Kazakhstan: Civil society activists intimidated, harassed and imprisoned

Introduction

This update covers developments on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from late October to late November 2019. It 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, fundamental freedoms have continuously been severely restricted in Kazakhstan.

Civil society activists, bloggers, protest participants and others - who criticised authorities in power- faced intimidation and harassment, including prosecution on charges brought against their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, association and assembly. Many of those who were prosecuted on these grounds were convicted of administrative offences, while others faced criminal charges. Two protest movement leaders were imprisoned on politically motivated criminal charges: one of them has advocated for the rights of the unemployed, while the other leads a group that actively opposes land reforms in Kazakhstan.

In one chilling example of intimidation, a Shymkent-based civil society activist found the head of a decapitated dog inside his vandalised car, and the words ‘boot-licker’ and ‘traitor’ written on the fence of his house.

In addition to detaining and penalising the participants in peaceful, unsanctioned anti-government protests, authorities also carried out new “preventive” detentions of civil society activists ahead of such protests. In particular, prior to demonstrations organised by the government-critical Oyan, Kazakhstan (Wake up, Kazakhstan) movement on 9th November 2019, police arbitrarily detained activists in- and outside their homes in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.

A group of well-known journalists and civil society activists, who founded and attempted to legally register a new political opposition party, organised meetings across the country in an effort to inform people about the party’s proposed policies. However, nearly all these meetings were disrupted by groups of unknown, aggressive individuals, who threatened the meeting participants.

These and other developments are described in more detail below.

Association

Election observation organisation denied registration- yet again

As reported in a previous Monitor update, the Uralsk-based election monitoring organisation, Movement for Independent Observers in the West Kazakhstan Region - established following the Presidential elections in June 2019- has repeatedly been refused registration. On 6th November 2019, the regional Department of Justice denied registration to the organisation for the fourth time. The Department yet again referred to alleged errors in documents required for registration, without providing any further explanation. By law, public associations are required to obtain state registration in order to operate legally in Kazakhstan.

Referendum initiative group blocked by Central Election Commission

On 23rd November 2019, the Central Election Commission (CEC) declined to register a referendum initiative group, which was established by independent observers to monitor the presidential elections in June 2019 and to document numerous violations during these elections. According to national law, citizens of Kazakhstan may create initiative groups to propose the conduct of a referendum on specific issues. Such groups should be established at a founding meeting attended by a required number of participants from different parts of the country and thereafter apply for registration before they can start collecting signatures in support of their proposal.

On this occasion the group was advocating for a referendum on changing the electoral code and the legislation on political parties. The key proposals of the group included changing the current proportional voting system into a majoritarian system and lowering the number of members required to register a party from 40,000 to 1,000. The CEC justified its decision, referring to alleged “violations” in the documents relating to its founding meeting, which was held in the capital on 10th November 2019. In particular, the CEC claimed that the group had failed to ensure the required number of participants from different parts of Kazakhstan. It based this conclusion on a figure provided by local authorities which was significantly lower than that reported by the group. This contradicts Article 12 of the law on public referendums, which states that the founding meeting of an initiative group must be attended by at least thirty attendees from each of the country’s regions, as well as the capital, Almaty and Shymkent. 

Meeting of new opposition party disrupted

A number of well-known civil society activists and journalists, including Inga Imanbai, her husband Zhanbolat Mamai and Galym Ageleuov founded a new opposition political party called “The Democratic Party of Kazakhstan” on 16th October 2019. In order to apply for state registration, the party needs to gather proof of support from all regions of the country. During November 2019, the party founders held meetings across the country to inform people about the party and its agenda, with the aim to collect signatures needed for the registration application.However, many of these meetings were disrupted by intruders, who often appeared to act in an organised manner. The following incidents took place:

