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Ongoing concerns about lack of impartial investigations into “Bloody January’’ events

20.06.2022

Introduction 

This is an update on developments affecting the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan from March to May 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. Kazakhstan is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist due to a rapid decline in civic freedoms.

During the reporting period, the fallout from the ‘’Bloody January’’ 2022 events continued to evolve. While the authorities have pledged to ensure that reported abuses are investigated, an ongoing concern was the lack of effective, impartial and thorough investigations into allegations of the use of excessive force to end the January protests and unrest, arbitrary detentions of protesters, as well as due process violations, torture and ill-treatment of people detained during these events.

Hundreds of people remained under investigation on criminal charges relating to the January events. Among these are activists who are facing charges believed to be in retaliation for their legitimate civic, human rights and pro-democracy engagement. The trials against some activists began in May 2022. Two Shymkent-based activists were convicted on charges of rioting, although they both insisted that they only peacefully protested to voice misgivings about socio-economic problems and call for political change. Some activists have been charged with the broadly worded offence of ‘’knowingly spreading false information”, which has been repeatedly used to stifle free speech.

In the aftermath of the January events, President Tokayev has vowed to promote political modernisation and create ‘’a new Kazakhstan’’ (for more background information, see our previous update). As part of this initiative, a constitutional referendum was organised on 5th June 2022. .However, at the same time, fundamental freedoms continue to be seriously violated in the country.

During the reporting period, supporters of opposition movements continued to face persecution, and the pre-trial detention of opposition leader Zhanbolat Mamai was prolonged on criminal charges widely condemned as politically motivated. On 8th June 2022, additional, spurious charges related to the January 2022 events were initiated against him.

The authorities also continued to selectively deny permission for peaceful protests, and dispersed peaceful, unsanctioned assemblies whose participants protested against the war in Ukraine, demanded the release of political prisoners and called attention to other issues that are inconvenient to those in power.

Civil society actors working on documenting and assisting victims of violations committed in connection with the January events faced various obstacles, including lack of transparency by authorities and incidents of intimidation and harassment.

The adoption of legislation introducing new restrictions on the operation of social media and messenger applications in the name of preventing cyberbullying reinforced concerns about increasing attempts to stifle free speech on online platforms.

Peaceful Assembly

Ongoing concerns about response to ‘’Bloody January” events

As covered before, in January 2022, mass protests for social and political change turned bloody as the authorities used excessive force and parts of the crowd resorted to violence, resulting in over 200 people being killed and thousands injured. The authorities have yet to publish an official list of those killed and to effectively and impartially investigate allegations that some of them died as a result of the use of excessive, lethal force by law enforcement authorities.

According to information from the General Prosecutor’s Office, as of late April 2022, more than 5,000 criminal cases had been initiated in relation to the January events, with charges ranging from theft and intentional property damage to mass riots, attempted seizure of power and acts of terrorism. About 250 people had been handed prison sentences after being convicted on the charges brought against them, while around 600 people were still under investigation.

As covered before, there are serious concerns that those charged with criminal offences over the January events include activists and other residents 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 detained when protesting peacefully. (See more about cases against activists under Expression).

There are also serious concerns about widespread allegations of due process violations and the torture and ill-treatment of people detained in connection with the January protests, as well as the failure of the authorities to promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate these allegations in accordance with international standards, despite their stated commitment to investigate all reported abuses. While the authorities have received over 300 complaints of ‘’unlawful methods of investigation’’, and opened over 200 criminal investigations based on them, the real number of cases of abuse is believed to be much higher as many victims are reluctant to file complaints due to fear of reprisals and the lack of confidence in obtaining justice. 

The authorities continue to seriously restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. 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 have recently given the green light for a growing number of peaceful protests. However, requests to hold assemblies on issues that are deemed sensitive by the authorities are regularly rejected. During the reporting period, several peaceful protests held without pre-approval on issues such as Russia’s war on Ukraine and political prisoners were dispersed and the participants detained and often penalised for violating the rules for conducting assemblies (under article 488 of the Code of Administrative Offences). These are a few examples of such cases documented by KIBHR:

