This update covers developments on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Kazakhstan from January to March 2018.
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) prepared it for the CIVICUS Monitor based on KIBHR’s monitoring of the situation in the country.
In mid-March 2018, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement, which was founded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a leading government opponent in exile, was banned as “extremist”. Following the court decision, the authorities unleashed a campaign against the movement’s members and alleged supporters by detaining, warning or opening criminal cases against those who had expressed support for the movement and disseminated information about its programmes on social media. During the Nowruz spring holiday celebrations in late March, police arbitrarily stopped people holding balloons as suspected supporters of the movement. The government also warned that social media sites and communications applications might be blocked in Kazakhstan if they fail to delete or restrict users' access to information and material on the opposition movement in the country.
These and other recent developments are described in more detail in the sections below.
Opposition movement deemed “extremist” and investigations of its alleged supporters
On 13th March 2018, a local court in Astana ruled in favour of a request from the General Prosecutor’s Office to declare the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (known under the Russian-language abbreviation DVK) “extremist” and ban its activities in Kazakhstan. The DVK was founded in spring 2017 by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a business executive and vocal critic of President Nazarbayev who fled the country in the late 2000s. Kazakhstan’s government has since then sought Ablyazov’s extradition; and in June 2017, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 20 years in prison on multiple charges, including organising and leading a criminal group and embezzlement. The decision to ban the DVK makes it unlawful to publicly express support for the movement or to disseminate its materials in the media or on the internet in Kazakhstan.
As soon as the court banned the DVK, the authorities initiated measures against members and supporters of the movement, including by opening criminal cases against them. A senior representative of the General Prosecutor’s Office, Erlan Abayev, stated that cases on “inciting social discord” and “making public calls for the seizure of power” had been initiated against several DVK members in different parts of the country. As documented by KIBHR, on 13th March three supporters of the DVK were detained in their homes in Almaty on charges of financing the activities of a banned group. One of them was Akmaral Tobylova, who said that she did not understand why she was under investigation since all she had done was to discuss the DVK’s programme on social media and post greeting cards on Facebook with the DVK symbol on International Women’s Day. While investigators requested a local court to sanction her pre-trial detention for two months, the court instead placed her under house arrest for that period, taking into consideration that she is currently pregnant. The two other individuals who were detained the same day as Tobylova declined to speak to the media and human rights defenders; therefore, no further information about their case and situation is available.
According to KIBHR’s information, from 16th March, law enforcement authorities also visited and detained a number of other alleged DVK supporters, as well as civil society activists and bloggers in different parts of the country, warning them about the possible consequences of disseminating DVK materials. As of late March, KIBHR had learned about more than 25 such cases.
UN expert criticises draft law on lawyers
As of late March 2018, the draft Law on the Activities of Lawyers and Legal Assistance remained under consideration in Kazakhstan’s Parliament. As covered before, the country’s legal community is concerned that this draft law threatens the self-regulation and independence of lawyers. In a letter to Kazakhstan’s government in January 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers echoed these concerns, concluding that a number of provisions of the draft law “jeopardise the independence of the legal profession”. He called for these provisions to be revised so that the draft law is brought into line with international standards, as well as for ensuring that lawyers are able to discharge their professional functions without intervention or interference of any sort.
Workers’ right to protest: lawsuit against the alleged leaders of miners’ strike
As reported in the previous update, workers at the ArcelorMittal Temirtau (AMT) mining company in the city of Shakhtinsk went on strike in December 2017, demanding pay increases and improved benefits given their difficult working conditions. The strike was called off after a local court deemed it unlawful, in response to a request from AMT, which then agreed to a moderate pay increase for the workers. Later KIBHR learned that four workers who participated in the strike had been dismissed. Moreover, AMT filed a lawsuit against Nataliya Tomilova from the civil society organisation Miner’s Family, as well as against Dimitry Sinyavsky from a trade union representing energy industry workers and the Zhaktau Trade Union of Metallurgists. AMT requested that the two be held accountable for allegedly encouraging the miners to carry out the strike, thereby disrupting mining operations. The trial in this case began in mid-February 2018. Following two days of hearings, during which ATM failed to present any evidence against the defendants, the company asked the court to dismiss the case without further consideration, to which the court agreed.
Other restrictions on peaceful assembly
The right to hold peaceful assemblies continues to be seriously restricted in Kazakhstan. The authorities increasingly seek to prevent peaceful protests from taking place in the first place by warning, threatening and sanctioning those planning to hold protests, even if the protests have yet to take place. These tactics have resulted in a decreasing number of protests.
Below are a few recent examples in which the authorities curtailed the right to peaceful assembly.
People with balloons stopped by police during Nowruz holiday: Ahead of the Nowruz spring holiday, which is celebrated at the end of March, prosecutors warned that any public display of balloons featuring the symbol of the banned DVK movement (see above under Association) would be interpreted as supporting an extremist movement. However, in some cases, law enforcement authorities assessed any display of balloons during the festivities as an expression of support for the banned movement. According to KIBHR, police stopped a number of people holding balloons (including balloons with Kazakhstan’s state symbols) during public Nowruz celebrations in Astana and Almaty on 22nd March 2018 and took note of their personal information. In Almaty, a group of police officers and representatives of the mayor’s office forcefully grabbed opposition activist Sahib Zhanabaeva, who was holding several balloons, at a spectator stand where she had just taken a seat to watch the public celebrations together with a woman in a wheelchair whom she was accompanying. They took her balloons and pushed and dragged her away from the stand, resulting in minor injuries and her clothes and bag being torn.
