Reinforced authoritarianism – sentencing of opposition activists, surveillance of citizens

This update covers developments on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Kazakhstan from October to December 2018 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.

Ongoing state surveillance and restrictions on freedoms of information and expression imposed by the authorities continue to be a cause of concern. On 25th October 2018, the government passed a resolution that mandates four government agencies (the Prosecutor General, the Ministry of Internal affairs, the National Security Committee (KNB) and the Ministry of Defence) to block internet and communications networks in Kazakhstan in a situation of “state of emergency related to social, natural or man-made disasters”.

Kazakhstani citizens in political exile are finding it increasingly difficult to stay safe abroad and to avoid persecution in their home country. Marat Tungishbayev’s extradition from Kyrgyzstan in June 2018 in violation of the country’s international commitments, served as a reminder that Kyrgyzstan is no longer a safe place for political exiles. As of 29th October 2018, Ukraine is no longer a safe place either after the General Prosecutor of Kazakhstan Kairat Kozhamzharov and the Minister of Justice of Ukraine Pavlo Petrenko signed agreements on extradition and mutual cooperation in criminal cases. According to KIBHR monitoring, there are currently at least four Kazakhstani citizens in political exile in Ukraine. 

International law clearly prohibits states from sending any person against their will to another country where there is a real risk that they will be subjected to torture or other ill-treatment, as explicitly set out in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which states that “No State Party shall expel, return (‘refouler’) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture”. Amendments to Interpol rules regarding extradition also stipulate that individuals who have been granted political asylum or are under risk of persecution in their home countries, should not be extradited. 

Expression

Surveillance mechanisms

According to reports, Kazakhstani telecommunications users had until 31st December 2018 to register their mobile phone’s identification code (IMEI) as linked with their SIM card and personal identification number (IIN). Services will no longer be provided to unregistered SIM cards. Law enforcement officials claim that this measure will protect against theft and reselling of mobile phones, but human rights defenders fear that the registration will lead to additional monitoring of citizens’ communications, in particular human rights activists and journalists. As stated by civil society organisation Privacy International: “SIM card registration undermines the ability of users to communicate anonymously and one’s right to privacy. This poses a threat to vulnerable groups, and facilitates surveillance by making tracking and monitoring of users easier for law enforcement authorities”. 

In October 2018, the group “Digital Revolution” published documents, which they claimed to have gained access to by hacking the server of Kvant Research Institute, a unit inside the Federal Security Bureau (FSB). According to the leaked documents, Kvant has developed a system for monitoring public opinion and discontent expressed on social media platforms towards authorities. According to the documents, circulated by Digital Revolution, Kvant has participated in creating a similar monitoring system in Kazakhstan, which the Ministry of Information and Communications in Kazakhstan purchased for $4.3 million. 

Detention of activists 

As covered previously, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (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, messaging channels and video hosting sites, became a criminal offence. One of the main outlets of information from DVK came from a Telegram channel. From mid-March 2018, the authorities began to actively seek out activists, bloggers and others, who were thought to sympathize with DVK, using information from subscribers to the Telegram-channel of DVK. The developments on several of these cases are explained below: 

On 20th September 2018, Aqtau City Court sentenced Kazakhstani citizen Ablovas Dzhumaev to three years of imprisonment after he was found guilty of violating Article 174 of the Kazakh Criminal Code, which punishes incitement to discord, as well as Article 179, which punishes public calls for seizure of power. At the time of Dzhumaev’s arrest in March 2018, law enforcement officials searched his house and allegedly found leaflets from the banned DVK movement. Later, an investigation found that Dzhumaev participated in the Telegram-chat of the DVK movement. On 5th December 2018, Mangystau Appeals Board on Criminal Cases upheld the verdict of Aqtau City Court. 

Dzhumaev’s wife Aigul Akberdieva, was also accused of supporting the DVK movement, in a trial, which began on 24th September 2018. She is accused of participating in a “DVK-activist” chat on Telegram. According to an investigator from the Mangystau regional police, Aigul Akberdieva took part in the chat under three different nicknames, and wrote messages calling for the seizure of power. 

The prosecution of several people for participating in the online chat causes serious concerns among members of civil society, journalists and human rights activists in Kazakhstan, not just because the trials concerning the involved people have been flawed and inadequate, but also because in some cases, the profiles have been fake. For example, in July 2018, the name of Azattyq journalist Saniya Toiken appeared in a DVK-chat calling for a demonstration, but the user account in question was not in fact hers. She denounced the impersonation on Facebook, as previously covered on the Monitor. 

