Kazakhstan: A tightening grip on civil society: ongoing persecution of activists across the country

This update covers developments on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from August to October 2019 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.

During the period covered by this report, Kazakhstan witnessed reinforced persecution of civil society activists, journalists and other citizens exercising their fundamental rights. This includes the prosecution of numerous civil society activists, journalists and other individuals in retaliation for expressing their opinion, engaging in online activities or participating in peaceful demonstrations on socio-economic and political issues. The reporting period also saw the continued denial of state registration for NGOs working on issues that are sensitive to the authorities.

Expression

New disturbing development: growing surveillance of citizens

During the reporting period the Kazakhstani authorities began to roll out additional tools of surveillance of citizens, causing concern among civil society activists and human rights defenders. In early October 2019, President Tokayev stated that Kazakhstan should move towards using the innovative face-recognition technology used in China, because of what he claimed to be the benefits of gathering different strands of personal data on citizens (such as information on education, bank loans and similar data) and making this information available to authorities and other public institutions through facial recognition devices. The new facial recognition technology will first be introduced in the capital Nur-Sultan, where the new software was presented at the “Astana LRT” tech conference. Public transport users in the capital will soon be able to upload a photo of their face together with bus card details to a Telegram-bot associated with the transport company, and travel by public transport after being identified by a camera. Members of civil society fear that this initiative will, in practice, mean the introduction of a facial database of Kazakhstani citizens based on information voluntarily provided by citizens wishing to use public transport more easily.

Defamation remains criminalised

On 21st August 2019, at the party convention of the ruling Nur-Otan party, ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed increasing penalties for criminal defamation. Members of civil society believed that this proposal was directly related to the increasing criticism of the ex-president and his family members on social media and other internet resources. During the period covered by this update, no concrete measures were taken in follow-up to the ex-president’s proposal. However, given the fact that he still has considerable power and influence in the country, civil society fears that such measures may follow.

The existing Criminal Code provisions on defamation are regularly used to prosecute outspoken individuals. During the reporting period, a new conviction for defamation was handed down to a journalist:

In September 2019, in the Turkestan region in the south of Kazakhstan, Amangeldy Batyrbekov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Saryagash Info, was sentenced to two years and ten months imprisonment on charges of libel for allegedly damaging the honour and dignity of a state official. The charges were brought against the journalist on the basis of a Facebook post, in which he allegedly insulted an official from the Ministry of Education. This was not the first time that Batyrbekov was convicted on charges of libel – in early 2015 when working for the newspaper Adilet, he was sentenced to one and a half years of restricted freedom (a sentence that entails court-imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement of the person affected, as well as an obligation to regularly report to the police) after being found guilty of libel against the former deputy prosecutor. Batyrbekov was later freed on appeal, but was sentenced a second time in 2017 and received two years of restricted freedom, on the same charges and in relation to the same 2015 article. He was granted amnesty in 2017. 

New criminal cases of concern

As covered before on the Monitor, a lethal fire in Astana in early February 2019, in which five siblings were killed while both their parents were working night shifts, sparked protests across the country, especially among mothers demanding increased social support. Some of the participants in these protests complained about being subjected to pressure by the authorities and several women were subsequently prosecuted on charges believed to constitute retaliation for their peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and assembly. Among these was Meruert Aytimova who participated in demonstrations in Kyzylorda and also founded a chat group for mothers in this city:

According to Aytimova, police unlawfully detained her on 27th February 2019 and held her for several hours without allowing her to inform her family of her whereabouts. She told other activists about the detention and the information was disseminated widely. After this, Aytimova began to receive anonymous phone calls advising her to “calm down” and warning her that she may lose custody of her children unless she “stopped” her engagement. Aytimova also filed a complaint with the police about her unlawful detention, but later withdrew it as she did not have the time needed to contribute to the investigation of the complaint because one of her children fell ill. Following this, she was charged with “knowingly spreading false information” (under Article 274 of the Criminal Code), a vaguely worded criminal offence. According to the indictment, Aytimova committed this offence when she stated on social media that ”municipal staff attempted to illegally detain her.” At the end of the period covered by this update, the investigation in this case was still under way.

