On the Watchlist: Widespread violations reported during ‘’Bloody January’’

On the Watchlist: Widespread violations reported during ‘’Bloody January’’

Introduction 

This is a special update on the events of January 2022 in Kazakhstan, prepared by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) as part of their cooperation with the CIVICUS Monitor. These events, which constitute the most serious crisis experienced by Kazakhstan during its 30 years of independence, seriously affected civic space in the country. Due to a rapid decline in civic freedoms, Kazakhstan is currently featured on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist.

At the beginning of January 2022, thousands of people across Kazakhstan took to the streets in peaceful protests to call for social and political change. The protests turned bloody as the authorities used force to put an end to them, and some parts of the crowd resorted to violence. The circumstances under which the protests evolved into unrest, riots and clashes between protesters and security forces, as well as the role of different actors in these developments, have yet to be fully clarified. However, there are serious concerns about the manner in which the authorities responded to the crisis, in particular their failure to make a clear distinction between non-peaceful and peaceful protest participants, when branding protesters as ‘’terrorists’’; arbitrary mass detentions of protesters; reports of the excessive use of force, including the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and passers-by; widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment, due process violations and disappearances of detained protesters; as well as the prosecution of people for merelypeacefully exercising their freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and expression.

During the January 2022 events, the authorities also implemented a nationwide internet shutdown over several days, thereby preventing access to information about the crisis. Media workers were obstructed and attacked when covering the events, and independent journalists and human rights defenders have been targeted by smear and intimidation campaigns following the January events. Civil society and pro-democracy activists who were peacefully protesting are among those detained, ill-treated and prosecuted in connection with the protests, reinforcing concerns that the events are being used as a pretext to increase pressure against government critics.

President rejected calls for an international investigation into the January events (which have been termed ‘’Bloody January’’ by civil society representatives). At the same time, the Kazakhstani authorities have to date failed to initiate a comprehensive, impartial and effective national investigation to establish a detailed account of the events and to hold accountable all those responsible for violations, including high-level officials.

Countrywide protests evolve into violence, authorities launch anti-terrorism operation

Peaceful protests against a sharp increase in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) – a popular fuel -- began in the city of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan’s Mangystau region on 2nd January 2022. Following a transition from state-regulated to market regulated pricing on LPG, the price of this fuel quickly doubled in the Mangystau region, which had significant implications for local residents as most cars in the region run on LPG.In the days that followed, the protests spread to other cities across the country, with thousands of people voicing demands for broader social and political change. public grievances about the authoritarian, unaccountable and unequal political and economic system put in place by former long-term President Nursultan Nazarbayev and retained by his successor, current President Tokayev.

Under circumstances that remain unclear, the protests escalated into violence between 4th and 5th January 2022, in particular in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, with reports of clashes between protesters and security forces, and the use of force by the latter to disperse protesters. On 5th January 2022, unidentified groups in Almaty stormed public buildings and set them on fire, seized the airport and attacked law enforcement officials. Sounds of gunshots were heard in the city and extensive looting and vandalism were reported. A similar violent turn of events also took place in several other cities, with groups of aggressive individuals reportedly appearing in the crowd, attacking public buildings and clashing with security forces, who used force to quell the protests.

In response, the authorities launched an anti-terrorist operation to combat what they described as a foreign-orchestrated terrorist threat, a claim which they failed to back up with evidence. In a statement that attracted much attention, President Tokayev suggested that 20,000 ‘’gangsters and terrorists’’ had been involved in attacks in Almaty alone, but later he withdrew this assertion. On 5th January 2022, the president declared a nation-wide state of emergency, and the following day he requested assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance between six post-Soviet states, whose forces were promptly deployed to help counter the alleged terrorist threat and restore order in the country. 

On 5th January 2022, President Tokayev also announced that he had accepted the resignation of the government and that ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev -- who has remained a powerful actor since leaving office in 2019 -- had stepped down from the influential position as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council. The head of the State Committee for National Security (KNB), Karim Masimov, an ally of Nazarbayev, was dismissed and subsequently charged with the offences of treason and attempting to violently seize, along with other high-level SCNS officers. Later other steps followed to strip Nazarbayev and those loyal to him of political influence, with signs of an elite power struggle taking place behind the scenes as the January crisis unfolded.

