Changes ahead or status quo? Presidential promises amidst ongoing prosecution of political activists

Introduction

This update covers developments on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan in December 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.

Developments in December 2019 included numerous detentions of citizens participating in unsanctioned demonstrations, especially on Kazakhstan’s Independence Day on 16th December 2019, which is marked every year with demonstrations and small-scale pickets across the country. The detentions illustrate that the worrying trend of detaining anyone who demonstrates public dissent continues.

Expression and Peaceful Assembly

Positive legislative changes on the horizon

On 20th December 2019 President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev made several statements which alluded to potential positive changes in the situation for civil society, media and activists in Kazakhstan. President Tokayev stated that he wants to decriminalise Article 130 of the Criminal Code by changing it to an administrative offence. The article currently punishes defamation. He also stated that “a reasonable compromise” has been reached concerning improvements to Article 174 (incitement to hatred), which has been used multiple times over the last year against members of civil society and the media. Lastly, he announced that a new law on public assembly is being drafted which will introduce a provision for notification of intention to demonstrate, rather than seeking permission – to some extent. The draft law thus stipulates that there would be a 15-day window following an application for a demonstration, and if within this time the organisers have not received a refusal, it means the demonstration can go ahead. According to the President, the new legislation will also require city councils (maslikhats) to identify designated spaces for holding sanctioned rallies. The law will also detail further changes to rights and obligations of organisers and participants of rallies.

However, activists and members of civil society complained to the Minister of Information Dauren Abayev that the draft law contains measures amounting to restrictions on journalists. The law now awaits approval in the bicameral assembly. A draft version of the new law was prepared by Yevgeniy Zhovtis from KIBHR, but his suggestions have not been included in the proposed new law.

If the changes outlined by President Tokayev are incorporated into legislation in Kazakhstan, it could lead to significant improvements for civil society, media and activists. However, Article 174, which has been used in the past to prosecute journalists and members of civil society, is no longer the most common means of prosecution against activists and bloggers. Currently these groups are often prosecuted under Article 405 – which covers participation in an extremist organisation. This article has been widely used to prosecute dissent.

Regarding the right to freedom of assembly, at the moment citizens have to apply for permission to gather in public (which is almost always denied), and legislative changes would be a significant improvement as they would allow citizens to exercise their right to freedom of assembly. However, these legally sanctioned demonstrations would only be allowed in certain areas of each city which have been specifically earmarked. In some cities, areas have already been designated. Almaty City Council decided on 25th November 2019 that the square near the Sary-Arka Cinema and the Mahatma Gandhi Park will be allocated places where sanctioned demonstrations can be held. Both locations are outside the city centre and not near any municipal or government offices. Furthermore, in Mahatma Gandhi Park there is insufficient space for crowds larger than 50-100 people.

Expression

Defamation cases against journalists, bloggers and activist continue

On 26th November 2019 the trial of political activist and blogger Alibek Moldin began in the city of Aktobe. Moldin was charged with violating Article 131 of the Criminal Code – defamation using mass media or telecommunication networks. On 6th September 2019, Moldin reported on a protest organised by a group of mothers outside the office of the local municipality, demanding better social security payments.According to a friend of one of the women, Moldin later wrote a comment on social media using the words “...walk like cattle” - however, it was reportedly unclear at whom the comment was directed.

Three of the women subsequently sued Moldin for defamation. In December 2019, the court case was postponed while a philological examination of the wording was carried out. Moldin was released by the court on 9th January 2020 after the expert examination found that the term used by Moldin was not ‘indecent’ enough to warrant punishment. The plaintiffs stated that they intend to appeal the verdict. In 2019 Molodin was punished three times for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations, as covered previously on the Monitor.

During December 2019 blogger Aibolat Bukenov faced several court cases. On 5th December 2019, Uralsk City Administrative Court issued an official warning to Bukenov, who was on trial at the time for disobeying a police officer. This case was covered previously by the Monitor. On 12th December 2019, the local police department held a briefing in relation to a traffic accident involving a police car. During the briefing, when Bukenov tried to speak he had a disagreement with Dana Duisekenova, a journalist from “Pulse”, a state-owned media outlet. Journalist Daniyar Inzhigliev filmed the incident on Bukenov’s phone, and Duisekenova grabbed the phone out of his hand. Bukenov then tried to take the phone back from her.