  • In the city of Kyzyl-Orda, where party founders held a meeting on 18th November 2019, around ten people blocked the entrance to the hall, and threatened to assault the participants. One of the intruders also attempted to take the mobile phone of Inga Imanbai, one of the party founders who was present at the meeting. According to eyewitnesses, police officers on duty nearby failed to take any action in response to the threatening behaviour of the intruders.
  • A few days earlier in Kyzyl-Orda, a similar meeting held in the city of Shiykent was disrupted by a group of people posing as supporters of the banned DVK movement, who were chanting “Long live the DVK! The Democratic Party of Kazakhstan is a fake party!”.
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  • During a party meeting in the city of Taraz, a group of intruders invaded the meeting venue, causing disruptions and holding up insulting posters.
  • In Oskemen, a group of aggressively behaved women arrived at the meeting venue and threw plastic bottles at the speakers and knocked over chairs before leaving. One of the women later said that they had acted based on a request from Oskemen’s Mayor’s Office.
  • In Karaganda, meeting participants were met by a group of people who shouted insults at them and held up degrading posters.
  • In the capital, a group of women who carried insulting posters, shouted, whistled and behaved loudly, invaded a party meeting. These women left in a minibus waiting for them outside, which indicates that this was a pre-organised intervention. 

Trade union leader sent back to prison

In a case previously covered on the Monitor, trade union leader Erlan Baltabay was prosecuted on charges of embezzling trade union funds believed to constitute retaliation for his labour rights activities. On 17th July 2019, Enbekshin Court in Shymkent convicted him of these charges and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. On 9th August 2019, Baltabay was pardoned by President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, after which his prison sentence was replaced by a fine of 1.5 million KZT (around 3,600 EUR) based on a court decision. However, according to Baltabay, he agreed to be pardoned because national security officials promised that he would be acquitted of all charges. Since this did not happen, he submitted a request to the president in September asking him to cancel the decision to pardon him. The activist has also not paid the fines imposed by the court. Accordingly, on 16th October 2019, Shymkent’s Al-Farabi Court sentenced him to imprisonment of five months and eight days for failing to pay the fines. He was detained in the courtroom.

Protest movement leaders imprisoned

In the following two cases, protest movement leaders were imprisoned on charges considered to be politically motivated:

On 17th October 2019, the court in the city of Zhanaozen sentenced Erzhan Elshibaev, an activist from a movement advocating for the rights of the unemployed, to five years’ imprisonment on charges of deliberately inflicting serious bodily harm (under article 106 of the Criminal Code). These charges related to an incident in 2017, when Elshibaev allegedly injured another person during a fight. Elshibaev and his supporters denied these charges, saying they were politically motivated and aimed at punishing him for his civic engagement. According to the activist’s lawyers, the alleged victim and witnesses in the case have stated that they have no claims against Elshibaev. Elshibaev attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities when he was involved in organising a series of rallies by unemployed people in Zhanaozen in February-March 2019, during which the participants demanded jobs. Prior to being charged, Elshibaev reported being subjected to pressure by local authorities. The activist has been included on a civil society list of political prisoners in the country.

As previously covered on the Monitor, police arrested civil society activist Kaiyrly Omar on embezzlement charges in July 2018. He was first placed under house arrest, but later transferred to a pre-trial detention facility. The charges against the activist were based on accusations allegedly leveled against him by a member of a community of homeowners, who wanted to know, how the money (4000 KZT, or approximately 10 EUR) paid by the member for repair work was spent. On 29th October 2019, a local court in the capital found Omar guilty and sentenced him to two years in prison, after reportedly reclassifying the charges against him as “abuse of authority” (article 250 of the Criminal Code). The activist denied the charges, which he and his supporters consider politically motivated. Omar leads the Zher Taghdyry (“The fate of the earth”) movement, which actively opposes land reforms in Kazakhstan, and has been actively involved in peaceful protests on this and other issues. Similar to Erzhan Elshibaev, Kaiyrly Omar has been included on a civil society list of political prisoners in the country for his political resistance to Kazakh land reforms.

