This is an update on developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from February to March 2022. It has been 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.
During the reporting period, the situation in Kazakhstan continued to be affected by the fallout from the January 2022 events, when mass protests for social and political change were met with excessive force by the authorities and parts of the crowd resorted to violence. Representatives of the international community have repeatedly expressed concerns about the human rights impact of these events and called for an effective and impartial investigation into them. For example, when speaking at the Human Rights Council on 7th March 2022, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet deplored the excessive use of force, mass detentions, torture and ill-treatment in detention and other violations of Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations in relation to the January events. She further stated: ‘’I note the first steps towards investigation that have been taken, and urge that they be thoroughly and independently conducted, delivering accountability. I also strongly encourage further steps towards comprehensively addressing the grievances that led to these demonstrations, including allegations of corruption and deep underlying inequalities.’’
In an address to the people of Kazakhstan delivered on 16th March 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev also stressed the need for an ‘’objective assessment’’ of the January events, which he described as a joint attempt by ‘’internal and external enemies’’ to seize power and discredit the country’s current leadership. However, he failed to provide assurances that the events would be independently and impartially investigated, instead referring to the work of an internal government investigative task force. President Tokayev also announced a series of political reforms to move away from ‘’super-presidential rule’’ and create a ‘’new Kazakhstan’’, acknowledging that monopolisation of power had contributed to the January events. While welcoming reforms in principle, civil society representatives feared that the announced reforms might largely amount to window dressing, unless combined with more systematic reforms to strengthen democratic governance and human rights protections.
As of late March 2022, the authorities had yet to publish the names of the more than 200 people killed during the January events, although the new General Prosecutor taking office earlier that month stated that this information would be made public. The authorities had to admit the widespread nature of allegations of torture and ill-treatment against people detained in connection with the January events, with eight deaths in custody officially confirmed and over 300 complaints filed with authorities about abusive treatment. The overall number of cases of torture and ill-treatment is, however, believed to be considerably higher as many victims are reluctant to report their experiences.
While most of the estimated 10,000 people detained during the January events received administrative penalties, over 2,000 criminal cases relating to these events had been initiated as of late March 2022, with charges ranging from theft and intentional property damage to mass riots, attempted seizure of power and acts of terrorism. Convictions had already been handed down in several dozen cases, while the other cases were pending investigation and trial. It is of serious concern that those charged with rioting and other criminal offences include activists believed to have been targeted in retaliation for their peaceful and legitimate civic engagement. Some activists, including women’s rights campaigner Karima Khaidarbekova, human rights defender Raigul Sadyrbayeva and civil society activist Kuat Shamuratov were released from custody as their detention was replaced by other measures of restraint pending trial. However, other activists remained in detention. Activists detained in connection with the January events have also reported being subjected to torture and ill-treatment and due process violations, while some activists were injured and even killed when hit by bullets as security forces opened fire against protesters.
In a high-profile case, opposition party leader Zhanbolat Mamai was placed in pre-trial detention on spurious criminal charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information” and ‘’insulting law enforcement officers’’ after first having been locked up for 15 days on administrative charges of organising an unsanctioned public event to commemorate the victims of the January events. Mamai has vocally criticised the authorities, including over the January events. In another case that gave rise to concerns about the misuse of the vaguely worded criminal code provision on ‘’knowingly spreading false information”, a journalist-blogger devoted to disclosing fake news came under investigation on such charges after re-posting a fake video on Facebook featuring security forces calling for political change. In another case, similar charges were dropped against a journalist who had been accused of spreading ‘’false information’’ when giving an interview to an independent Russian media outlet about the January events.
There were fears that draft legislation argued to be aimed at protecting children from cyberbullying could result in arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression. Draft provisions, passed by parliament on second reading in March 2022 would require foreign social media platforms to promptly remove content deemed to amount to cyber bullying based on complaints received from citizens. In response to widespread criticism of the draft legislation, it was amended to reduce the powers of the government body in charge of receiving complaints before being finally approved by parliament in April 2022 and sent to the president for signature. However, concerns remain as to how the new requirements would be implemented in practice.