  • On 9th April 2022, a group of activists from the youth movement Oyan Qazakhstan gathered outside the Russian consulate in Almaty to carry out a performance dedicated to the Bucha tragedy reported from the war in Ukraine. The activists lay down on the ground, covered by Ukrainian flags. As reported by KIBHR, after a few minutes around 20 police officers detained the participants and took them to a local police station. The activists were released after being required to sign explanatory statements. 
  • On 24th April 2022, around 20 people carried out a peaceful protest on Balikhanov Square in Almaty to demand the release of political prisoners, including individuals who have been detained and prosecuted in connection with the January 2022 events. The organisers had submitted a notification to local authorities the day before the assembly but were informed that they could not conduct it since another event had allegedly been planned to be held on the square at the same time. However, according to KIBHR’s information, local college students were only informed on the evening of 23rd April 2022 that they were expected to show up at Balikhanov Square the following morning for an ‘’entertainment’’ event. After protesting for around half an hour – on the other side of the square away from where the student event was held, the assembly participants decided to march toward the city centre holding up their posters. As they started marching, police intervened and detained more than 10 protest participants. Later the same day, a local court sentenced several of them to administrative detention of 15-20 days and fined others for violating the procedure for organising assemblies.
  • As documented by KIBHR, on 7th May 2022, police dispersed another peaceful protest at Balikhanov Square in Almaty. Shortly after around a dozen activists from the unregistered Democratic Party gathered to demand the release of their leader Zhanbolat Mamay (see more on his case under Expression) and other political prisoners, a law enforcement official demanded that they end the assembly, after which special police units forcefully detained more than 10 people. At a quick trial held later the same day, four activists were handed sentences of administrative detention of 15-20 days on charges of violating the procedure for organising assemblies. In addition, ahead of the planned protest, activists from the Democratic Party reported a series of harassments, with several activists being summoned for questioning and held under surveillance, and others being sentenced to administrative detention and fined for protesting peacefully on an earlier occasion. Prior to a press conference held by party activists in KIBHR’s press centre on 27th April 2022, several of the speakers were involved in a traffic incident, which they believed to have been staged by security services to obstruct the holding of the press conference.
  • Among those targeted in connection with the 7th May protest was Inga Imanbai, a prominent Democratic Party activist who is married to Zhanbolat Mamai. She was detained and fined for her involvement in this protest. Additionally, a few days before the protest, a local court handed her a fine for allegedly organising another unsanctioned protest in support of her husband on 4th April 2022. The week before she was summoned for questioning by the Almaty Prosecutor’s Office, allegedly as a witness in a criminal case relating to the January 2022 events. 

Some people were held accountable simply for calling for peaceful protests, such as in this case:

  • Alexey Plyaskovskiy, a resident of the city of Kostanay, was found guilty of violating the procedure for holding assemblies because of a video he posted on Facebook on 5th March 2022, in which he called on people to peacefully protest against the war in Ukraine the following day. That day – 6th March 2022 – a peaceful anti-war protest was held with permission by local authorities in Almaty. Plyaskovskiy was reportedly detained and taken to a local police station on 15th March, held for several hours, and thereafter convicted through a quick online trial. He was released after serving three days of his sentence following a complaint filed by his lawyer.

Expression

Activists face criminal charges in relation to January 2022 events

As covered in our special update on the January 2022 events, dozens of civil society, human rights, trade union and political activists were among those detained and penalised for their participation in unsanctioned protests in connection with the January 2022 events. In addition, several activists detained during the January events have been criminally prosecuted under circumstances suggesting that this constitutes retaliation for their civic, human rights and pro-democratic engagement. They have been charged with participating in riots (under article 272 of the Criminal Code) and other criminal offences despite the lack of any evidence of their involvement in violent, unlawful actions during the January protests.

In April 2022, human rights NGO Ar.Rukh.Khak reported that it had information about 29 activists who were facing criminal charges. Eighteen of them were held in pre-trial detention, while the others were subjected to other measures of restraint such as house arrest pending trial. Many of the activists have developed health problems in detention, and some have reported being subjected to torture and ill-treatment.