On 30th November 2018, Asset Abishev was sentenced to four years of imprisonment after he was found guilty of distributing DVK material on Facebook which discredited President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family, as well as the Government of Kazakhstan, agitating for protest amongst the population, and inciting social and tribal discord.

Abishev's trial started on 29th September 2018, at the Almaly District Court in Almaty, a few months after he was arrested on 7th July 2018 and accused of supporting the banned DVK movement, violating Article 266 of the Kazakh Criminal Code, which punishes financing a criminal group, as well as Article 405, which punishes participation in a banned extremist movement. 

On 2nd October 2018 Asset Nurzhaubai was convicted to a four-year conditional sentence by Medeu District Court in Almaty. Among other charges, Nurzhaubai was charged with violations of Article 266 and 405 of the Kazakh Criminal Code (financing an extremist group, participating in a banned extremist group). Nurzhaubai was arrested earlier in 2018, after holding a banner in support of the banned DVK movement on the corner of Raimbek and Furmanova streets in Almaty on 8th March 2018. The police subsequently searched his house, and allegedly found paint, brushes, and a poster. Nurzhaubai was accused of producing a stencil with a slogan proclaiming support for the DVK in Kazakh, which had been used to spray paint the slogan onto bus stops along Furmanova (Nazarbayev) street. Nurzhaubai got a reduced sentence as he agreed to publicly denounce DVK in court. 

On 21st October 2018, Almaty District Court ruled in a case, referred to as the “jihadist-case” in the media in Kazakhstan. Oralbek Omyrov, activist Almat Zhumagulov and poet Kenzhebek Abishev were arrested in late 2017. Zhumagulov and Omyrov were sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, and Abishev was sentenced to seven years. All three were accused under Article 256 of the Kazakh Criminal Code, which punishes propaganda of terrorism. Additionally, Zhumagulov was accused under Article 174 - incitement to national discord. The three men were charged with producing a video calling for “jihad”, and distributing it online in the hours leading up to their arrest. In fact, media outlets and the defendants state that there were two different videos. One video, allegedly filmed on 23rd November 2017, showed the three men in an apartment in Almaty. In the video, they spoke of supporting DVK’s social programme. This took place before DVK was banned in Kazakhstan. In the second video, which was filmed inside the same apartment, and includes surveillance footage from a hidden camera, two or three unknown men are carrying weapons, wearing masks, and announce a call for jihad in Kazakh. Some sources, named one man as Oralbek Omyrov. This video appeared on 25th November 2018. According to KIBHR information, when the second video appeared online, it included video footage from hidden surveillance cameras. Civic activists attribute this to the fact that the Committee for National Security (KNB - Komitet Natsional’noi Bezopasnosti) were allegedly involved in making and distributing the video. The three accused men call the second “jihadist” video “false”.

Some human rights defenders have said that the move is an attempt by the authorities to sideline the DVK and establish the link between DVK and jihadism. Zhumagulov and Abishev are seen as political activists in Almaty, and the trial has been labelled as politically- motivated due to the men’s public support for DVK and the way DVK was presented in the court case. The court trial has been criticised as “crudely procedurally flawed”. Omyrov stated that he was “deceived” by the KNB into participating in the plot by assisting with the making of the second “jihadist ” video.

On 25th October 2018, Semey resident Farit Ishmukhametov was sentenced to community service and one year’s detention for a post he published on Facebook, where he expressed discontent with the lack of water in the village where he lives outside Semey. Ishmukhametov criticised the authorities for failing to take action, and published several texts on Facebook stating support for the banned DVK movement and supporting their social programme. He was convicted under Article 405 in the Kazakh Criminal Code, related to participation in a banned extremist organisation. 

On 2nd November 2018, Muratbek Argynbekov from the village Karaotkel in Akmolinsk region was sentenced by Tselinograd District Court to one year’s restriction of liberty after posting material on social media in support of the banned DVK movement. The conviction was related to a post on social media where Argynbekov criticised the Kazakhstani leadership. A court-ordered psychological-philological investigation showed that Argynbekov’s posts revealed motivation to participate in DVK-related activities. Argynbekov was found guilty under Article 405 of participating in a banned extremist organisation. The court also banned him from posting, commenting and “liking” on social media, messenger services and websites.