While allowing some peaceful assemblies to take place during the reporting period, the authorities refused to permit others on arbitrary grounds and detained participants and potential participants in peaceful protests held without permission. For example, while a large peaceful rally against the war in Ukraine was sanctioned in Almaty, other requests to hold protests on this issue were rejected, and activists who gathered to protest without permission were detained. In several cities, police detained activists ahead of planned peaceful rallies called for by opposition groups on 13th February 2022 to call for justice for the victims of the January 2022 events, and several people were penalised after organising a peaceful event to this end in Almaty.
Independent trade union activities continue to be restricted in Kazakhstan, with another trade union being denied registration without receiving an adequate explanation of the reasons for this decision. As workers from different companies in the oil and gas rich Mangystau region were protesting for salary increases and improved working conditions, there were new cases in which employers turned to court requesting peaceful strikes to be declared unlawful. Activists standing up for the unemployed in the city of Zhanaozen reported pressure by local authorities and Erzhan Elshibaev, who was imprisoned on charges considered politically motivated in 2019 after defending the rights of the unemployed in this city, attempted to commit suicide in prison due to harassment.
Concerns about response to January 2022 protests
As covered in our special update on the January 2022 events, during the security operations implemented in connection with these events, over 4,000 people were injured and over 200 killed. According to recent information provided by the General Prosecutor’s Office in mid-March 2022, a total of 230 people, including 19 representatives of the security and armed forces, were killed during the January events. Earlier in March 2022, when taking office, the new General Prosecutor, Berik Asylov, promised that the names of those killed during the January events would be made public. However, as of late March 2022, the names had yet to be published. The authorities’ lack of transparency on this issue is particularly troubling given reports about the excessive use of force, including lethal force, against protesters by security forces during the events. As covered in our special update, those killed also include peaceful residents (including several children) who did not take part in the protests but who were shot when they were moving around outside their homes during the days of security operations.
Moreover, law enforcement authorities detained around 10,000 people, including people who had only peacefully protested in connection with the January events. There were widespread allegations of due process violations and torture and ill-treatment of detainees, with eight detainees having died in custody, according to official information. President Tokayev called the reported cases of torture ‘’barbaric manifestations of the Middle Ages’’, saying that such practices were ‘’unacceptable’’ and that he had ordered all allegations of abuse to be ‘’thoroughly investigated’’. According to information from the General Prosecutor, as of mid-March 2022, the authorities had received over 300 complaints about torture and other “unlawful methods of investigation” in relation to the January 2022 events, with 243 criminal cases having been opened into such allegations and nine law enforcement officials having been arrested as a result of these investigations. However, as highlighted in an overview published by IPHR and the Kazakhstani NGO Coalition against Torture, the real number of cases of abuse is believed to be much higher as many victims have refrained from filing or following through on complaints due to fears of reprisals and the lack of confidence in obtaining justice. The Coalition against Torture is also concerned about the failure of the authorities to carry out thorough, impartial and effective investigations, consistent with international standards, in cases of alleged torture that the network and its lawyers are working on. It is of further concern that the suspected perpetrators have often been allowed to continue their work during investigations and that victims lodging complaints while in detention have not been adequately protected.
Many of those detained during the January events were penalised for administrative offences, such as participating in unsanctioned protests. According to information provided by the General Prosecutor’s Office, 8,354 administrative cases relating to the January events had been considered by court as of mid-January 2022,, with 3,337 people having been given warnings, 1,653 people fined and 1,002 people sentenced to short-term detention on such charges. Some of these sentences were changed on appeal. Other people detained in connection with the January events were charged with various criminal offences, ranging from theft and intentional property damage to mass riots, attempted seizure of power and acts of terrorism. According to information from the Ministry of Interior, as of 28th March 2022, a total of 2,021 criminal cases relating to the January events were under investigation, while 185 cases had been submitted to court and 96 people had been convicted. Among those facing criminal charges are people who are not believed to have been involved in any unlawful or violent actions which would qualify as crimes in accordance with international standards, but who were apprehended when protesting peacefully (see more under Association on cases against civil society activists).