Intimidation of civil society activists

On 19th November 2019, Shymkent-based political activist Nurzhan Mukhammedov was subjected to intimidation and damage to his property. The activist found his car, which was parked outside his house, with two punctured tyres, smashed windows and the word “Mal” (this roughly translates as ‘swine’ or ‘beast’) written in Kazakh on the side of it. Inside the car, Mukhammedov found the head of a decapitated dog. On the fence of his house, the unknown perpetrator(s) had written “Boot-licker, traitor!” in Russian and Kazakh. Mukhammedov filed a complaint about the incident with local law enforcement authorities, who stated that they would initiate an investigation on suspicion of “hooliganism”. The activist believed that the attack was related to his civic engagement. Mukhammedov has participated in various peaceful protests, including protests in support of political prisoners, single mothers and homeless people, as well as protests against China’s growing economic influence in Kazakhstan. Earlier in 2019, Mukhammedov had twice been sentenced to administrative arrest (five and ten days respectively) for participating in unsanctioned protests. In the summer of 2018 he threatened to set himself and his family members on fire in a Self-Immolation Act in front of Shymkent’s city hall, because he “was tired of the police harassing him”.

In another case previously covered on the Monitor, Talgar-based civil society activist Galina Arzamasova has repeatedly been the target of harassment in apparent retaliation for her civic activism and her criticism of a local mayor on corruption-related issues. Most recently, on 26th August 2019, Arzamasova was shot at with an air rifle outside the office of the Talgar district mayor of the Almaty region, where she was planning to submit a complaint about the alleged unlawful sale of land in the Panfilov sub-district, part of the Talgar district. A few days later, police announced that the incident was being investigated as “hooliganism” and that the mayor of the Panfilov sub-district and his driver had been arrested as suspects in the case. The Panfilov mayor, who was also dismissed from his position, was later released on bail. On 12th November 2019, Arzamasova’s lawyer announced that the Prosecutor’s Office in the Talgar district had rejected a petition to re-classify the charges against the former local mayor as “attempted murder”. According to the lawyer, the Prosecutor’s Office argued that it was “too early” to say whether the actions of the official amounted to “attempted murder” since the investigation was still under way. 

Assembly

New law amendments ban the participation of children in protests

On 23rd October 2019, the lower chamber of Kazakhstan’s Parliament voted in favour of draft amendments to the Code on Administrative Offences (article 128), which would introduce penalties for bringing underage children to demonstrations and similar public events. Penalties for violation could include a fine of up to 600 EUR or administrative arrest for up to ten days. The amendments were proposed by Member of Parliament Saule Aitpaeva, who holds the position as Commissioner for Children’s Rights. This position was created in response to instances in 2019 where women, who were protesting against their difficult living conditions, brought their children with them. The law was signed by President Tokayev on 28th November 2019.

Peaceful protesters penalised for violating restrictive rules on assemblies

As previously covered, Kazakhstan’s restrictive legislation on assemblies requires the organisers of any public event to obtain permission from the authorities in advance. Although such permission is routinely denied, those who participate in unsanctioned protests are detained and penalised for violating the rules. During the period covered by this report, there were a number of new cases which involved activists protesting in support of individuals considered to have been prosecuted on politically motivated grounds.

  • On 22nd October 2019, an administrative court in Almaty convicted civil society activists Askhat Zheksebaev, Serik Aitzhanov and Noyan Rakhimzhanov for violating the rules on conducting assemblies (under article 488 of the Code on Administrative Offences). The individuals had staged single pickets in support of political prisoners without advance permission from the authorities. The pickets took place on 12th October 2019 on Arbat (Zhibek Zholy), a busy pedestrian street in Almaty. Aitzhanov was fined an equivalent of around 300 EUR, whilst Rakhimzhanov received detention for a period of seven days and Zheksebaev for ten days. This case illustrates that there is no exemption from the requirement to obtain advance permission for assemblies involving only one participant, so called single pickets. 
  • In another case, two activists were held to account for expressing support for a group of women charged with supporting the banned DVK movement. On the evening of 15th November 2019, civil society activists Murat Sormanov and Askhat Zheksebaev were detained by police in their homes in Almaty. They were subsequently taken to court and sentenced to 15 days in jail each for violating the rules on holding assemblies. The activists protested inside the same court building where four women were on trial for supporting the DVK, as reported by the monitor previously (for more information on the case of these women, who included Oksana Shevchuk, Gulzipa Dzaukerova, Zhasira Demeuova and Anuar Ashiraliev, see the previous update). Askhat Zheksebaev was not permitted to have access to a lawyer during the legal proceedings against him, while Murat Shormanova was tried at night.
  • A civil society activist was convicted of violating the rules on holding assemblies, although he was only planning to hold a protest and had requested permission to do so. On 2nd November 2019, an administrative court in the capital sentenced civil society activist Zhanat Nurkishev to 15 days’ administrative arrest for allegedly calling for an “unlawful” demonstration, in violation of the procedure for holding assemblies. The activist was reportedly charged after filing an application with local authorities to hold a demonstration in support of Kaiyrly Omar, the leader of the Zher Taghdyry movement, who has been deemed a political prisoner by local political experts (see more on his case under Association).