During several days of intense security operations, terrifying scenes took place, particularly in Almaty, where frequent sounds of gunshots and screams were heard in the streets, as morgues were filled with bodies, and ambulances rushed injured people to hospitals. At the same time, residents largely lived in an information vacuum as the authorities failed to provide transparent information and the internet was shut down (see more on these issues in the following sections). After several days, the situation eventually calmed down in Almaty and other parts of Kazakhstan. The state of emergency in Almaty and several other regions remained in effect until 19th January 2022, when the withdrawal of CSTO troops was completed. However, the fallout from the crisis will be felt long into the future with serious implications for human rights protection and civic freedoms (see more below).

Peaceful Assembly

Rights violations during protests

Available information shows that the Kazakhstani authorities violated the rights of protesters and other residents in several ways when responding to the January 2022 protests, even though the full scope and nature of violations is still subject to investigation. Below we summarise key concerns.

Firstly, when describing the protests, as well as the unrest that unfolded as a foreign-led terrorist attack, the authorities branded protest participants as “bandits” and “terrorists” in a sweeping fashion without making a clear distinction between those using violence and peaceful protesters. Experts from the United Nations strongly criticised the rhetoric used by the authorities in this context, stating that it appeared to be aimed at instilling fear and was inconsistent with international law. Secondly, the findings of human rights groups, media reports and eye-witness accounts indicate that the authorities resorted to excessive force against protesters, both when using teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, and when firing live ammunition during the protests and subsequent unrest. Based on an analysis of video material, combined with other sources of information, Human Rights Watch documented four incidents from 4th to 6th January 2022, when security forces used excessive force against protesters in Almaty.  They stressed that 

“terrorism language should not be used to silence those who do not share the Government's opinion, who are protesting about social and economic conditions, and expressing political views. Acts of violence should be appropriately dealt with under Kazakhstan's comprehensive criminal code which is adequately equipped to address these acts.”

In a speech delivered on 7th January 2022, President Tokayev said he had stated that he had ordered security forces and the army to ‘’fire without warning’’ when putting down the unrest and restoring law and order in the country. This order violated Kazakhstan’s obligation under international law to ensure that law to ensure that force is only used as the last resort and that it is proportionate, damage is minimised and human lives are protected. Tokayev subsequently insisted that armed force was not used against peaceful protesters. However, human rights groups, media and activists reported incidents of security forces shooting at unarmed protesters and protesters who constituted no direct threat, even before the shoot-without-warning policy was announced. Two incidents documented include:

  • As documented by Human Rights Watch, on 5th January 2022, security forces repeatedly fired assault rifles at several hundred people who had gathered outside the presidential residence in Almaty, resulting in at least 10 deaths and 19 people being injured. According to the organisation, the people present did not appear to pose an imminent threat to security forces, although some of them were holding sticks, shields and spades.
  • According to eyewitnesses, in the evening of 6th January 2022, military troops opened fire at unarmed protesters on Republic Square in Almaty, although they were holding a large banner saying: “We are not terrorists!” and were waving their hands in the air to show that they were unarmed. Video footage circulated online showed unarmed protesters running away from gunfire. Activists interviewed by media reported seeing several people who were killed or injured by the gunshots.

According to official figures, 227 people were killed during the unrest, including 19 law enforcement officials, while 4,353 people were injured. Human rights defenders believe that the real number of casualties might be higher. The authorities have refused to publicise the names of those who were killed and information about the exact circumstances of their deaths. As a result of the failure of the authorities to provide transparent information, human rights defenders, volunteers and journalists have engaged in independent efforts to compile lists of people who died during the January events. As of mid-February 2022, a unified list put together based on open source information and surveys contained over 180 names, while the names of others who were killed are still unknown. It is also highly concerning that some people remain missing since the January events, with their fate and whereabouts still unaccounted for, and relatives reportedly looking through morgues in search of their loved ones because of the lack of official information.