On 16th March 2022, President Tokayev delivered an address to the people of Kazakhstan in which he stated that the unrest of January 2022 threatened the very existence of the state. According to him, ‘’internal and external enemies of the state’’, including ‘’professional mercenaries, armed bandits and traitors among government officials’’ joined forces to seize power, using the people of the country for ‘’their criminal purposes’’. He said that all ‘’bandits and terrorists’’ involved in the January events would be held accountable. He also stressed the importance of ‘’publishing reliable information’’ and ‘’providing an objective assessment’’ of the events, noting the investigation under way by a so-called interdepartmental investigative task force. When commenting on Tokayev’s speech, Human Rights Watch noted that the president failed to acknowledge that the task force in question is not an independent body and expressed disappointment that he did not provide any assurances that the January events would be independently investigated.
In his address, President Tokayev also announced a series of reforms to roll back the ‘’super presidential’’ rule put in place by his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev and create ‘’a new Kazakhstan’’. He said that he was convinced that sustainable progress was not possible without political modernisation, and pointed to political and economic monopolisation as a cause for the January events. Among others, Tokayevproposed to require the president in office to give up positions in political parties, to ban the president’s close relatives from holding high-ranking state positions and to reduce the president’s powers to remove lower-level officials from office. He also proposed to introduce a mixed parliamentary electoral system instead of the current proportionate one, to increase the role of the lower house of parliament and to make it easier for political parties to register, in particular by decreasing the number of signatures needed for registration. In addition, he proposed to revise the media law to facilitate the work of media outlets and to improve dialogue between authorities and civil society through so-called public councils. According to President Tokayev, more than 30 provisions of Kazakhstan’s Constitution will be amended and more than 20 new laws adopted by the end of the year to implement the announced reforms.
The announced reforms were met with scepticism by civil society. While steps to improve good governance, democratic decision-making and human rights protections are welcome, civil society representatives are concerned that the announced reforms might not translate into concrete improvements in practice, unless more systematic measures are taken to address current repressive practices. An analytical Foreign Policy article about the president’s speech concluded that: ‘’these reforms risk becoming little more than window dressing if the underlying structural barriers to democratisation, transparency, and executive accountability remain unaddressed.’’ For example, the announced steps to liberalise the requirements for the registration of political parties will not result in any real progress if the authorities continue to obstruct attempts by opposition parties to register. Only two days before the president’s speech, opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamai, who has unsuccessfully sought to register the opposition Democratic Party, was remanded in custody on charges believed to be politically motivated (see more under Association). In 2020, the Democratic Party was forced to cancel its founding congress (required by law to apply for registration) due to pressure on its initiators and supporters, and Mamai and other party activists have been subjected to ongoing harassment.
It was also disappointing that President Tokayev stated that there would be no further reform of the 2020 law on assemblies, which the authorities have hailed as progressive but human rights defenders have criticised for being contrary to international standards. The president claimed that the current law has allowed activists, including opposition activists, to ‘’hold rallies without hindrance and freely express their opinions’’, although the right to hold assemblies remains seriously restricted in both law and practice in the country, as also documented in this update (see more below).
The right to freedom of peaceful assembly remains seriously restricted in Kazakhstan. The revised law on assemblies, adopted in 2020 de-facto retains the requirement to obtain advance permission for holding assemblies, although it formally provides for a notification procedure. The authorities selectively apply this law, obstruct peaceful protests held without pre-approval, and detain participants and potential participants.
In a welcome development, several peaceful assemblies sanctioned by the authorities took place without interference during the period covered by this update. These included peaceful protests against Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, one of which gathered more than 3,000 people in Almaty – an unusually high number.