Election protest participant convicted for violence against police officer

As covered before by the Monitor, during peaceful protests held across Kazakhstan in connection with the presidential elections on 9th June 2019, police detained thousands of protesters, often using excessive force. Many of them were fined or sentenced to various periods of detention after being found guilty of administrative offences relating to their participation in the unsanctioned protests. In addition, some participants in the election protests have faced criminal charges for allegedly using violence against police, as in the following case:

On 25th October 2019, Aktobe City Court found civil society activist Karlygash Asanova guilty of using violence against a representative of the state (under Criminal Code article 380) and sentenced to one and a half year’s restricted freedom, during which she will be subjected to court-imposed restrictions on her freedom of movement. It’s alleged that Asanova thrust a needle into the buttock of a police officer who was involved in detaining her during a protest held near the city hall in the City of Aktobe on 9th June 2019. Asanova denied these charges, and a video recording of her detention did not show any evidence of her injuring the police officer. When questioned in court, the police officer made confusing statements and had difficulty answering the courts’ questions. Asanova had previously been fined an equivalent of about 120 EUR for participating in the unsanctioned protest on 9th June 2019.

Activist locked up after participating in protests against Chinese investments

In September 2019, a series of protests took place against growing Chinese investments in Kazakhstan. Later on, some of those involved in these protests were targeted by the authorities. On 7th November 2019, civil society activist Alibek Moldin was detained by four police officers while he was taking his daughter to school in Aktobe, where he lives. He was taken to Zavodsk District Police Department, and afterwards to a local administrative court, where he was promptly convicted of two different administrative offences. He was sentenced to five days’ administrative arrest for his participation in an unsanctioned protest against proposed joint investment projects with China, held outside the mayor's office in Aktobe on 3rd September 2019. He was also given an additional ten days’ administrative arrest for allegedly disobeying the orders of the police in connection with his detention on 7th November 2019. Moldin served his sentence, but immediately upon his release he was rearrested on charges of defamation for allegedly offending several participants in a women's rally for increased benefits for mothers and children, during a live broadcast on Facebook. Moldin denied these charges, saying the case was politically motivated and linked to his civic engagement.

Preventive detentions prior to anti-government protests

Ahead of planned protests, authorities often carry out “preventive” detentions of civil society activists expected to participate.

In one such case, during a demonstration held by the government-critical movement “Oyan, Kazakhstan” in Almaty on 9th November 2019, seven affiliates of the movement were detained, either when leaving their apartments or in their homes, and taken to a local police station, only to be released later that evening. Another six political activists reported that police kept their homes under surveillance. In Nur-Sultan, where a similar protest took place, 11 activists were detained in or near their homes, and held for several hours before being released. Seven activists reported police surveillance outside their houses. While the protest in Almaty was unsanctioned, the protest in the capital had received the green light from the city authorities. In both cities, the demonstrations took place later the same day without interference or detentions.