Bukenov later posted the video on his Facebook page, after which Duisekenova wrote on the Pulse website that she had filed a lawsuit against Bukenov because he had ‘beaten’ her. She claimed that Bukenov had attacked her in an act of “pre-planned provocation” by the independent media outlet Uralsk Week. Bukenov went on trial on 18th December 2019 in relation to the incident. According to his lawyer, only two of the seven witnesses testified to seeing Bukenov strike Duisekenova. Bukenov believes that the case was initiated by Duisekenova due to her loyalty to the police officer with whom he was involved in a dispute. It is worth noting that Duisekenova was awarded a medal by police officer Makhsudkhan Ablazimov earlier in 2019 (the same police officer who arrested Bukenov following the traffic accident). Several representatives from independent media outlets were refused entry into the court room. On 27th December 2019, Bukenov was found guilty by the Administrative Court of Uralsk for “intentional infliction of slight bodily harm” under Article 73 of the Administrative Code and was imprisoned for five days. 

On 11th December 2019, at the Saryagash District Court in the Turkestan Region a hearing began against Amangeldy Batyrbekov, the editor of the newspaper “Saryagash Info” and five other people charged with libel and slander. The case arose from a complaint filed by Leyla Darkhanbayeva, chairperson of “Zangar-Medet” public association. Darkhanbayeva lodged a complaint against Batyrbekov, his wife Gulzada Baimuratova, and five other men for allegedly writing insulting posts about her on Facebook. Batyrbekov was found not guilty on 9th January 2020 and cleared of the charges. This is not the first time Batyrbekov has faced charges of libel and slander. In September 2019, as reported previously on the Monitor, he 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 because of a Facebook post in which he allegedly insulted an official from the Ministry of Education. He appealed against the case, and the evidence is currently being re-examined. 

On 13th December 2019, the Munaylin District Court in the Mangystau Region sentenced political activist Zhambyl Kobeysinov to six months’ imprisonment, and his wife Dilbar Bezhanova to six months of restriction of freedom after finding them guilty of slander on mass media (Article 130 of the Criminal Code). The case was initiated after a complaint from local police chief, Rashid Kuandykov. Kobeysinov and Bezhanova had accused the police chief of abuse of power on social media, in relation to an incident during which Kobeysinov was treated roughly by the police when they detained him at his house on 1st May 2019 because he allegedly intended to take part in an illegal demonstration. Kobeysinov is a political activist and has previously been arrested for disobeying police and attending unsanctioned demonstrations.

A court case against Sergei Molchanov, a psychiatrist and member of the Coordination Council under the Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan, began at the Second Pavlodar City Court on 18th December 2019. The case was initiated after a private complaint was lodged by Batima Mukina, chairperson of the board of the joint-stock entity “Centre for Support of Citizen Initiatives” under the Ministry of Information and Public Development. The “Centre for Support of Citizen Initiatives” is the only body allocating grants from the state budget, and it issued grants for over 1 billion and 59 million KZT for 2019 alone (around 2.5 million EUR or 2.8 million US Dollars). Molchanov was charged with “slander” in relation to his claims, that “this part of the quasi-public sector is misallocating public funds”. Mukina demanded that Molchanov remove his posts on the matter which were published on Facebook.

Peaceful Assembly

On the night of 10th December 2019, the Special Interdistrict Administrative Court found Gulmira Khalykova, Galiya Tamabayeva and Marat Musabaev guilty of “violating the procedures of peaceful assembly” in relation to their participation in a small peaceful gathering in front of the EU Delegation in Nur-Sultan between 26th and 27th November 2019. Khalykova and Tamabaeva were sentenced to ten day’s administrative detention, and Musabaev was given 15 day’s detention for allegedly calling for a demonstration on Facebook. 

In addition, on 10th December 2019 in Almaty, the Special Interdistrict Administrative Court found three local political activists guilty of violating the law on Peaceful Assembly. Askhat Zheksebaev was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative detention, Noyan Rakhimzhanov to 13 days and Bakdaulet Alibekov was ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 KZT (123 EUR or 133 US Dollars). Askhat Zheksebaev, who was not allowed to have a lawyer present, was punished for carrying out single person pickets on Republic Square, while the two others were sentenced for participating in a very small demonstration in support of political prisoners on 12th October 2019. Zheksebaev has previously been punished for holding single pickets, as covered previously on the Monitor.

On 12th December 2019, a group of six activists calling themselves the “405 Movement for Human Rights” held a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Nur-Sultan, demanding that Washington impose sanctions against certain Kazakhstani officials involved in human rights violations and claiming that the state is ignoring the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in the Chinese Xinjiang internment camps. The activists, including Serik Zhakhin and Yerbol Yeskhodin, were detained by police after the protest was over. 