However, other requests to hold peaceful protests against the war in Ukraine were rejected, and police carried out detentions in connection with several unsanctioned protests, including in these cases:
- Opposition groups had called for peaceful rallies on 13th February 2022 to commemorate the victims of the January 2022 events and demand justice for them. However, because of the lack of official sanctioning of the rallies, they were deemed unlawful by authorities. In several cities, law enforcement authorities prevented civil society activists from participating in these rallies. Thus, in the capital Nur-Sultan and other cities such as Kokshetay, Zhanaozen, Shymkent, Aktobe and Uralsk, police held the homes of activists under watch and detained activists in- and outside their homes, typically holding them for a few hours before releasing them. In Almaty, the announced rally took place without interference, with some 700 people gathering at Republic Square. However, at the end of February and beginning of March 2022, six people were penalised for organising this event: two of them were fined, while four were given terms of administrative detention ranging from five to 15 days. Among those sentenced to administrative detention was the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Zhanbolat Mamai. As covered in this update (see Association), he was not released after serving his 15-day sentence but remained behind bars on questionable criminal charges. About 30 Mamai supporters, who had gathered outside the police department where he was held to call for his release, were warned by police on 14th March that they might be detained unless they stopped their ‘’unlawful action’’.
- On 24th February 2022, about a dozen people, most of whom were members of the youth protest movement Oyan, Qazaqstan gathered for a peaceful rally outside the Russian consulate in Almaty. The participants expressed solidarity with the people of Ukraine, holding Ukrainian flags and posters featuring slogans protesting against the war in Ukraine. A representative of the mayor’s office arrived and requested the participants to disperse, saying their action had not been sanctioned by authorities. However, they continued their protest. Most participants were subsequently detained, placed in a police van and taken to a local police station, where they were requested to provide written explanations before being released.
- On 28th February 2022, Yaroslav Mamin was reportedly detained outside the Russian embassy in the capital as he was planning to hand over a letter to the Russian ambassador, asking him to resign and call on the Russian government to stop the war in Ukraine. As Mamin arrived at the embassy, carrying a poster with an anti-war slogan, police were waiting for him, detained him and took him to a local police station. He was released after being requested to sign a written explanation.
Cases involving activists detained in connection with the January 2022 events
As covered in our previous, special update, dozens of civil society, human rights, trade union and political activists were among those detained, subjected to torture and ill-treatment and penalised for their participation in unsanctioned protests in connection with the January 2022 events. In addition, numerous activists detained during the January events are facing criminal charges believed to be retaliation for their civic and pro-democratic engagement. Below we provide an update on some of the cases described before:
- Karima Khaidarbekova, a single mother of six who for years has been campaigning on behalf of socially vulnerable women, was released from custody in the city of Shymkent on 15th March 2022 after a local court ruled to replace her pre-trial detention with an obligation not to leave her place of residence without permission. The court also dropped several criminal charges previously initiated against her in relation to the January 2022 protests, leaving in place charges of participation in mass riots (under article 272 of the Criminal Code), an offence that carries a penalty of up to eight years in prison. Khaidarbekova had been held in detention since 8th January 2022. As covered before, she was reportedly not allowed to see her family while in detention, and local authorities attempted to temporarily place her children in an orphanage, which her elderly mother, however, prevented. Following Khaidarbekova’s release, several other activists remained in pre-trial detention in Shymkent on charges relating to the January events.
- Raigul Sadyrbayeva, a Semey-based human rights activist, was transferred from pre-trial detention to house arrest in mid-March 2022 based on a decision by a court in West Kazakhstan region. Prior to this, she had spent two months in pre-trial detention on charges of participating in mass riots and attacking or seizing property (under articles 272 and 269 of the Criminal Code, respectively) during the January protests, which are believed to be politically motivated. If found guilty on these charges, she could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Sadyrbayeva has alleged that she was subjected to severe torture and ill-treatment in detention, held in degrading conditions, and that her communication with her lawyer and family were unduly restricted. She has filed a complaint with the General Prosecutor’s Office about her treatment in detention, but at the time of writing there was no information about any action taken in response to her complaint.
- Civil society activist Kuat Shamuratov was similarly transferred from pre-trial detention to house arrest on 19th March 2022 based on a decision issued by a court in the city of Aktobe. Shamuratov had been held in pre-trial detention since 10th January on charges of organising riots (under article 272 of the Criminal Code) in connection with the January events. As previously covered, Shamuratov’s relatives and co-activists believe that the case against him is in retaliation for his civic activism, including his participation in peaceful protests against government policies. According to his lawyer, the activist tried in fact to stop other people who wanted to storm the mayor’s office in Aktobe after being agitated by provocateurs. Shamuratov has allegedly been severely beaten in detention in an attempt to extract confessions from him. A criminal investigation has been opened against two police officers suspected of torturing him, but according to the activist’s relatives the officers in question have been allowed to continue to work during the investigation.