Peaceful protesters, activists and residents are among those reported to have died during the January events. In several cases, peaceful residents (including several children) who did not take part in the protests were arbitrarily killed as they were moving around outside their homes during the days of security operations. Below are a few examples of cases documented:

  • Twelve-year-old Sultan Kamshybek was killed in Almaty on the evening of 5th January 2022 as he went to buy food with his mother and other relatives. When he heard gunshots, he thought it was fireworks and started filming on his phone, after which he was shot in the head by an unknown assailant, who is believed to have been a government sniper. Police claimed that the incident took place after the beginning of the curfew, but according to human rights defenders it happened prior to this.
  • Kuat Bitkenbaev and Gulzifa Kulsultanova, an elderly couple, were killed when their car came under fire and started burning close to Republic Square in Almaty on the evening of 7th January 2022. They were on their way home from relatives and planned to make it before the start of the curfew. According to their family members, the car had dozens of bullet holes. Both eyewitnesses and police confirmed that the car had been shot at by armed troops.
  • In the evening of 8th January 2022, Nurbolat Saytkulov, his spouse Altynai Yetaeva and their 15-year old daughter Nuraywere killed as armed troops opened fire on their car as they were returning home in the city of Taldykorgan in Almaty region. According to police, the car allegedly failed to obey the soldiers’ order to stop because of the start of the curfew.

Furthermore, the authorities carried out mass detentions in connection with the January 2022 protests. According to official information, as of 11th January 2022, some 10,000 persons had been detained across the country. Human rights defenders have raised the alarm about arbitrary detentions of people who were merely exercising their right to peaceful protest, and about violations of the rights of detainees. For example, detainees were sometimes held in makeshift detention centres and denied access to legal assistance and the right to inform their relatives of their whereabouts. In addition, there have been widespread reports about the use of torture and ill-treatment against detainees, with shocking stories being shared by victims and their relatives through media and online platforms. The Kazakhstani NGO Coalition against Torture has received complaints about prohibited treatment of detainees from across the country, including victims who are below the age of 18. Reported violations include allegations of severe beatings, the use of electric shocks, hooding, being doused with boiling water, being burnt with a hot iron, threats of sexual violence and various other abuses. There are also cases in which people apprehended in connection with the January 2022 protests reportedly have died as a result of being subjected to torture in detention. The General Prosecutor has stated that six people died in detention as a result of "unlawful interrogation methods."

In another disturbing development, police and military reportedly rounded up people undergoing treatment at hospitals following the protests. For example, the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) published a video of how special forces took away injured people, some of whom were limping or moving on crutches, from an Almaty hospital on 9th January 2022. As a result of such actions, people with serious injuries (including gunshot wounds) were reportedly placed in detention without access to appropriate medical assistance.

While some of those detained in connection with the January 2022 events were released without charge, others were charged with various offences relating to the protests. Many of those believed to have been detained when protesting peacefully were convicted on administrative charges of participating in protests held without prior permission (which is punishable under article 488 of the Code of Administrative Offences), and fined or locked up for up to 20 days. These sentences were reportedly often handed down following expediated trials where those affected were deprived of the opportunity to mount an effective defence. Some journalists covering the protests also received such penalties (see more in section on expression below). In addition, as of early February 2022, close to 3,000 criminal cases relating to the January events were under investigation, with the first convictions reported to have been handed down in mid-February. Among those facing criminal charges are people who are not believed to have been involved in any violent actions but who were apprehended when protesting peacefully, including known civil society activists (see more in the section on association below). In some cases, criminal cases have been opened on charges under broadly worded offences such as ‘’knowingly disseminating false information’’ and ‘’inciting discord’’ (articles 274 and 174 of the Criminal Code, respectively), which can be widely interpreted and used to stifle legitimate free speech. It is also of serious concern that confessions extracted under torture have reportedly been used as the basis for charges initiated against some detainees, and that the right to legal assistance of those facing criminal charges has been unduly restricted.