On 19th December 2019 the Shymkent City Court sentenced local activist Nurzhan Mukhamedov to 40 hours of community service and a small fine after hearing a complaint filed by a police inspector in the Karatay district who claimed that Mukhamedov had insulted several police officers on 25th October 2019. In fact, Mukhamedov was in court on 25th October 2019 for a hearing related to his participation in an unsanctioned rally. As previously reported on the Monitor, in November 2019, Mukhamedov was subjected to serious threats and intimidation by unknown persons, who vandalised his car and home with slanderous and threatening slogans and placed the head of a decapitated dog in his car. Mukhamedov filed a complaint about the incident with local law enforcement authorities, who stated that they would initiate an investigation on suspicion of “hooliganism”. The investigation is still underway.

Arbitrary detentions on Independence Day

On Kazakhstan’s Independence Day, which was celebrated on 16th December 2019, numerous arbitrary detentions took place across the country, including the detention of people peacefully gathering in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. The day is often marked by activists in commemoration of the bloody 1986 Zheltoqsan uprising against the Soviet authorities, as well as the 2011 shootings of unarmed demonstrators in Zhanaozen in south-western Kazakhstan.

  • In Nur-Sultan, around 40 people were detained in the capital during an unsanctioned peaceful demonstration against “dictatorship”. At least six people were sentenced to between five and 15 days of administrative detention for violating the rules of peaceful assembly. Seven demonstrators received substantial fines. For example, pensioner Asia Bakaeva received a fine of 177,000 KZT (433 EUR or 470 US Dollars) for this demonstration and for participating in a demonstration in front of the EU Delegation. According to KIBHR’s information, demonstrator Anna Shukeeva was beaten and ill-treated by police near her house while she was holding her baby. 
  • Around 40 people were detained for peacefully gathering on Republic Square in Almaty. Some of those detained went on a hunger strike. About 20 people were charged, and at least 15 were sentenced to between five and 15 days of arrest. Some of those detained reported that neither the court nor the police informed their relatives of the fact that they were detained and that they were subsequently put under administrative arrest. KIBHR also reported that police officers prevented several people from leaving their apartments on 16th December 2019. 
  • According to KIBHR monitoring, on the same day in the city of Aktobe, about 10 people were detained outside their homes or as they approached the central square. They were not given any legitimate reason for their detention, other than the fact that the authorities suspected that they would attempt to participate in unsanctioned meetings. The detainees were given a “preventive talk” before being released.
  • In Uralsk, police officers detained 10 people who were heading towards the central square. Among the detained was the editor-in-chief of the online media outlet Uralsk Week, Lukpan Akhmedyarov. No reasons were given for the detention and those who were detained were released after questioning.
  • On the same day, the activist Baurzhan Alipkaliev was sentenced to five days in detention by the Administrative City Court for violating the law on peaceful assembly. The activist was originally detained for allegedly calling for an unsanctioned rally during a speech he gave at a sanctioned rally on 8th December 2019.
  • In Aktau, police officers detained several citizens. Nuriyash Abdreymova was detained in front of her five-year-old daughter, as she left her house. According to information from KIBHR, the child was left alone outside her house for seven hours, as the police did not allow Abdreymova to take the child with her or call relatives to stay with the child. The child was allegedly traumatised and sick after being left outside for so long.
  • In another case, Aigul Akberdy and her husband Ablovas Dzumaev were also detained as they left their home. The police did not allow them to inform their relatives of their whereabouts. 
  • As previously reported by the Monitor, in 2018 Ablovas Zhumaev was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment after being found guilty in an unfair trial of incitement to discord and calling for seizure of power. Zhumaev was released in July 2019, after his sentence was changed to restriction of freedom instead of imprisonment. 
  • On 16th December 2019 the Petropavlovsk Administrative Court sentenced blogger Azamat Baikenov to 10 days in detention. Baikenov was initially arrested on suspicion of organising an unsanctioned demonstration, after he laid flowers at the memorial for victims of political repression. Later that same day, police officers came to his home and conducted a search of the premises. During the search, the police allegedly hurt his pregnant wife's arm. They seized a computer and other electronic devices. The search took place as part of another criminal case underway against Baikenov, under Article 174 of the Criminal Code (incitement to social hatred). Police investigators claimed that their monitoring revealed that Baikenov had published files and videos of “oppositional content, where he expressed his opinions and those of others who support the ideas of the banned DVK” (Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan) on social media accounts, which Baikenov himself denies any knowledge of.

Association

The Kazakhstani authorities decided to release businessman Iskander Yerimbetov on 30th December 2019 due to his critical health problems. Yerimbetov was imprisoned in 2017 and sentenced to seven years in 2018 after being found guilty of large-scale fraud, in a politically motivated trial. Yerimbetov has been a vocal critic of the Kazakhstani leadership, and has been associated with the exiled banker and organiser of DVK, Mukhtar Ablyazov.