These are two other recent cases involving charges of “knowingly spreading false information”:

Civil society activist Danaya Kalieva was charged with “knowingly spreading false information” after posting a video on social media, voicing her opinion on the replacement of paving stones near the president’s residence on Nazarbayev Avenue in Almaty. In the video, Kalieva stated that this may have been done by police in preparation for an unauthorised rally (implying that police removed the original stones for fear that demonstrators may use them to throw at police). Almaty Police Department issued a press statement denying Kalieva’s allegations. A criminal case was launched against Kalieva based on the social media video. At the end of October 2019, the case had yet to go to court.

  • In September 2019, four activists were detained in East Kazakhstan Oblast on accusations of “knowingly spreading false information”. The activists had travelled to this region to investigate rumours circulating on social media of the alleged transfer of land to Chinese enterprises. The police stopped the four activists as they returned by car from a trip to the Kurchum district, which borders China. The activists were taken to Oskemen (formerly Ust-Kamenogorsk), the capital of East Kazakhstan Oblast, where they were held in custody until the evening. Police seized their mobile phones for the duration of their detention. In the evening, East Kazakhstan Oblast police department issued a statement saying that they had studied “the video and audio materials distributed on social networks alleging the transfer of land in Kurchumsky district to foreign enterprises” and subsequently launched a pre-trial investigation on charges of “knowingly spreading false information” against the four activists. At the end of October 2019 the trial against the activists had not yet begun. 

Another recent case illustrates the pattern of citizens being prosecuted for voicing their opinions in closed chat forums:

In July 2019, Kostanay resident Latifa Zhumash, the head of the World of Mothers Foundation, wrote about a peaceful rally scheduled for 5th August 2019 in an online chat conversation. Subsequently, another chat participant accused Zhumash of calling for an unsanctioned rally (an administrative offence in Kazakhstan), as well as of calling for the overthrow of the constitutional order (a serious criminal offence, punishable by up to ten years imprisonment). A court hearing was held on the same day as the announced rally, and Zhumash was found guilty of organising an illegal demonstration and fined 125,000 KZT (approximately 300 EUR). The authorities did not follow up with any measures in regard to the other accusation levelled against the activist.

A number of people faced charges for posting material related to the banned DVK movement (Russian language abbreviation for the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan). Several of them were convicted of these charges and handed restricted freedom sentences which, as mentioned above, entail court-imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement of those affected, as well as an obligation to regularly report to the police:

Dinara Mukatova, who works as a volunteer for the KIBHR’s branch office in Atyrau, was charged with participating in a banned extremist organisation (Article 405 of the Criminal Code) for reposting information related to the DVK movement. The trial against her began in September 2019. Mukatova stated in court that she never supported DVK and only had reposted material from others. As of the end of October the trial was still under way, with the prosecutor having requested that she be sentenced to one and a half year’s restricted freedom. 

In another DVK-related case, Serik Zhakhin went on trial in the capital on 16th September 2019 after having been arrested on 7th June. Zhakhin was accused of posting material on Facebook regarding the banned movement. According to his lawyer, Zhakhin was not properly informed of the reasons for his arrest and initially was not allowed to see a lawyer. In October, Zhakin was found guilty and sentenced to one year’s restricted freedom, fined some 20,000 KZT (about 45 EUR) and prohibited from participating in rallies and using social networks for two years.

On 21st October 2019, a local court in Nur-Sultan found Gulmira Khalykova guilty of supporting a banned extremist organisation after she reposted material supportive of DVK on Facebook. The court sentenced her to one year of restricted freedom, 100 hours of community service and a two-year ban on using social media. The activist lost her appeal in late November. Similar charges to those against Khalykova were brought against Akmaral Kerimbaeva, another resident of the capital. On 28th October, a local court found her guilty of these charges and sentenced her to one year’s restricted freedom and a two-year ban on engaging in public or political activities, including by “using media and telecommunications networks”. 