In late November 2018, Syrym Abdrakhmanov, blogger and head of the founding committee the social-democratic party “Alash”, was held for two months in pre-trial detention. He is being investigated in connection with alleged violations of Article 274 – knowingly distributing false information; Article 380 – using violence against a representative of the authorities; Article 407 – obstruction of justice and a pre-trial investigation, and Article 378 – insulting a representative of the authorities. Abdrakhmanov believes that his arrest is related to publications he made about an alleged bribery scandal involving the first deputy Akim (mayor) of Astana, Sergey Khoroshun. Following the publications, Khorosun complained to the police, accusing Abdrakhmanov of intentionally spreading false information. Following Khorosun’s statement, law enforcement officials searched Abdrakhmanov’s house on 28th November 2018, and he was subsequently arrested.

On 6th December 2018 police officers searched the house of Bolatkhan Zhunusov, a pensioner from the town of Taldykorgan near Almaty. They confiscated phones, laptops and other electronic devices and illegally confiscated his identity documents. According to Zhunusov, the police informed him that he was supporter of the banned DVK movement. 

Association

On 18th October 2018 in Shymkent, law enforcement officials searched the home of Yerlan Baltabai, head of two local trade unions “Dostoiny Trud” (Dignified Work) for petrochemical workers, and the local branch of “Trade Union for the Workers of the Oil and Energy Sector” and confiscated documents and items belonging to the trade unions.

On 23rd October 2018 police officers arrested Kaiyrly Omar, head of the organisation “Zher Taghdyry”. “Zher Taghdyry” actively opposes land reforms in Kazakhstan. Omar heads a community of the home owners “Azat-Shanygary”. One of the home owners accused Omar of embezzlement related to the repairs of an entrance hall, and estimated the damage to be around 4000 KZT (around 10 EUR). A criminal case was immediately opened. During the eight-month long investigation, Omar had his right to free movement restricted, and was accused of violating the conditions of his sentence after he attended a wedding, and met with other civil activists in a café.

In the evening of 10th November 2018 a group of unidentified men attacked Smitry Sinyavsky, head of “Trade Union for the Workers of the Oil and Energy Sector” in Karaganda Region. Sinyavsky participated in the 2017 strike of the TemirtauMittal workers. Sinyavsky’s supporters believe that the attack was related to his political activities, and he stated that he has received threats over the phone.

On 15th November 2018 the Uzbek political party “Birdamlik” planned to hold a meeting in Shymkent. KNB officials refused US citizen Bakhodyr Khan Turkeston permission to enter Kazakhstan, despite the fact that his passport gives him the right to thirty days of visa-free entry. He was subsequently deported. According to media sources, KNB officials also refused to let Uzbek delegates to cross the border into the country. It was reported that several attendees were also arrested in Uzbekistan prior to the event which was cancelled in the end. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 19th October 2018 Ushtobe-resident Elena Mamaeva chained herself to the fence of Taldykorgan City Court to protest against a court ruling in a case where she had been charged for a traffic offence. She held a paper with the words: “I declare a hunger strike!! I don’t trust in rule of law! Where can I find protection?” She was removed by the police after five minutes.

On 29th October 2018 Kazybekbiskiy District Court in Karaganda heard a case brought by activist and blogger Aliya Sadyrbayeva’s against the akimat of Karaganda. Sadyrbayeva disagreed with the akimat’s previous decision that banned her petition to hold a one-person picket, demanding the resignation of the government. Her claim was denied, because it was seen as “pointless” to hold the picket, and her demand for the resignation of the government was not legal. Sadyrbayeva was led to protest because she believes that the government of Kazakhstan is not doing enough to protect citizens in need of social protection and decent living standards.

On 16th and 17th December 2018, on Kazakhstan's Independence Day and the anniversary of the Zheltoqsan uprising in 1986 and the shooting of the oil workers in Zhanaozen in 2011, more than fifty people were detained or subjected to house arrest in several cities across Kazakhstan. On 16th December 2018 on Republic Square (New Square) in Almaty, police surrounded and then detained a group of people who had gathered, including Rysbek Sarsenbai, Marzhan Aspandiyarova and Yerlan Kaliyev, as well as artist Saltan Tashimova,environmental activist Abay Erkenov, and activists Ilshat Kenzin, Sakhib Zhanabaeva and Raisa Dyusenbayeva. In Uralsk, journalists from the independent media "Uralsk Week” Raul Uporov and Maria Melnikova were detained by law enforcement officials, and police officers prevented editor-in-chief and publisher Tamara Islyamova from leaving their apartments. 

On 17th December 2018, former social democrat politician Yermurat Bapi, activists Kural Medeuov, Suindyk Aldabergenov and Geroikhan Kystaubayev were detained in Almaty. According to KIBHR, most of the detainees were not given any explanation for their detention, and were released after law enforcement officials had searched their mobile devices for correspondence.