Kazakhstan: Rapid shrinking of civic space and freedoms

This update covers developments on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Kazakhstan from July to September 2018. It was prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) for the CIVICUS Monitor based on KIBHR’s monitoring of the situation in the country.

In August, September and October 2018, the situation in Kazakhstan was characterised by numerous and continuous crackdowns on rights to free expression, association and peaceful assembly. Especially alarming is the public detention of individuals who attempted to meet with representatives of the European Parliament, as well as the renewed targeting of foreign journalists legally present in Kazakhstan. 

However, among these negative developments, small positive events occurred. Human rights lawyer Vadim Kuramshin, was released from prison on parole on 17th August 2018, after spending five years behind bars on politically-motivated charges. Kuramshin was initially arrested in 2012. Others serving long sentences on politically-motivated charges were not so lucky: Kazakhstan’s longest serving political prisoner, Aron Atabek remains in detention. He was imprisoned in 2006 following the Shanyrak-events in suburban Almaty, when impoverished residents were forcibly evicted from their neighbourhoods, and riots subsequently began.

In August 2018 the Kazakhstani authorities prevented European parliamentarians and human rights defenders to visit Atabek in prison. In late July 2018, 65 year-old Atabek told human rights defender Elena Semenova about the deplorable prison conditions, his poor health, and of being held in an "information vacuum" for most of 2018, as almost no letters or correspondence to or from prison have been delivered.

Expression

Detention of journalists 

On 24th July 2018, police in Astana took lawyer Bauyrzhan Azanov for questioning. He was accused of distributing false information under Article 274 of the Criminal Code. The case related to the dissemination of information on his Facebook page about the high-profile case of allegedly beatings and rape of a seven-year-old boy by 7-8th graders at a school in South Kazakhstan. The school administration and the local authorities denied the violence took place. The General Prosecutor justified opening a case as: "the information distributed by the lawyer Azanov is deliberately distorted and false, which gave the public a false perception of the corrupted state of justice, of the bodies conducting the criminal procedures, the mother of the harmed child, and other persons who have suffered psychological-emotional and social stress; threatening to destabilise the internal political situation (the peace and stability of society), causing a threat to violation of public order, causing substantial harm on the rights and legitimate interests of the society and state”.

On 17th September 2018, police in Astana briefly detained journalist Svetlana Glushkova, from Current Time (RFE/RL) outside the EU delegation building. Glushkova was reporting on a gathering in support for political prisoners at the time of the visit of a delegation of MEP's to Kazakhstan. She was taken to a police station together with the bystander, who was wearing a white t-shirt and black jacket as on 13th September 2018, Mukhtar Ablyazov from the banned movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) had called for supporters of political prisoners to wear white in their profile photos on social media. According to the media, several citizens who were stopped by police near the EU Delegation were wearing white items of clothing.

Harassment and physical attacks against journalists 

On 12th July 2018, Yuri Dorokhov, head of the Inside Media PR agency publicly stated on Facebook that his home was searched by law enforcement officials, and computers and phones (including those belonging to his children) were seized by police. Dorokhov’s claims that he is being involved in the investigations against Ratel.kz and Forbes Kazakhstan as Dorokhov’s agency had worked with Vitaly Protsentov, who is considered an “opponent” of Zeinulla Kakimzhanov a businessman and former Minister of Finance, who previously had filed a lawsuit against the media outlets, as reported by the Monitor.

Dorokhov had assisted Protsentov in organising press conferences and handling media contacts. According to Dorokhov, he has been repeatedly summoned for interrogations and testimonials related to the case. In addition, his PR agency has undergone rigorous tax inspections by the authorities. Dorokhov, a Russian citizen living and working legally in Kazakhstan for many years, is concerned about his future in the country.

On 15th September 2018, ecologist Stanislav Voitsekhovsky was beaten with a pipe by unknown assailants in Termirtau, according to a video he published after the attack, but it was later removed. The attack allegedly happened after Voitsekhovsky had raised awareness about the ecological problems caused by the local ArcelorMittal, a steel factory. Voitsekhovsky believes the attack is related to his statements. Earlier, representatives from the Arcelormittal had filed a complaint with police, accusing Voitsekhovsky of spreading false information and damaging their business reputation. In late September 2018, Voitsekhovsky issued an official apology to Arcelormittal and retracted his previous comments.