Organisers of women’s rights march threatened: On International Women’s Day 8th March 2018, the KazFem movement planned to march along Panfilova Street in Almaty in support of women’s rights. However, according to one of the organisers, Veronica Fonova, a police officer arrived at her home the day before and threatened her and the others with negative consequences should they go ahead with the planned event. In a Facebook post, she wrote that the police officer showed her the social media exchanges related to the event and told her that a bus with special police officers would meet them if they attempted to gather for the event. KazFem eventually decided not to hold the march. Fonova warned her friends to be careful with what they write on social media after learning that such exchanges are being monitored.
Civil society activist convicted for demanding colleagues' freedom: On 21st February 2018, an Almaty court found civil society activist Ashat Bersalimov guilty of holding a picket without obtaining permission in advance as required by law and sentenced him to five days of administrative detention. The charges related to an incident on 16th February when Bersalimov unveiled a poster with the slogan “freedom” outside the Almaty District Court building and called for the release of civil society activists Almat Zhumagulov and Kenzhebek Abishev, who are currently in pre-trial detention on charges of “propagating terrorism” (see more about their case in the previous update).
Parents fined for demanding justice for their children: On 14th February 2018, a group of citizens, including Sholpan Aitbayeva, Lyubov Yerubaeva and Kenzhenaish Rahimbaeva, as well as Vladlen Tsoi, protested outside the Akorda Presidential Palace in Astana without prior permission from local authorities. The three women who participated wanted to draw attention to the cases of their children, whom they consider to have been unjustly convicted of various crimes. Tsoi protested what he considers to be the unlawful seizure of his business by high-ranking officials. As part of the protest, Rahimbaeva chained herself to a lamppost. When the participants were about to end the protest and go home, police detained them. Aitbayeva started feeling unwell, so she was hospitalised. The other three were first taken to a local police station and later to court, where they were fined for alleged “minor hooliganism”.
State threatens to block social media sites unless they restrict access to DVK material
On 27th March 2018, the Committee of Information of the Ministry of Information and Communications announced that it had sent official notices to a number of social media and communications channels, including YouTube, Facebook, Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram, asking them to delete or restrict access to DVK material for users in Kazakhstan. The Committee stated that should the sites fail to comply with the request, which was issued based on the court decision declaring the opposition movement “extremist” (see section on Association), it may take measures to block public access to these sites in the country.
Criminal prosecution and imprisonment of critical voices
In a problematic trend that KIBHR and IPHR have repeatedly highlighted, a growing number of civil society activists, journalists, social media users and others critical of the authorities have been criminally prosecuted in retaliation for their exercise of freedom expression and other fundamental rights. These are recent developments in a number of such cases:
Imprisoned civil society activist penalised for not participating in morning gymnastics: As covered before, civil society activist Max Bokayev and his colleague Talgat Ayanov were imprisoned in November 2016 in retaliation for their role in peaceful protests over land reforms. Both were given five-year sentences following an unfair trial. Bokayev is serving his sentence in a prison colony in the Petropavl region, several thousand kilometers from his home region. As announced at a press conference organised at KIBHR’s office on 6th February 2018, Bokayev was further penalised by being transferred for six months to more stringent conditions inside the penal colony for failing to participate in compulsory morning gymnastics for prisoners. Bokayev declined to participate in the gymnastics, which were held outdoors despite temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius, due to of his poor heath conditions, which include serious spinal problems and Hepatitis C. However, he offered to do gymnastics indoors instead. As a result of the punishment, the activist’s contact with the outside world has been even more restricted than before and there are concerns that his health may deteriorate further.
Blogger under investigation on charges of “inciting social discord”: In the morning of 15th March 2018, police searched the home of blogger Ardak Ashim in the city of Shymkent. A local court had sanctioned the search as part of an investigation opened against the blogger on charges of “inciting social discord”, a vaguely- worded Criminal Code provision that has been repeatedly used against government critics. According to a court representative, the charges against the blogger concern “negative” Facebook posts “targeted against the authorities”, but the blogger has not received any explanation as to which of her posts the charges concern. During the search of Ashim’s home, which lasted about two hours, police confiscated mobile phone and IT equipment. When the search ended, Ashim was detained and taken to the regional department of the Ministry of Interior, where she was questioned before being released. She was required to sign a statement that she would not leave her home city during the investigation. Ashim has used social media to comment on various issues relating to human rights and the rule of law in Kazakhstan.
Bank accounts of civil society activist used for alimony payments frozen: As covered before, the former head of the Association of Young Professionals, Olesya Khalabuzar, was convicted of “inciting national discord” in August 2017 and sentenced to two years’ restricted freedom, with court-imposed limitations on her movement. She was accused of agitating against potential Chinese land investors in Kazakhstan. In what appeared to be the result of pressure, she “admitted” her guilt during the trial and expressed regret. She also announced that she was giving up her civic engagement. Following the sentence, Khalabuzar learned that she had been included on a government list of organisations and individuals considered to be linked to financing of extremism and terrorism since “inciting discord” is considered an extremist crime. As a result, her bank accounts were frozen, preventing her, among others, from receiving alimony payments for her three underage children. Previously, others convicted of “inciting discord”, such as civil society activists Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayanov, have been included on the same controversial government list.