In November 2019, Oksana Shevchuk, Gulzipa Dzhaukerova, Zhasira Demeuova and Anuar Ashiraliev were convicted of participation in a banned extremist organisation. Each of them was sentenced to one year’s restricted freedom. They were released from custody after the trial. The four women had all been held in pre-trial detention since July, although Demeuova was transferred to house arrest in September.

  • In Taldykorgan, pensioner Bolathkhan Zhunusov went on trial in September for reposting DVK related content on social media. On 21st October 2019, the Taldykorgan City Court found Zhunusov guilty of participating in a banned extremist organisation and sentenced him to one years’ restricted freedom. 
  • Since Zhunusov had already been convicted on the same charges in early 2019, an extra four months were added to his sentence. 

On 15th October 2019, a local court in Kaskelen near Almaty found Yerkin Kaziev guilty of supporting a banned extremist movement and sentenced him to one year’s restricted freedom and 100 hours of community work. According to the investigation and indictment, Kaziev participated in a DVK chat (using two different nicknames) and spread information about DVK, its ideas and leader and expressed support for the movement. Kaziev had been under house arrest since May 2019.

Harassment of activist

Civil society activist Galina Arzamasova, who is based in Talgar near Almaty, has repeatedly been the target of harassment in apparent retaliation for her civic activism and her criticism of the local district akim (mayor) on corruption-related issues. In the last two years, Arzamasova has, among others, been beaten, shot at through a fence and had a burning package thrown into her garden by unknown perpetrators. According to KIBHR’s monitoring, the police failed to carry out full, thorough and impartial investigations into the incidents of harassment against Arzamasova. In late September 2019, Arzamasova was again subjected to harassment as she was shot at with an air rifle near the entrance to the regional municipal building in Talgar. The attacker was found to be the akim’s driver, who told the police that his boss had ordered him to intimidate Arzamasova. The driver was charged with hooliganism. The akim, Nurgali Appazov, was consequently detained by the police and freed from his duties as akim after a criminal investigation was instigated against him. He was subsequently released on bail for over six million KZT (16,300 USD or 14,700 EUR). At the end of the reporting period, the trial against the akim had yet to begin.

Peaceful Assembly

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is seriously restricted in Kazakhstan, in law and in practice. Violations of this right peaked when the authorities responded harshly to peaceful protests held in connection with the early presidential elections in June 2019. These violations have yet to be properly investigated.

While the authorities continued to restrict freedom of peaceful assembly during the period covered by this update, there were also some more encouraging developments. As documented by KIBHR, unlike previously, most of the several dozen pickets held by single individuals in the country from July to September 2019 were allowed to take place without interference by the authorities and the participants were not brought to justice for holding protests in violation of the strict procedure set out by national law. The single pickets held during this period ranged from those demanding justice for imprisoned Ablyazov-associate Mukhtar Dzhakishev to protests against alleged Chinese expansion and protests in support of the freedom of expression. However, as of late September, the number of cases in which single picketers were prosecuted increased again.

An encouraging development during the reporting period was an initiative to revise the country’s restrictive Law on Peaceful Assemblies. In his address to the people of Kazakhstan, delivered on 2nd September 2019, President Tokayev pointed to the need to improve the legislation on assemblies, saying that the state should “accommodate” the conduct of assemblies. The National Council of Public Trust, an advisory body established by the new president, subsequently made a proposal to revise the law, which was discussed at a meeting organised by the presidential administration at the beginning of October. This meeting was attended by representatives of different government bodies, the Human Rights Ombudsperson and members of the National Council, while KIBHR Director Yevgeniy Zhovtis was invited as an expert. Following the meeting, a presidential advisor stated that all participants had agreed on the importance of amending the law on assemblies, in particular by clearly defining different types of assemblies and simplifying the procedure for organising assemblies.

In his September address to the people, President Tokayev also stated that “specific venues” should be allocated for holding assemblies and that these venues should not be “at the outskirts of cities”. While local authorities had already previously designated specific venues for holding assemblies, the authorities of several cities initiated the designation of new such venues following the president’s speech. However, similar to the existing venues, many of these were located far from the eyes of policymakers. In Almaty, for instance, the Maslikhat (local city council) proposed Gandi Park, which is located far from the city centre, as a new venue for holding assemblies. 

