacefully assemble were also documented:
- In Shymkent, on 26th February 2021, the Specialised Interdistrict Administrative Court sentenced activists Daniyar Baitleu and Yergali Kulbaev to five days of administrative detention on charges of participating in an “illegal rally” (although official permission for protests is no longer needed) . On 15th February 2021 they demonstrated in front of prison colony ICh-167/11, demanding the release of a prisoner.
- On 27th February 2021, in Zhanaozen, activists Nurlybek Nurgaliev, Nurzhan Narenov, Zhanbyr Ergazy and Zholaman Seilov were sentenced toadministrative detention of between 15 and 20 days after being found guilty of organising and participating in several unsanctioned rallies. On 10th February 2021, the activists sent a letter to the akimats (local authorities) of Zhanaozen and Mangistau regions, raising issues about drinking water, liquified natural gas and protesting about the construction of a hotel in the Bozzhyra tract. Having received no response, they sent a second letter on 22nd February 2021. On 27th February 2021, the activists posted a video on social networks explainingthe lack of response and their intention to hold a rally on 28th February 2021. In early November 2020, it became known that investors had offered to build a “safari hotel” in the Bozzhyra tract in western Mangystau. Environmentalists and local residents opposed the idea and advocated for the preservation of the natural landscape.
- On 9th March 2021, the authorities denied activists in Uralsk permission to demonstrate in the park behind the Manshuk Mametova square on 4th April 2021, on the grounds that it is “International Children’s Book Day” and celebrations for this were due to take place in the public square, where rallies are usually held.
- On 12th March 2021, Kostanay-based civic activist Dias Nurmagambetov was sentenced to 12 days’ administrative detention. On 9th March 2021, he had filed a notice of intention to hold a rally and demanded the proper clearing of snow from the streets. On 11th March 2021 he was notified that it was not approved, yet he still urged his supporters to go to the unsanctioned demonstration.
- On 27th March 2021, the unregistered Democratic Party held a demonstration of around 300 people on Valikhanov Square in Almaty against “Chinese expansion”. Mobile internet services were turned off for half the day. Before the rally, the police arbitrarily detained around seven or eight people as they approached the square. They were released later that day. A speaker was physically attacked by an unknown man, who fled the scene. Police officers, who observed the incident, did not make any attempt to arrest the attacker.
- On the same day in Uralsk, Bekbolat Utebayev was sentenced to five days of administrative detention for holding a single picket at the central square in the city a month earlier, on 25th February 2021. The picket was in support of activist Dulat Agadil, who died in police custody in early 2020. The administrative detention was not legal asUtebayev has a disability and such detentions are prohibited by Article 50 of the Administrative Code.
- On the morning of 31st March 2021, groups of police officers began searching for activists who had previously participated in demonstrations. In total, up to 20 local activists who had filed notices of the intention to hold rallies in different places (all of which had been refused) were detained as they left their apartments in the city centre, at bus stops, or on the way to the city square. The police stated that the activists were taken in for interrogation based on their alleged participation in banned organisations.
During the reporting period, the authorities used libel charges in retaliation against outspoken activists. The editor-in-chief of the independent media Uralsk week, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, was also subjected to criminal prosecution because of his journalistic work.
On 1st February 2021, a criminal case on Article 423 of the Criminal Code, for disclosing information from pre-trial proceedings or closed court proceedings, was initiated against Lukpan Akhmedyarov, the editor-in-chief of Uralsk Week. On 3rd February 2021, Akhmedyarov attempted to leave for Atyrau to meet the recently released political prisoner Max Bokayev. He was detained by police and taken to the local police station for questioning in relation to the criminal charges against him. At the police station, Akmedyarov spent over three hours waiting in the investigator’s office before being asked to sign an investigation protocol stating that he refused to testify since he did not have a lawyer, and that he refused to have a state-appointed lawyer. Akhmedyarov refused to sign the false statement, was subsequently issued with a summons to appear for interrogation the next day and asked to leave the office. Akhmedyarov is facing charges in relation to an article published on 27th November 2020 about the mother of a prosecutor, and alleged land scams in the West Kazakhstan Oblast.
Three people were convicted of libel (Article 73 of the Administrative Code) in February 2021, in relation to a Facebook post. On 11th February 2021, the Zhanaozen Specialised Administrative Court sentenced local activist Sholpan Utekeeva to 20 days’ administrative detention for sharing a photo and name of a district police chief, with the word “shameful” on Facebook. It is worth noting that although Utekeeva had only shared this post, the court nevertheless found her guilty of spreading false information, discrediting the honour and dignity of the police chief and undermining his reputation. Utekeeva’s trial took place without a lawyer being present. In a related case, blogger Aigul Akberdy from Aktau was put on trial on 17th February 2021 for libel after reposting the same photo as Utekeeva and was fined 525,060 KZT (1,000 EUR or 1,200 USD). In a third case, on 27th February 2021, Munaylinskiy District Court in Mangystau Oblast found civic activist Uybolsyn Turdieva guilty of libel for reposting the same photo. She was sentenced to 20 days’ administrative detention.