Two activists went on trial in Shymkent in May 2022, both trials ending in guilty verdicts:

  • The trial against Moldabay Sadibekov, an activist who was arrested on 12th January 2022, began on 3rd May 2022. A month later, on 6th June, a local court convicted him of participating in and calling for mass riots (under article 272 of the Criminal Code) and sentenced him to three years in prison. The court reportedly dismissed separate charges of attacking a representative of the authorities initiated against the activist (under article 380 of the Criminal Code). The conviction was based on video material, which Sadibekov had filmed on his smart phone, showing him leading a group of protesters shouting slogans such as ‘’Shal, ket” (“Go away’’ — one of the major slogans used during the January 2022 protests in relation to previous President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had remained a powerful actor after leaving office in 2019), ‘’Zhanaozen, first!” (in reference to the city where the January protests started), and ‘’May the thieves in power leave!”. According to the indictment, Sadibekov also allegedly hit a police officer on the right ear, an accusation that was based on testimony provided by the officer in question but reportedly was not supported by a medical expert conclusion presented in court. Sadibekov categorically denied hitting the police officer or engaging in any other violent actions, emphasising that he only peacefully protested to support the people of Zhanaozen, who had taken to the street to express discontent about the increase in fuel prices, and to express his views about the situation in the country. Prior to the January 2022 events, Sadibekov had repeatedly participated in peaceful protests against the increase of Chinese influence in the region and other issues.
  • On 18th May 2022, a local Shymkent court handed activist Ergali Kulbaev a four-year suspended prison sentence on charges of participating in and calling for mass riots (under article 272 of the Criminal Code). If he is later found to have violated the conditions of the probational control to which he will be subject, his suspended sentence might be replaced with a real prison sentence. When the verdict was announced, Kulbaev was released after spending more than four months in pre-trial detention, where he was placed on 8th January 2022. According to the indictment, the activist took part in riots, attacked police and military officials and destroyed cars and government buildings. Kulbaev denied the charges, saying that he only peacefully protested, expressed grievances about socio-economic problems and called for political change and did not use any violence. Kulbaev’s lawyer concluded that there were no elements of crime in the actions of the defendant and that the prosecutor had failed to present substantial evidence to back up the charges initiated against him. The activist believed the case against him to be linked to his civic engagement. In previous years, he has repeatedly participated in peaceful protests on issues such as controversial land reforms and the situation of political prisoners, resulting in administrative penalties on several occasions.

In May 2022, several activists held in pre-trial detention on criminal charges relating to the January events were recognised as political prisoners by Kazakhstani human rights defenders and included on a regularly updated list of such individuals. These are the cases of two of these activists:

  • Activist Kenzhebek Sultanbekov from the city of Semey has been charged with participating in riots and attacking public property or means of communication (under articles 272 and 269 of the Criminal Code, respectively) during the January protests. He has been held in pre-trial detention since 7th January 2022. According to available information, he did not commit any violent or unlawful actions during the protests in Semey but instead attempted to calm down other protesters and called on them to behave peacefully as the protests evolved into clashes with security forces. His wife reported that she was not allowed to visit the activist in custody until three weeks after his detention. When she visited him on 27th January 2022, he told her that he had been repeatedly and severely beaten with truncheons by police and showed her numerous traces of beatings on different parts of his body. Concerns about Sultanbekov’s well-being in detention are reinforced by the fact that he suffers from diabetes and asthma. Prior to the January events, Sutanbekov had participated in peaceful protests and criticised the authorities on social issues.
  • Lyazzat Dosmambetova, an activist from the city of Shymkent and a single mother of several children, is also facing charges of participating in riots and attacking public property or means of communication during the January protests. She has been held in pre-trial detention since 8th January 2022. According to human rights defenders, available information shows that she did not participate in any violent actions during the January protests. The administration of the detention facility where the activist is held has reportedly ignored her requests to undergo examination because of severe headaches developed in detention. Prior to the January events, Dosmambetova actively participated in peaceful protests and actions to voice concerns about socio-economic problems and express support for political prisoners and torture victims. She was penalised for her civic activism on several occasions, which includes being fined for handing out leaflets of the Street Party – a banned opposition movement – and being sentenced to two and a half years of restricted freedom –a non-custodial sentence entailing court-imposed restrictions on the movement and public activities of those affected – on charges of involvement in a banned organisation (under article 405 of the Criminal Code). (See Association for more information about the use of this Criminal Code provision against activists peacefully exercising their civic rights).

