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Torture in Kazakhstan: Beyond Some Cases


In 2020, 63 criminal cases under article 146 “Torture” of the Criminal Code were registered in Kazakhstan, according to the Legal Statistics and Special Records Committee of the General Prosecutor’s Office. Only 11 of them were brought to court.

Meanwhile, the NGO Coalition of Kazakhstan against torture received 225 complaints about torture and ill treatment at this period. Almost the same number – 249 – was registered by the commissioner for human rights in 2019. The data for 2020 are not available so far. However, 217 complaints received by the office of the commissioner failed to prove torture by inspection results.

However, regardless of the source, there is only one thing in common – the very few get punished for torture. Instead, complainants come under pressure, the more so as the laws of Kazakhstan provide for bringing the people reporting torture to justice for false information.

Endless hardships of prisoner Tokmoldaev

On December 9, 2020, during the meeting between my father and the lawyer, he told her about the fact of bodily blows from the officers of colony ЕС-164/1 (Petropavlovsk, North Kazakhstan region) and showed the traces of blows on his arms, stomach, sides, and back. The beating took place on December 2, 2020.

Father pulled clothes off his chest and showed the open incised wound of the stomach, which was bleeding strongly. Father said Kharipov, employee of the probational ward, wounded him. All of these were recorded on video recorders of the employees and on the video recorder of investigator M. Li. Father cried that no one helped him. He said he was tortured and beaten, and he could die soon

The representative of the victim Amina Murat dispassionately (in due order) described the shocking details. She is the daughter of prisoner Murat Tokmoldaev who was tortured.

Murat Tokmoldaev was beaten earlier, in various colonies and pre-trial detention centres, and he was usually beaten for previous complaints. It was over and over again.

Now Amina Murat reported that investigator Li, who investigates the case of torture against her father, threatened him and exerted pressure on him so that no one could submit statements and complaints on this case.

The case of Tokmoldaev is typical for the closed institutions of Kazakhstan.

Blast from the past

On January 20, 2021, the head of the office of the general prosecutor of Kazakhstan responsible for legality of verdicts and their execution, Aibar Iliyas said that in Kazakhstan torture will become especially grave crime. This will help to avoid any chance of softer punishment and conditional sentence for this type of crimes.

These words were the response of the regulatory agency to the message of the president of Kazakhstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev on September 1, 2020, when he called on to bring the relevant law of Kazakhstan in line with the provisions of the International Convention against torture.

Back in the times of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the General Prosecutor’s office ensured the need of enforcement of punishment for people who employed torture and of prohibition of relief from criminal punishment. But it did not work out then despite the opening of 490 transparent interrogation booths. However, interrogations are often held not in these booths,  but in regular rooms, basements and in wards with “inoperative” video cameras.

“As the freedom from torture has the highest level of protection and does not provide for any restrictions, there’s a current need to address this message to every officer of law-enforcement bodies, prosecutor’s office and all officers working in closed institutions of Kazakhstan. Extension of term is yet another small step,” Roza Akylbekova, coordinator of the NGO Coalition of Kazakhstan against torture, said.

Before the recent initiative of the general prosecutor’s office, the NGO Coalition of Kazakhstan against torture submitted 16 recommendations to president Tokayev. Extension of terms of punishment is a part of one of them referred by the head of the state to the main regulatory agency.

Brief history of torture

Kazakhstan declared “zero tolerance” to torture in 2012, after the UN Committee Against Torture passed the first judgement regarding Kazakhstan on the case of Aleksandr Gerasimov. In this case, the authorities, for the first and only time, paid the victim of torture more or less adequate compensation and refused to hold the criminals liable.

After that, the UN has passed at least seven judgements in relation to the use of torture. However, Kazakhstan has not even attempted to follow the recommendations and to rehabilitate the rights of victims, except perhaps for their compensation in the amount of 500 dollars to one more victim of custodial torture.

For the first time, Kazakhstan tried to do something to improve the image of the country where torture is used at the systemic level in 2009. Then, by decision of the European Court of Human Rights, Ukraine was banned from extradition of fugitive criminal Amir Kaboulov.

“From the materials referred to above it appears that [in Kazakhstan] any criminal suspect held in custody runs a serious risk of being subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, sometimes without any aim or particular purpose. Thus, the Court accepts the applicant’s contention that the mere fact of being detained as a criminal suspect, as in the instant case, provides sufficient grounds to fear a serious risk of being subjected to treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Convention,” according to the judgement of the European Court on the case of Kaboulov v. Ukraine.

The fugitive was lucky enough because shortly before that the UN Special Rapporteur on torture Manfred Novak, upon his visit to Kazakhstan, wrote a devastating report, where the main conclusion was that in Kazakhstan “the use of torture certainly goes beyond individual cases.”

But after 2011, the European Union considered that Kazakhstan made significant progress in the fight against torture, and from that moment on they began to refuse extradition requests.

In the same 2011, the position of Kazakhstan was again undermined after the shooting of striking oil workers in the cities in Western Kazakhstan, Zhanaozen and Shetpe. The authorities shifted all responsibility to the opposition and the strikers, and then followed mass arrests and massive use of torture on the strikers, before bringing them to trial.