Court ruled in case of Nataliya Ulasik

On 10th September 2018, the city court in Zhezkazgan reviewed Nataliya Ulasik’s case, who has been held in forced psychiatric treatment since 2016. Ulasik was initially convicted of slander against her former husband and declared ‘insane’, but as a public critic of the regime, KIBHR believes that the forced psychiatric treatment was politically motivated. The court ruled that Ulasik should be transferred to less strict conditions, and allowed to spend a weekend at home with her family, and could potentially be released within a month’s time.

Targeting of foreign journalists 

A worrying trend of targeting foreign journalists and trainers of journalists has begun in Kazakhstan over the reporting period. On 15th September 2018, Aleksandr Gorokhovsky,Ukrainian journalist and editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian fact-check project Bez Brehni was conducting a fact-check journalism training organised by the media outlet Uralsk Week, when police interrupted the event. Gorokhovsky was subsequently taken to court and received a fine of 42.087 KZT (around 110 USD) for violating the labour code of Kazakhstan. Gorokhovsky stated in court that he had not received any financial compensation for running the training.

The French journalist Vincent Prado was detained on 27th September 2018 in Aktau, while conducting video interviews during an assignment for French media. At the time of Prado’s detention, he was talking with witnesses to the shootings in Zhanaozen in 2011. Prado’s interpreter Danara Ismetova was also detained. The initial reason for the detention was reported as “violations of rules of accreditation of foreign journalists”, as Prado had indicated in his media accreditation form that he was planning to report from “Kazakhstan, including Almaty and Astana”. Prado was subsequently fined 60 000 KZT (around 166 USD) and prohibited from filming, photographing and using a dictaphone in the Mangystau Region. According to the rules of accreditation of foreign journalists, there is no obligation to indicate the geographical location of reporting activities on the application form, and accreditation granted is valid throughout Kazakhstan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs later stated that Vincent Prado did have permission to film footage throughout the territory of Kazakhstan, but that he had violated labour laws of the country.

Association

Freedom of association in Kazakhstan is still negatively impacted by the tense situation surrounding the banned DVK movement. As covered previously, the DVK movement was banned on 13th March after a Court in Astana labelled it an extremist organisation. Following this ruling, spreading and producing material about the DVK in the mass media, telecommunication, social networks, messages channels and video hosting sites, became a criminal offence.

On 26th September 2018, Bakiza Khalelova, 58 year-old activist from Uralsk was sentenced to one year of probation for "participation in activity of public or religious association or other organisation on which there is a court decision banning their activity or liquidation in connection with the exercise of extremism or terrorism." This is banned under a provision under the Criminal Code. The court also forbid Khalelova to comment, post, or share any information on social media, as well as banning her to participate in trainings, seminars, flash mobs, demonstrations or forums on political, social or ecological themes.

On 20th September 2018, Ablovas Dzhumaev was sentenced three years of imprisonment in Aqtau for incitement to discord under Article 174 of the Criminal Code, and propaganda or calls to violently seize power under Article 179 of the Criminal Code. Dzhumaev was arrested in early March 2018, after allegedly participating in the Telegram chat group of the banned DVK movement as reported by the Monitor. His home was also searched as he was detained. Dzhumaev’s arrest was allegedly predicated on testimonies from two police investigators who had participated in the aforementioned Telegram group under false names. Similar charges were made to Aqtau resident Zhenis Bisengaliev.

According to media reports, on 4th September 2018, a police officer from Atyrau Region was sentenced to one year’s deprivation of freedom, for participation on the Telegram chat group of the banned DVK movement. According to the information, the police officer had participated in the group under a fake name, and had posted audio recordings in favour of DVK, and a picture of himself holding a note saying: "The police is with the people, forward DVK! Victory is ours!"

Accusations and court proceedings linked to DVK group chats on Telegram and other messaging and social media platforms have caused concern amongst the population. On 6th July 2018, Azattyq reporter Saniya Toiken published on Facebook that someone had posted a message tagging her name in the DVK Telegram chat with the message: “So Aqtau people whats up? Where did you decide to go? We need to choose a place together". Toiken posted the impersonation attempt on Facebook, underlining that she had not written the message.