- As covered before, civil society activist Vladimir Prokopyev was detained by police outside the city hall in the city of Shchuchinsk on 13th February 2022 as he was attempting to hand over an iron to local officials for passing on to President Tokayev – a symbolic gesture through which he wanted to protest against the widespread allegations of torture against people detained in connection with the January events. He was taken to a local police station, where a protocol on violating the procedure for holding assemblies (under article 488 of the Code of Administrative Offences) was drawn up against him and he was informed that he was under investigation on charges of ‘’inciting social discord’’ (under article 174 of the Criminal Code). Following public attention to the case, later in February 2022, a local court returned the administrative case against Prokopyev to police because of the ‘’lack of evidence’’, thereby de-facto closing the case, according to the activist’s lawyer. The lawyer also said that the court had stated that no criminal case had been opened against the activist. In response to a complaint filed with the local prosecutor’s office about the actions of the police officers who detained and questioned him, Prokopyev was informed that an internal investigation had been conducted and the officials who were responsible had been given disciplinary sanctions.
As covered before, opposition activist Zhanbolat Mamai was briefly detained and attacked by unknown perpetrators when peacefully participating in the January 2022 protests. He has also been questioned as a witness as part of an investigation on charges of ‘’mass riots’’ (article 272 of the Criminal Code) concerning the January events. In addition, during the reporting period, he was remanded in custody on criminal charges related to his political activism:
- On 14th March 2022, an Almaty court sanctioned the pre-trial detention of Mamai, who leads the unregistered opposition Democratic Party, for two months on charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information” and ‘’insulting law enforcement officers’’ (under Criminal Code articles 274 and 378, respectively). Prior to this, on 25th February 2022, Mamai was sentenced to 15 days’ detention for organising an unsanctioned public event to commemorate the victims of the January events in Almaty (see more under Peaceful Assembly). However, instead of being released when this sentence expired on 12th March, he remained in detention on the basis of the criminal charges which had previously been initiated against him. The charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information”were levelled against him in December 2021 as he was accused of allegedly disseminating false information about a credit amnesty – a measure that he and his supporters have been calling for. The charges of ‘’insulting law enforcement officers’’ concern critical remarks the activist made after police dispersed a planned peaceful protest by his party and attempted to detain him in September 2021. On 28th March 2022, Mamai’s appeal against his pre-trial detention was rejected and he remained behind bars, although – as pointed out by KIBHR — national law does not provide for detention as a measure of restraint in criminal cases involving charges such as those he is facing. His colleagues have denounced the charges against him as politically motivated and human rights NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have called for his release.
As covered in our special update, civil society activists were among those hit by gunfire when security forces were dispersing the January 2022 protests, resulting in some activists being killed and others injured. In the following case, a civil society activist was seriously injured when peacefully protesting in the city of Semey:
- As security forces opened fire against protesters in the central square of Semey on 6th January 2022, panic broke out and civil society activist Daulet Mukhazhanov and others were running to get away from the gunfire. As the activist stopped to help a girl who had fallen to the ground, he was hit by a bullet in his spine. He and other activists were also allegedly kicked by riot police. Mukhazhanov subsequently underwent surgery to remove the bullet, resulting in his legs being paralysed and he is now in a wheelchair. As he was undergoing treatment, police reportedly came to the hospital and attempted to round him up, but doctors refused to hand him over. On 17th January, the day he was discharged, he was immediately taken to a local police station for questioning and is now treated as a witness in the ongoing investigation into the January events. Mukhazhanov told the Kazakh service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that he has not filed any complaint with police about his own injuries as he ‘’does not see any point’’ in this and does not believe that it would result in the responsible individuals being held to account. He is currently looking for funds to undergo urgent, expensive treatment abroad aimed at improving mobility in his legs. Mukhazhanov has been participating in peaceful protests for years and has also engaged in charity work. As the January protests began in the city of Zhanaozen, he appealed to the residents of his home city to support the protesters there as they were speaking out against the increase in fuel prices. On 5th January 2022, he was detained outside his home as he was on his way to an announced protest in Semey and held for several hours before being released.