The government has stated that all complaints of unlawful detentions, torture and ill-treatment and other violations perpetrated by law enforcement authorities in connection with the protests will be carefully investigated. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, as of mid-February 2022, it had received 363 complaints about unlawful treatment by law enforcement authorities, and investigations had been opened into 178 of these cases. However, many victims of torture and other violations are believed to be reluctant to file complaints due to fears of repercussions and the lack of confidence in obtaining justice, with the number of alleged violations being much greater than the number of complaints officially registered. There are also serious concerns about the lack of impartiality and effectiveness of the investigations into alleged violations, with abuses often having gone unpunished in previous years and violations largely being perpetrated with impunity. Such concerns are reinforced by statements made by individual officials such as that of a high-level Ministry of Interior official, who claimed that allegations of torture against people detained in connection with the January events ‘’are not true’’.

Civil society actors are currently involved in important, independent efforts to systematically document and analyse information about human rights violations committed during and after the protests. Among others, a newly created Human Rights Defence Alliance consisting of a number of well-known human rights NGOs and their networks (including KIBHR and the Coalition against Torture) are working toward this end.

Expression

Restrictions on internet access and obstruction of media coverage

During the January 2022 events the authorities seriously restricted internet access in the country. Following periodic inaccessibility of internet services in different regions of Kazakhstan, a nation-wide internet shutdown began on 5th January 2022 and lasted for several days, with internet services only periodically being accessible in some parts of the country. Internet connectivity was largely restored on 10th January 2022, although renewed problems were reported during subsequent days. Lack of access to cable TV and interruptions in telephone services were also reported during the crisis. 

While national law allows for suspending access to communications networks during a state of emergency such as the one declared during the January 2022 events, the restrictions imposed by the authorities violated international standards safeguarding freedom of expression. By implementing these restrictions, the authorities effectively implemented an information blockade and prevented independent reporting and communication about the crisis. The internet shutdown also created challenges in getting in touch with relatives and friends in the country and resulted incashless means of payment becoming largely unavailable, at the same time that people faced restrictions and problems with withdrawing cash to pay for food and other basic necessities.

In some cases, individual internet resources were blocked because of coverage related to the January 2022 protests. The news sites KazTag and Orda.kz were both blocked on 4th January 2022, with KazTag reporting that this measure followed after its refusal to comply with a request from the Ministry of Information to delete an article about the use of force by police against protesters in Aktau, which the Ministry claimed contained false information. Access to KazTag’s site was restored later the same day, while Orda.kz only became accessible as of 20th January 2022. On 10th January 2022, the Russia-based Fergana news site reported being informed by the Ministry of Information that an article posted on the site, which concerned the alleged role of former President Nazarbayev’s family in the January events, contained false information punishable under Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code. The article in question was blocked in Kazakhstan.

In a development condemned by media watchdogs, journalists and media workers covering the January 2022 protests (including those wearing designated press vests) faced harassment, including arbitrary detentions, prosecution for their alleged participation in unsanctioned assemblies, and physical attacks by security forces and non-state actors. 

Below are some cases documented by Adil Soz, a well-known Kazakhstani NGO protecting free speech, in its monitoring report covering the January events:

  • Two journalists working with RFE/RL were detained by police on 4th January 2022. The acting head of the service’s bureau in Almaty, Kasym Amanzhol was detained when filming a protest in this city, even though he presented his press pass. He was held for two hours before being released. His colleague, editor Darkhan Umirbekov, was detained the same evening at a protest in the capital, although he told the police officers that he was there in his professional capacity. Umirbekov’s lawyer said she was denied access to her client for more than two hours. Finally, following the lawyer’s interventions, Umirbekov was released after being held for 4.5 hours without receiving an explanation for his detention.
  • Bardat Asylbek, a correspondent for Orda.kz, was detained near Republic Square in Almaty on the night of 5th January 2022 after filming special security forces shooting at a group of people. Two officers forcefully apprehended him, although he wore a press vest and showed his press pass. They placed him in a police bus, confiscated his telephone (which he had used when filming) and his press pass and told him to ‘’sit there’’. After lengthy arguments, they returned his belongings on condition that he left the place.
  • Journalists Sholpan Eleusizova and Madina Alimkhanova from KazTAG were attacked by a group of people throwing stones at police cars in Almaty, whom they were filming on 5th January 2022. The assailants reportedly attempted to take the journalists’ camera and destroy it, and told them to leave. With the help of other people present, the journalists managed to get into their car and leave the place.
  • Daryn Nursapar, editor of the altaynews.kz website, was apprehended by police in the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk on 7th January 2022 after covering a protest held in the city on 5th January 2022 and posting a video of this protest on his Facebook page. Two days later he was found guilty of participating in an unsanctioned assembly (under article 488 of the Code of Administrative Offences) and sentenced to 15 days’ detention. On appeal, this period was reduced to 7 days.
  • On 7th January 2022, a court in the city of Uralsk sentenced Lukpan Akhmedyarov, editor of the weekly Uralskaya Nedelya, to 10 days’ detention on charges of participating in an unsanctioned protest (under article 488 of the Code of Administrative Offences), although he was not taking part in the protest but reporting on it. Two days earlier, police had detained and questioned him for several hours about his alleged involvement in banned organisations. Over the years, Akhmedyarov has repeatedly been subjected to intimidation and harassment because of his journalistic work.

Several media representatives covering the January 2022 events were injured. Below is but one documented example:

  • When Orda.kz journalist Bek Baytas was covering the protests in Almaty on 5th January 2022, a stun grenade hit him in the face, causing him to fall to the ground. He injured his face but managed to escape before the grenade exploded. His colleague from Orda.kz, Leonid Rasskazov sustained a back injury when hit by a rubber bullet. 

In the following case, a person affiliated with a media outlet died during coverage of the events:

  • Muratkhan Bazarbayev, a driver with Almaty TV, was killed on the evening of6th January 2022 when the station’s car came under fire in central Almaty. Diasken Baytibaev, a TV operator travelling in the same car, was shot in the hand, resulting in two of his fingers being amputated.

Pressure against journalists covering the January events continued after the protests, with several journalists being summoned for questioning. Journalist Makhambet Abzhan, who actively covered the protests on his Telegram channel Abzhannews, came under criminal investigation on charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’ (under article 274 of the Criminal Code) after he was interviewed about the protests on the Russian TV Channel Dozdh on 4th January 2022. His lawyer called for the charges to be dropped, stressing that the journalist had merely exercised his freedom of expression when voicing his views on the events taking place in the country. In mid-February 2022, the status of the case was unclear.

Association

Civil society members targeted

According to information from human rights groups, several dozen civil society, human rights, trade union and political activists were among those whose rights were violated in connection with the January protests. Many activists were reportedly detained when protesting peacefully, with some being released without charge, others given various terms of administrative detention for participating in unsanctioned protests, and some facing criminal charges believed to be retaliation for their civic and pro-democratic engagement. In some cases, activists have allegedly been subjected to torture and ill-treatment in detention, and their access to lawyers, family members and medical assistance has been restricted. There have also been reports of the death of activists due to injuries sustained when hit by gunfire during protests or when subjected to ill-treatment in detention. At least two activists were reportedly physically attacked by unknown perpetrators during protests.

Human rights groups are currently working on documenting and analysing different types of violations in detail. Based on preliminary monitoring findings, media reports and social media accounts, we describe below a few selected cases which illustrate broader trends of concern, but which do not reflect the full scope of violations:

  • Civil society activist Sergey Shutovwas detained by police on 11th January 2022 for allegedly participating in a protest held in the central square of the city of Atyrau on 4th January 2022. According to Shutov, he was held for two days, during which time he was both subjected to torture and witnessed other detainees being tortured. In a statement published on social media, he provided a detailed account of his experiences, describing how he and other detainees amongst others were taken to a shower room in a sports gym where they were held and beaten until they screamed in pain. He said that he was beaten on the chest, head, back and shoulders, while being asked if he would ‘’attend rallies again’’. Following two sessions in the shower room, he was unable to walk upright. Shutov also said that he and other detainees were warned to respond briefly and quickly to the questions posed to them during an online trial held on the second day of his detention if they wanted to avoid being taken back to the gym. During the trial, Shutov was sentenced to two days of administrative detention, but did not receive a copy of the verdict. Following his release, he went for a medical examination and filed complaints with police and the General Prosecutor’s Office. Previously Shutov has repeatedly taken part in peaceful protests and engaged on social media on social and political issues of concern to him.
  • Dauren Dostiyarov, an activist from the unregistered Democratic Party, was reportedly detained when peacefully protesting in Almaty on 4th January 2022, and severely tortured while being held in detention for nine days before being released on 13th January 2022. In a media interview, he said that he was held in a basement cell at the headquarters of Almaty Department of Internal Affairs and beaten for days, with interrogators striking him on the genitals, using electric shocks and forcing other detainees to beat him. He was told repeatedly that he would never come out alive. According to Dostiyarov, he did not have access to a lawyer or to medical assistance.Photographs of his injuries were uploaded on Facebook, showing bruises and injuries on his head, back, legs, arms and nails.Dostiyarovwas reportedly also ill-treated by police on two earlier occasions when detained in relation to peaceful protests, without his allegations of abuse having been duly investigated.
  • Raigul Sadyrbayeva, a Semey-based activist from the human rights association Elimai, is facing criminal charges which her colleagues consider to be politically motivated. On 5th January 2022, Sadyrbayeva reportedly monitored protests in the centre of Semey, which evolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement authorities. A week later, on 12th January 2022, police searched Sadyrbayeva’s home and detained her. On 14th January 2022, a local court sanctioned her pre-trial detention on charges of participating in mass riots and attacking or seizing buildings or other property (under articles 272 and 269 of the Criminal Code, respectively), under which she could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Sadyrbayeva has alleged being subjected to torture and ill-treatment in detention, including suffocation, attempted rape, being threatened at gunpoint, and psychological pressure with the aim of forcing her to confess. She has also allegedly been denied the right to communicate with her lawyer, and her family was not allowed to visit her for a month following her detention. As of mid-February, she remained in custody.
  • Ecological activist and blogger Artem Sochnev from the city of Stepnogorsk came under investigation on charges of ‘’inciting social discord’’ (under article 174 of the Criminal Code) after holding a one-person picket on the central square of his home city on 4th January 2022. The purpose of the picket, which he live-streamed, was to demonstrate solidarity with people protesting against rising fuel prices in the city of Zhanaozen. No one else was present on the square except for a few police officers, who briefly detained him and confiscated his mobile phone. Later Sochnev was summoned for questioning, and police searched his home on 14th January. As of mid-February 2022, the case against him had reportedly not advanced further, but was not known to have been closed. In previous years, vague charges of “inciting discord’’ have repeatedly been used in retaliation against outspoken civil society activists in Kazakhstan.
  • In another case, civil society activist Vladimir Prokopyev from the city of Shchuchinsk came under investigation on charges of inciting social discord after protesting against allegations of torture against people detained in connection with the January events. On 13th February 2022, Prokopyev went to the city hall, where he attempted to hand over an old, non-functional iron to local officials to pass on to President Tokayev. Through this symbolic gesture, in which he posted a video on social media, he wanted to express his indignation at widespread reports of torture against protesters (including reports of detainees burnt with irons). As he did not succeed in handing over the iron, he left it outside the city hall. In an interview he gave to the Kazakh service of RFE/RL, Prokopyev said that he was subsequently detained by law enforcement officials and taken to a local police station, where he was held for several hours. A protocol on a repeat administrative offence was drawn up against him (under article 488 of the Code of Administrative Offences) because he allegedly violated the procedure for holding assemblies for the second time this year when carrying out the action outside the city hall. The activist said that he was detained and given a warning on the same grounds when taking part in a protest at the beginning of January. According to him, he was also informed that a criminal investigation had been opened in his case (under Criminal Code article 174). Prokopyev has previously carried out peaceful protests and made social media posts on various issues of concern to him, including the issue of political prisoners.