On 20th July 2018 Elena Semenova from the Kazakhstan Coalition of NGOs Against Torture was detained and questioned for several hours. Semenova’s home was also searched by authorities following a court order. Allegedly, the search was connected to a speech on torture in Kazakhstan that she presented to members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg in July. Semenova was accused of spreading false information (Article 274 of the Criminal Code). On 17th September 2018, Elena Semenova was detained in Pavlodar, and accused of organising a demonstration in Astana during a meeting with MEP's from the European Parliament. According to the information, Semenova and relatives of torture victims had discussed the possibilities of meeting the delegation on WhatsApp. Reportedly, the police were in possession of audio-recordings of conversations between people in the WhatsApp chat. Semenova was charged by police, who stated that they had received a complaint from a person, claiming to have seen a video on Facebook, where Semenova allegedly called for a demonstration. The case was subsequently closed due to lack of evidence.

At the international level, Kazakhstan has received criticism for the systematic, illegal and unjustified interrogations of foreign citizens in Almaty airport. The interrogations are carried out, according to the available information, in relation to all citizens of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who pass through immigration control at Almaty airport. The citizens are taken into an interrogation room near passport control, and are questioned, about their purpose of travel, and how long they are planning to stay in Kazakhstan. Media reports also indicate that some people’s phones have been checked by the Kazakhstani authorities. There are numerous witness accounts on the situation on Facebook, by people who feel their rights are being violated by the Kazakhstani authorities purely on the basis of their citizenship.

Peaceful Assembly

A court in Taldykorgan, sentenced, Bekbolat Mederov to three days of administrative detention for a small picket held back in June 2018. Mederov denied being responsible for holding a picket, and information surfaced that evidence had been forged by the police. Mederov appealed the decision, and the Department of Internal Affairs of Almaty confirmed the fraud committed by the police. On 8th September 2018, Mederov received a letter from the authorities stating that disciplinary proceedings would be initiated in relation to the police officers responsible. However, one of the responsible policemen, Zhandos Raikhanov, received a price on Constitution Day on 30th August, and said to the media that he was not even informed of the verdict against him.

In Shymkent, activist Murzhan Mukhammedov decided to hold a small picket in front of the city administration building on 10th July 2018, together with his wife and five children. Mukhammedov complained that following his brief imprisonment for a demonstration back in May 2018, he had been put under surveillance by the police. He demanded that the surveillance should be lifted, and dowsed himself with a flammable liquid, threatening to self-immolate. The deputy akim (mayor), of Shymkent, Kairat Nurtai invited Mukhammedov inside the building, and the city administration listened to his complaints.

On 18th September 2018 in Almaty, a delegation of MEP's from the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee attempted to meet with members of civil society and relatives of political prisoners in Almaty. In front of the MEP's, Baklan Kumarbekov and Galia Ospanova were detained by police officers, as they tried to meet with the delegation. Galia Ospanova is the mother of Aset Nurzhaubai, who is currently on trial for alleged affiliation with DVK. Balkan Kumarbekov is a friend of Aset Nurzhaubai. The delegation of MEP's published a statement expressing concern about the detention of activists:

“We were particularly disturbed by the detention of persons attempting to speak to the AFET delegation (Baklan Kumarbekov and Galia Ospanova), and we urge their immediate release. In this regard, we ask the authorities of Kazakhstan to stick to their commitments made under the international conventions and the EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (ratified by the European Parliament in December 2017).

In July 2018, there were two incidents of people protesting for improved housing conditions. On 3rd July 2018, a group of people in Astana who had bought shares several years ago in a building which has still not been completed, were detained by police. Later that day, a second group of shareholders announced that they would start a hunger strike. They were informed by authorities that the “action was unsanctioned”, and at least four women were arrested by special forces. Some of the protesters were later fined. The shareholders were invited to talk to Astana city administration officials, during which time journalists were prevented from attending the meeting. The city administration promised to improve the situation.

In another case, on 25th July 2018, about 50 people from the organisation Provide People with Housing, gathered outside the National Bank building in Almaty, demanding rental housing with subsequent repayments. They held a banner demanding the resignation of Aleksandr Terentyev, the Head of the Department of Consumer Protection Rights at the bank. While journalists and representatives from the movement talked with a bank representative inside, officials from the Special Forces detained about 10 people outside. They subsequently were fined for participating in unsanctioned actions. Representatives of human rights organisations were not allowed to attend the trial.