A number of civil society and opposition activists recognised as political prisoners by civil society continue to serve prison sentences handed down in previous years. One of these activists, Erzhan Elshibaev, who was imprisoned in 2019 after standing up for the rights of the unemployed and organising a series of peaceful rallies to this end in the city of Zhanaozen in the oil- and gas-rich Mangystau region, reported renewed pressure in prison:
In a video published in February 2022, Elshibaev threatened to commit suicide after being subjected to ongoing pressure in the prison in the city of Kyzylorda where he is held. In particular, he alleged harassment by one prison official, who he said had warned him that ’’I’ll do whatever I want with you”. At the beginning of March, it was reported that the activist had followed through on his threat and attempted to commit suicide, as a result of which he was hospitalised. Elshibaev has also previously engaged in self-harming behaviour to protest against harassment in prison: in August 2020, he sewed his mouth shut, and in July 2021, he cut himself in the stomach. Following a trial marred by procedural violations, Elshibaev was sentenced to five years in prison in October 2019 for allegedly inflicting serious bodily harm to another person during a fight (under article 106 of the Criminal Code), charges which he has denied and which are believed to have been retaliation for his civic engagement. Both Kazakhstani and international human rights groups have called for his release and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions has found his detention to be in violation of international law.
In a related development, in March 2022, unemployed people holding a several weeks’ long protest outside the mayor’s office in Zhanaozen, demanding jobs in the oil sector, reported being subjected to pressure by local authorities.
New restrictions on trade union and strike activities
The activities of independent trade unions remain restricted in Kazakhstan, as criticised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The repressive 2014 Law on Trade Unions sets out significant obstacles to the registration of independent unions, despite some amendments adopted in 2020, and such unions have repeatedly been denied registration on arbitrary grounds. Among those are several branches of the Trade Union of Workers of the Fuel and Energy Industry. Most recently, on 10th February 2022, the local department of justice rejected the application for registration filed by the Almaty branch of this trade union because the union had allegedly failed to address a previous remark made by the department. In that remark, dated 11th January 2022, the justice department simply informed the trade union that its registration process had been suspended for a month without explaining the grounds for this decision or telling the union what it was requested to do. Despite repeated attempts, the trade union was unable to obtain additional information about the grounds for the suspension and any alleged problems related to the application it had submitted, which made it impossible for it to take any measures to address such issues. The Ministry of Justice dismissed an appeal filed by the trade union. KIBHR is providing the trade union with legal assistance.
There are also concerns about restrictions on the right to strike in Kazakhstan. In recent months, there has been a growing number of protests among employees working in the oil and gas-rich Mangystau region, with workers recording collective video appeals to the president and other authorities, and initiating strikes to demand higher salaries in response to increasing price levels and other improvements in working conditions. In a problematic trend, employers have repeatedly turned to court to request that strikes be declared unlawful and workers involved have been threatened with sanctions. These are two examples from the reporting period:
- On 9th February 2022, workers at Burgylau, a Zhanaozen-based company which provides support services to the oil and gas industry sector, went on strike, demanding, among other things, an increase in the minimum salary at the company, improvements in labour safety and renationalisation of the enterprise. The company leadership requested a local court to declare the strike ‘’illegal’’, a request that was satisfied on 17th February, and demanded that the striking workers return to work, warning them that they would lose their salaries if absent. According to the chair of the trade union at Burgylau, several hundred workers received requests to appear in court. However, no workers are known to have been penalised in relation to the strike.
- On 30th March 2022, the state company Ozen Energoinvest, which is responsible for electricity supply in Zhanaozen, turned to court in relation against 67 workers, seeking to have their strike declared unlawful. The workers had gone on strike a few days earlier, demanding higher salaries and improved social benefits. One of the strikers told the Kazakh service of RFE/RL that the workers had gone through all procedures for negotiations with the employer in accordance with the labour code, but that the negotiations had been unsuccessful. The employer offered the workers a 10 percent salary increase, which they did not accept. The workers also recorded a video appeal to the president and other officials, urging them to pay attention to the workers’ demands.