The following activists have been charged under a vaguely worded provision of the Criminal Code, which prohibits ‘’knowingly spreading false information” (article 405), in relation to the January events. This Criminal Code provision has repeatedly been used to stifle legitimate free speech:

  • Kostanay-based activist Dias Nurmagambetov has been charged with ‘’knowingly spreading false information” because of posts made on a Telegram channel called ‘’Protest Kostanay’’. According to the prosecutors, during the January events he published posts on this channel with ‘’the aim of destabilising the political situation’’ and ‘’a direct criminal intent to deliberately disseminate false information’’. In particular, according to the prosecutors, he called on subscribers of the Telegram channel to participate in unsanctioned protests and disseminated false messages suggesting that police were taking the side of protestors. Nurmagambetov went on trial in Kostanay in late May 2022. If found guilty, he could face up to seven years in prison. Nurmagambetov has alleged being subjected to pressure and ill-treatment in detention.
  • Activist Aya Sadvakasova from the city of Stepnogorsk is facing charges of ‘’knowingly spreading false information” because of an audio message posted on social media in which she accused authorities of “lawlessness” when dispersing peaceful protests during the January events. These charges were initiated against her in mid-January 2022. Later, in April 2022, additional charges were brought against her under a Criminal Code provision (article 405) penalising the involvement in banned organisations. During a search of Sadvakasova’s home, conducted as part of the investigation into the other criminal case, police found computer material allegedly containing signs of her participation in the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the Street Party, two opposition movements that have been banned by court as ‘’extremist’’, although they do not endorse or advocate violence (see more about the ongoing campaign against these movements under Association). The two criminal cases were merged and Sadvakasova was placed under house arrest pending trial. Sadvakasova, who has been engaged in efforts to document and attract international attention to human rights violations taking place in Kazakhstan, has reportedly faced intimidation previously and has repeatedly been denied permission to conduct peaceful protests.

In some cases, the criminal charges initiated against individuals in relation to the January events are reportedly based solely on ‘’confessions’’ extracted under torture, such as in the following case documented by KIBHR:

  • Aktobe-based civil society activist Ablaykhan Bekeyev was allegedly detained with the use of excessive force by police on 12th January 2022 and thereafter subjected to torture and ill-treatment at a local police station, as a result of which he ‘’confessed’’ to having been involved in riots. He was placed in pre-trial detention on these charges, and in April 2022 his detention was prolonged by a local court despite the failure of the investigating authorities to present any other evidence than his earlier ‘’confession’’. The criminal case against him continues, although an investigation has now been opened into his torture allegations.

For a description of additional criminal cases initiated against activists in relation to the January events, see our special update on these events, as well as our update on developments in February-March 2022.

Ongoing high-profile case against opposition leader

As covered in our previous update, the leader of the unregistered opposition Democratic Party, Zhanbolat Mamai was detained in mid-March 2022 on criminal charges believed to be in retaliation for his opposition activities and his criticism of the authorities. He has been charged with ‘’knowingly spreading false information” and ‘’insulting law enforcement officers’’ (under Criminal Code articles 274 and 378, respectively) in relation to his campaigning for measures to help people burdened by financial debt and critical remarks he made during the police dispersal of a peaceful protest initiated by his party. He was placed in pre-trial detention, although national law does not provide for detention as a measure of restraint in criminal cases involving charges such as those he is facing. On 6th May 2022, an Almaty court prolonged Mamai’s detention until 12 June 2022. Prior to this, on 4th April 2022, a local court rejected Mamai’s amnesty application, which was based on an amnesty law adopted on the occasion of Kazakhstan’s 30 years of independence. The court reasoned that the activist ‘’had not admitted his guilt’’, although this is not a requirement for granting amnesty to those charged under the Criminal Code provisions used in Mamai’s case. 

In a further development, on 8th June 2022, additional spurious charges were initiated against Mamai in relation to the January 2022 events. He was charged with “organising mass riots” and “knowingly spreading false information in an emergency situation” (under articles 272.1 and 274.4 of the Criminal Code, respectively) during these events, although he had only peacefully protested and called for social and political change together with other members of his party. The new charges reinforced concerns about the politically motivated nature of the case against the opposition leader.

In a joint statement, IPHR, KIBHR, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee called on the Kazakhstani authorities to stop persecuting the opposition leader, drop the charges against him and immediately release him.

On 20th April 2022, parliament passed legal amendments on the protection of children, which contain controversial provisions concerning social media and messenger platforms. As of the end of May 2022, the new legislation was pending the president’s signature.