  • Karima Khaidarbekova, a single mother of six who for years has been campaigning on behalf of socially vulnerable women, has been criminally prosecuted in relation to protests held in the city of Shymkent. On 8th January 2022, police detained her, and the following day a local court ordered her pre-trial detention for two months on multiple criminal charges (under articles 293, 269, 380 and 202 of the Criminal Code) because of her alleged involvement in riots and the destruction of public facilities and means of transportation on the night of 4th to 5th January 2022. Khaidarbekova has denied the charges, insisting that she did not do anything unlawful during the protests, during which she and co-activists expressed solidarity with protesters in Zhanaozen and voiced concerns about economic and social problems. Human rights defenders believe that the charges against her are retaliation for her previous civic engagement. If found guilty, she could receive a lengthy prison sentence. While in detention, she has reportedly not been allowed to see her family. Khaidarbekova’s children (two of whom are disabled) are cared for by her elderly mother, who said she stepped in as local authorities attempted to place the children temporarily in an orphanage.
  • Civil society activist Kuat Shamuratov was detained in the city of Aktobe on 7th January 2022 after participating in protests held in the city on 5th and 6th January 2022. Three days later, he was placed in pre-trial detention on charges of organising riots (under article 272 of the Criminal Code), after allegedly being severely beaten in an attempt to extract confessions from him. According to Shamuratov’s lawyer, there is no basis for the charges against him. The lawyer stated that his client in fact tried to stop people who wanted to storm the mayor’s office after being agitated by provocateurs. Shamuratov’s relatives and co-activists believe that the case against him is retaliation for his civic activism, including his previous participation in peaceful protests against government policies.
  • Civil society activist Aitbai Aliev died in the city of Kyzylorda under circumstances suggesting that this was a result of torture. According to Aliev’s son, the activist was detained on 5th January 2022 after participating in a small peaceful protest the day before. After receiving no news from his father for several days, his son finally found the activist’s dead body in a morgue on 9th January 2022. He said that there were large scars on his father’s head (also visible on photos of the dead body) and that he learned that his father had arrived with these injuries from the detention facility at the emergency room, where he passed away. Previously, in July 2020, Aliev had been convicted of involvement in a banned organisation and given a six-month restricted freedom sentence after posting a short video in which he expressed support for the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), an opposition movement banned as ‘’extremist’’ in Kazakhstan, although it does not advocate for or endorse violence.
  • According to information from her daughter, civil society activist Nuralia Aitkulova died on the evening of 6th January after being hit in the chest by two bullets on Republic Square in Almaty, where she had been peacefully protesting. The activist’s relatives said that they were guarded by armed officials when taken to identify her body at the morgue. As part of her civic activities, Aitkulovahad been raising various social issues and shortly before her death she posted a video in which she spoke out against the persecution of civil society activists.
  • Zhanbolat Mamay, leader of the unregistered Democratic Party, was reportedly attacked and beaten by unknown, aggressive perpetrators on Republic Square in Almaty on 5th January 2022. According to his wife, who posted a photo of Mamay with a black eye and bandaged head on social media, one of the perpetrators also tried to shoot at the activist but a co-activist managed to stop him. The day before this incident, Mamay was briefly detained in connection with a peaceful protest.

There are concerns that statements made by public officials have contributed to fuelling negative attitudes toward civil society representatives in the aftermath of the January events. In particular, in a televised speech held on 7th January 2022, President Tokayev lashed out against human rights defenders, activists and independent media representatives, calling them “irresponsible demagogues” and suggesting that they were partly to blame for the violent turn of events. He said that the authorities would ‘’respond harshly’’ to ‘’acts of legal vandalism’’. 

His statement prompted a smear campaign against defenders, activists and independent journalists, with various pro-state media and pro-state activists picking up this line of rhetoric. Local-level officials might also have interpreted his statement to justify punitive measures taken against activists peacefully exercising their freedoms in connection with the January events. In another development that reinforces concerns that authorities might be exploiting the January events to justify repressive measures against known government critics, prosecutors have accused opposition movements of being involved in the violence that erupted, in particular the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and the Koshe (Street) Party. People affiliated with these movements are reportedly among those detained, questioned and prosecuted because of their peaceful participation in the January protests. As documented before, supporters of DVK and Koshe have been the targets of a widening crackdown in recent years.