Impunity for attacks on journalists during January protests
As described in our special update on the January 2022 events, media workers covering these events faced different forms of harassment, including physical attacks perpetrated by security forces and non-state actors, resulting in several journalists being injured and one person affiliated with a media outlet dying. None of those responsible for these attacks are known to have been held accountable.
Criminal charges for free speech
In several recent cases, charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’ (article 274 of the Criminal Code) have been initiated for legitimate free speech relating to the January 2022 events. These developments illustrate the problematic nature of this vaguely worded provision of the Criminal Code, which has repeatedly been used against critical voices in recent years.
- As covered in our special update, journalist Makhambet Abzhan came under investigation on charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’ (under article 274 of the Criminal Code) because of an interview about the January 2022 protests he gave to the independent Russian TV Channel Dozdh on 4th January 2022. He was repeatedly summoned for questioning and the transcript of his interview was sent for expert assessment. Based on the findings of this assessment, which did not find anything unlawful in his statements, the case against the journalist was eventually closed in March 2022.
- Journalist and blogger Zhenis Kuspan came under investigation after disclosing a fake video featuring marching security force members who were allegedly singing a hymn and yelling “Shal, ket” (“Go away’’) — one of the major slogans used by participants in the January 2022 protests with reference to previous President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had remained a powerful actor after leaving office in 2019. When seeing the video in question on a WhatsApp group on 30th January 2022, Kuspan commented on it, pointing out that it was ‘’a joke of TikTokers’’ and that the sound had been added. He also made a post about the video on his Facebook page, saying it was fake. However, soon after his post appeared, a police press representative warned him that he might face criminal responsibility for ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’. He was summoned and questioned by police in mid-February 2022, and his phone was confiscated. Later the case was reportedly suspended.
As covered under Association, opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamai has also been charged with ‘’knowingly spreading false information’’, as part of a case believed to be politically motivated.
Controversial draft social media law advances
On 9th March 2022, on second reading, the lower house of parliament passed a package of legal amendments on the protection of children, containing controversial provisions relating to the operation of foreign social media and messenger platforms in Kazakhstan. This draft legislation, initiated by members of parliament for the stated purpose of fighting against cyber bullying of children, was previously passed by the lower house on first reading in September 2021.
In accordance with the proposed provisions, foreign platforms with more than 100,000 visitors a month would be required to appoint legal representatives in the country for interacting with the Ministry of Information and Public Development on issues concerning allegedly unlawful content. These legal representatives would be expected to respond within 24 hours to requests from the Ministry to remove posts deemed to amount to cyberbullying against children based on complaints submitted by parents or other citizens. Failure to respond to such requests could result in access to the resources in question being restricted.
Human rights defenders criticised the proposed provisions, expressing concern that the objective of protecting children was being exploited to restrict freedom of expression on social media and messenger platforms. The Adil Soz Foundation for the Protection of Freedom of Speech warned that the law might result in arbitrary decisions undermining freedom of expression, with the lack of any clear definition of what cyberbullying constitutes and the Ministry of Information and Public Development being in charge of determining what content amounts to such bullying rather than the courts. Online petitions protesting against the new draft provisions gathered thousands of signatures.
In response to the widespread criticism of the draft legislation, the upper house of parliament initiated several changes when considering it. In particular, in accordance with these amendments, complaints about online material allegedly featuring cyber bullying of children would be considered by a group of experts rather than the Ministry of Information and Public Development itself, and the Ministry would not be able to initiate the suspension of the operations of entire online resources based on individual complaints received but the focus would be on ensuring the removal of specific content in cooperation with foreign platforms. However, it is still unclear how the new provisions would be implemented in practice, especially since the Ministry would be tasked with determining the procedures for the establishment of the new expert group and for the examination of complaints by it, and concerns remain that the law might result in undue restrictions on free speech.
The lower house of parliament approved the revised version of the draft legislation in mid-April 2022, after which it was sent to the president for signature.