Activist, supporters detained when collecting money for damages in defamation case

As covered under Expression, Sanavar Zakirova and two other civil society activists lost a defamation lawsuit brought against them by the Nur Otan party for accusing the ruling party of obstructing the foundation of a new political party initiated by them. In a ruling handed down on 18th November 2019, Almaty’s Zhetisu District Court ordered the activists, among others, to pay 1.5 million KZT (around 3600 EUR) in damages to each of the four Nur Otan members involved in the lawsuit. The court also ordered the three activists to refute, within ten days on their personal Facebook pages, that Nur Otan had hindered the creation of a new political party. Zakirova has unsuccessfully attempted to register a political party named “Our Right” since early 2019, as covered previously by the Monitor. A few days later, on 22nd November 2019, police detained Zakirova and several of her supporters, who had gathered near the central mosque in Nur Sultan for a fundraising campaign to pay the damages awarded in the defamation case. Zakirova and her associates were taken to court and fined for “harassment in public places”.

Expression

Continued campaign against those posting material related to banned opposition movement

As covered in the previous update, a number of people have recently been charged with supporting a banned extremist organisation (under Criminal Code article 405) after posting or reposting material related to the exile-led opposition movement, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). The DVK was banned as extremist by a court in 2018.

Among those who have faced charges for posting DVK-related information, is civil society activist Dinara Mukatova, who has volunteered with KIBHR’s branch office in Atyrau. On the 21st October 2019, a local Atyrau court found her guilty of supporting the banned opposition movement and sentenced her to a year of restricted freedom, which entails court-imposed restrictions on her freedom of movement and an obligation to report regularly to the police. Mukatova denied the charges, saying that she has never supported the DVK and only reposted material from others about the movement. As previously covered by the monitor, several other activists convicted because of social media posts relating to the DVK, have also been given restricted freedom sentences.

Harassment of activist criticising authorities on social media

Aliya Abukhairova, a civil society activist from the city of Uralsk, has faced harassment by authorities because of social media posts which were critical of those in power. According to KIBHR’s information, local police have held her under close surveillance, have repeatedly called her, summoned her for interrogation, questioned her and held her for hours without an explanation. On 24th October 2019, an administrative case was opened against her on charges of disobeying the lawful orders of police. These charges are related to an incident a few days earlier, when a group of police officers arrived at her workplace and demanded that she immediately go with them to the police station for questioning, without explaining the reasons for this. Abukhairova declined to go with them, saying that she had already been summoned by phone call and had agreed to appear at the police station at the end of the workday. The police officers only left after she locked herself in her office to escape an attempt to detain her forcibly. On 12th November 2019, a local court in Uralsk found Abukhairova guilty of the charges brought against her and gave her a warning. She was also informed that a criminal case on “insulting a representative of the authorities” had been opened against her in relation to the same incident.

Court rules against activists in defamation case

On 18th November 2019, Almaty’s Zhetisu District Court ruled in favour of a defamation lawsuit brought by the presidential Nur Otan party and four of its members against civil society activists Alnur Ilashev, Marat Turymbetov and Sanavar Zakirov. The party and its members argued that the activists had defamed them when accusing Nur Otan of obstructing the foundation of a new party initiated by the activists, Nashe Pravo (“Our Right”). The court ordered the activists to publish refutations on their Facebook pages and to pay each of the four party members involved in the lawsuit 1.5 million KZT (some 3,500 EUR) in moral damages. The Nur Otan party had initially sought 20 million KZT (close to 50,000 EUR) in damages, but eventually asked the court to remove this request. As covered earlier by the Monitor, the activists concerned have unsuccessfully attempted to register the new party since early 2019.

Blogger detained while covering police related traffic accident

On 18th November 2019, a police car hit a girl who was crossing the street at a traffic light, severely injuring her. When blogger Aibolat Bukenov, who arrived on the scene to cover the traffic incident, asked a district police chief present for a comment, the officer reportedly responded aggressively. According to the blogger, the police chief refused to answer his question, told him to stop filming and confiscated his smartphone and asked another police officer to delete all content. The police chief also ordered his subordinates to detain the blogger, who was taken to the narcotics police department for examination, and then to Zachagan District Police Station, where a police protocol was drawn up. The blogger was informed that he was being charged with disobeying the legal orders of law enforcement officers (under article 667 of the Administrative Code).