Refusing to allow UN experts to investigate the events in western Kazakhstan, the authorities created a National Preventive Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture in 2013 with participation of the representatives of civil society as a compensation.

Much ado and nothing

The mechanism existing in Kazakhstan today is rather aimed at revealing torture in closed institutions, while the staff of prisons, most of them, continue to evade responsibility.

Abusive officers are likely to be duly punished only when the case evokes a wide response, primarily in connection with the videos, which are difficult to refute.

In 2017, Nikolai Krivenko, who was admitted to the Astana Addiction Centre (who was not in alcoholic or drug intoxication), was beaten to death by medical workers and police officers. The guilty persons received maximum punishment – 8 to 10 years in prison – due to the fact that the lawyer of the victim’s family happened to have the video, and the case caused wide public response.

In 2019, a video of torture of prisoners in the LA-155/8 colony (Almaty region) leaked on the internet. In this high-profile case, seven prison officers were convicted, including deputy heads. Prior to that, Kazakhstani human rights activists had repeatedly tried to initiate investigations in the same and nearby prisons, but in the absence of video, all results of inspections were limited to one thing – “the facts were not confirmed,” despite the medical reports and testimonies of the victims.

But after the imprisonment of employees and a series of scandals related to corruption within closed institutions, the Penitentiary Committee decided that this should not continue. Only instead of systemic changes, the Ministry of Internal Affairs directed all its power against those who “wash their dirty linen in public.”

Last year, human rights activist based in Pavlodar, Yelena Semenova, a member of the NGO Coalition of Kazakhstan against torture, was the subject of at least seven lawsuits on “protection of honour and dignity” and “dissemination of false information” filed by officers of various prisons.

“I post all high-profile cases on Facebook to get immediate reaction. When I have something that can be postponed, I refer the case to the General Prosecutor’s Office. But they do not want to have this information leave the Penitentiary Committee,” Yelena Semenova said.

The recent lawsuit from last year was settled on January 22 – in the disfavour of the human rights activist.

New wave under the new president

The second president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, tries to position himself as a cautious reformer from time to time. A new “face-lifted” law on peaceful gatherings has been adopted, and the need to hold people liable for cruelty to animals has been discussed during his regime. On the other hand, the number of political prisoners has more than doubled with Tokayev. Police started to use violence against oppositionists when dispersing protest actions, and tortures against arrested opposition members “went beyond certain cases.”

The death of civil activist Dulat Agadil in the pre-trial detention centre at Nur-Sultan in February 2020 caused protests in various regions of the country. According to official data, the cause of the tragedy was “cardiac failure”, although the body of the deceased show scratches and his palms were blackened on the video posted.

The protests were suppressed, and on January 6, 2021 another political prisoner Askar Kaiyrbek was beaten in the same prison. He was beaten allegedly for not remembering the titles and names of the authorities of the pre-trial detention centre.

“Last year, we received more information about tortures against political prisoners. What is the reason? The authorities just want to intimidate the population because they fear mass protests, which were first held in May-June 2019. Moreover, this fear was intensified by protests in Belarus. That’s why they use physical force and psychological pressure on political prisoners,” said Daniyar Khasenov, participant of the #ActivistsNotExtremists human rights monitoring group.

In addition, when political activists are exposed to violence, it is impossible to seek sanction for the criminals. At best, a criminal case may be initiated to be forgotten afterwards, but sometimes it does not happen at all. Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights together with the victims – Yerlan Faizullaev and Medet Arystanov – has been trying since January 2020 to make the police and prosecutor’s office of Almaty initiate the criminal case over the beating of two opposition activists. Medical reports, photographs are available, the people are willing to identify the executors and give testimony, yet to no avail.

On February 11, 2021, the European Parliament adopted the resolution regarding the human rights situation in Kazakhstan. Although this is the fifth resolution, it is, unlike previous ones, is very strict and reminds of possible sanctions against guilty persons.

The document underlines that “in Kazak of Kazakhstan’s prisons the use of torture and ill treatment has been prevalent, with at least 200 cases of incidents of torture being reported every year by the Coalition Against Torture; whereas perpetrators of such abuses have enjoyed impunity while human rights defender Elena Semenova has been sued by prison colonies for exposing the use of torture in the Kazakh penitentiary system on social media.”

Human rights activists are not very optimistic about changes resulting from the tightened punishment for torture.

“We can tighten the law as many times as possible. We do have the article now, but it is useless. However, it provides for a long term. We can tighten it endlessly, but there’s no point in it if we do not hold proper investigations, if everything is covered up,” said Yelena Semenova.

This year, the UN Committee Against Torture was supposed to hear the report of Kazakhstan about the authorities fighting this phenomenon. However, the coronavirus has changed the agenda, probably, for the benefit of the republican authorities. It is unclear now when the report is going to be heard.

However, the authorities, if they do have the desire to stop the malpractice, now will have time to implement all the recommendations of Kazakhstan-based human rights activists.

“I’m afraid they are in no hurry to do it,” said Roza Akylbekova and noted it was just a first little step in a series of recommendations.