As covered before, the new provisions would require foreign social media and messenger platforms with more than 100,000 visitors a month to respond promptly to requests to remove material deemed to amount to cyberbullying against children based on complaints submitted by citizens. Human rights groups have voiced concerns that these provisions might result in undue restrictions on the freedom of expression on online forums. Following criticism of the draft legislation, the upper house of parliament made a number of changes to the version first approved by the lower house. 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 as first proposed, and the Ministry would not be able to initiate the suspension of entire platforms based on complaints received, but the focus would be on the removal of specific content. However, it remains unclear how the new provisions would be implemented in practice, and concerns remain that they might be used to stifle legitimate, free speech.

Continued campaign against opposition movements

As repeatedly covered before on the Monitor, the authorities systematically cracked down on supporters of opposition movements, in particular the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (known under its Russian abbreviation DVK) and the Street Party (Koshe Partiyasy), both of which have been banned as ‘’extremist’’ by court, although they do not endorse or advocate violence. In recent years, dozens of people have been detained, prosecuted and convicted for their alleged association with these two movements because they have posted and reposted social media messages in support of them, participated in peaceful protests initiated by them and engaged in other peaceful activities that have nothing to with violent extremism. Most convictions have been handed down under article 405 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits involvement in banned organisations.

During the reporting period, several people who were imprisoned because of their alleged involvement in the two banned movements were released following court decisions to replace the remaining part of their prison sentences with non-custodial restricted freedom sentences, which entail court-imposed restrictions on the movement and public activities of those affected. Among those released were three activists convicted in a high-profile court case involving 13 activists, in which the verdict was handed down in October 2021. However, in another case, an activist convicted on charges of involvement in the DVK in November 2021 had his restricted freedom sentence replaced with a real prison sentence after a court ruled that he had violated the terms of his non-custodial sentence by participating in a non-sanctioned peaceful protest. Moreover, there were new cases in which activists were prosecuted on charges of involvement in banned organisations. This is one example (for another example see the case of Aya Sadvakasova under Expression):

  • On 24th March 2022, a local court in the city of Uralsk convicted Murat Sapiev of involvement in banned organisations (under article 405 of the Criminal Code) and sentenced him to three years of restricted freedom. The court also prohibited him from engaging in public and political activities for five years. According to the case material, Sapiev participated in protests organised by the DVK and Street Party in 2020-2021. When speaking in court, Sapiev stated that he had only been exercising his right to peaceful assembly and stressed that he did not make any calls for violent actions but only criticised the authorities and demanded reforms in the country.

As covered above (see Expression and Peaceful Assembly), members of the unregistered Democratic Party also continued to face intimidation and harassment, with its leader facing criminal charges believed to be politically motivated, and his supporters being detained and intimidated because of their peaceful protests and calls for his release.

In an address to the people of Kazakhstan delivered in March 2022, President Tokayev announced several measures to promote political pluralism, including by making it easier for political parties to register by decreasing the number of signatures needed for registration. Following his announcement, several initiative groups announced plans to register new political parties. However, concerns remain that authorities may refuse to approve the applications of genuine opposition parties and obstruct their registration process. In mid-April 2022, the Ministry of Justice did not accept the application for registration submitted by the initiative group of the opposition party ‘’Alga Kazakhstan” (“Forward, Kazakhstan!”) on the grounds that some documents were missing. The group said it would complete its application and re-apply.

Difficulties facing civil society actors documenting violations related to January events

Civil society actors are currently involved in important efforts to independently document, analyse and assist victims of human rights violations committed in connection with the January events. However, they have faced difficulties because of the lack of transparency by authorities, fear of reprisals which prevent victims of violations from sharing their experiences, as well as reported acts of intimidation and harassment.

In an open letter sent to relevant Kazakhstani authorities in early May 2022, IPHR raised concerns about the NGO Ar.Rukh.Khakbeing subjected to pressure in relation to its work on documenting violations and assisting activists subjected to violations. In particular, the organisation’s lawyer Shalipa Bekkulova was targeted as part of a criminal investigation into the January 2022 events in the city of Shymkent because of her communication with activists in her professional capacity. Officials from the National Security Committee interrogated her about her contacts with activists, copied her telephone contacts and messages and searched her home on 23rd April 2022. During the search, they also examined legal case material belonging to Bekkulova’s husband, practising lawyer Galym Nurpeisov, in violation of the principle of lawyer-client confidentiality.

Ar.Rukh.Khak has been monitoring human rights violations related to the January events as part of the Human Rights Defence Alliance established by several leading human rights NGOs and has been collecting information from victims, relatives and lawyers. 

https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2022/06/20/ongoing-concerns-about-lack-impartial-investigations-bloody-january-events/