Reinforcing longstanding concerns about freedom of assembly, new violations of this right were observed, in particular in late September 2019, in connection with a new call for protests by the banned DVK movement:

About a hundred people were detained on Old Square in Almaty as they attended a peaceful demonstration in support of DVK on 21st September 2019. According to KIBHR’s monitoring, some 1000 officers from the police and special forces and troops were present in the area on that day. On the same day, attempts to hold rallies in support of the DVK were also made in the capital, where about a hundred people were forcibly detained. Those detained in Nur-Sultan reportedly included random bystanders and children. Twenty people were detained in Shymkent for attending a peaceful protest, as well as a smaller number of people in Uralsk. There were also reported gatherings in Aktobe, Kyzyl-Orda, Aktau and Pavlodar. According to information from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, about 100 people were arrested in total across the country on 21st September 2019. Of these, 15 were convicted of administrative offences: nine were sentenced to various terms of arrest and six were fined. 

In the days prior to the protests called for by DVK, from 16th to 19th September 2019, police detained a number of civil activists in various cities in Kazakhstan, in an apparent attempt to prevent them from participating in the protests on 21st September. These activists were subsequently sentenced to between 5 and 15 days of administrative arrest for alleged violations relating to protests in which they had participated earlier the same month, although those protests at the time had been allowed to take place without inference by the police. The trials were quick (similar to those seen in the aftermath of the election-related protests in June) and held without the presence of defence lawyers. In Almaty, seven people were sentenced to 10 or 15 days’ detention; in Nur-Sultan seven people were fined, six were sentenced to 5-15 days’ detention; in Aktau, four people were sentenced to 2-10 days’ detention; in Aktobe – two people were sentenced to three days’ detention; in Ust-Kamenogorsk, one person was fined and two were sentenced to 5-10 days’ detention; and in Shymkent, one person was fined and five were sentenced to 5-15 days’ detention.

This is another case from the reporting period:

On 25th September 2019, a group of young people was detained in the capital Nur-Sultan after gathering at a shopping centre to hold a rally. The rally was meant to be satirical in nature, and the posters the participants had prepared featured absurd, non-political slogans. The young people were taken to the Esilsky District Police Department before being released without charge.

Association

In early September 2019, an appeals court upheld the decision of the Medeu District Court to refuse to register the organisation “Feminita”. The Court of appeal upheld the decision by Medeu District court, stating that the organisation “does not aim to strengthen moral and spiritual values in society”, and that its work is aimed at “political changes in the country”. 

Later in September, the Department of Justice in Western Kazakhstan refused to register the Uralsk-based organisation “Movement for Independent Observers in the West Kazakhstan Region” for the second time. The Department justified the refusal of the election-observation organisation with reference to an alleged mistake in the charter of the organisation, but without explaining what this mistake was.

As covered in the previous update, the authorities have also repeatedly failed to register the Atajurt movement, which has worked to raise awareness of the fate of ethnic Kazakhs who have disappeared in so-called re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang region, as well as to support their families. The movement’s leader Serikzhan Bilash was charged with “inciting national discord” and placed under house arrest in March 2019. He was released in August 2019 by decision of Almaty’s Auezov District Court after pleading guilty to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. He was instead fined 110,000 KZT (about 260 EUR) and banned from leading public organisations for seven years. Following the conviction of Bilash and the change in leadership of Atajurt, the movement was finally granted registration in September 2019. 

In another development in September 2019, activist Sanavar Zakirova was summoned for interrogation by police in Nur Sultan in connection with an investigation under Article 405 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code (which prohibits supporting and participating in a banned extremist organisation). During the reporting period, no formal charges were brought against her. However, concerns remained that she could face further retaliatory measures because of her exercise of the right to freedom of association. Since early 2019, Zakirova has unsuccessfully attempted to set up the “Our Right” political party. The authorities refused to let the party’s founding congress hold their constituent assembly in March, accusing the participants of holding an unauthorised rally.