A new Criminal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Code of Administrative Offences came into force at the beginning of the year. Early presidential elections were held unexpectedly in April. President Nazarbayev was re-elected to a fifth term in office, winning 97.7% of the vote. OSCE election monitors reported that the elections lacked “credible opposition”. Falling oil prices led to an economic downturn. The national currency was devalued in August.
TORTURE AND OTHER ILL-TREATMENT
The new Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code included positive amendments. The changes included a provision that allegations of torture should be automatically registered and investigated as criminal offences by a different agency from the one whose officers were accused of abuse, bypassing the prior internal screening which had resulted in the dismissal of most complaints. The statute of limitations in relation to cases of torture was abolished, and those charged or convicted of torture were excluded from potential amnesties. The maximum penalty for torture was increased to 12 years’ imprisonment. However, lawyers reported that, while complaints of torture and other ill-treatment were registered as crimes, they were still not properly investigated.
In May, Iskander Tugelbaev was beaten in prison; he was in a coma for three days, which left him unable to speak or walk unaided, according to his lawyer. At the end of the year, he was still waiting to hear whether the case would proceed to prosecution. From 1 January to 30 November, 119 complaints of torture were registered and 465 cases of torture were terminated. Eleven cases reached court and five people were found guilty, of whom only one was given a prison sentence. These numbers did not reveal the real scale of the problem, as many victims were too afraid to register a complaint of torture.
Public Monitoring Commissions and the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) had the right to visit prisons and most places of detention, but had limited capacity and resources to do so, and faced bureaucratic restrictions. The NPM could only undertake unannounced visits with the Ombudsman’s permission.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The operating climate for the media remained restricted, and media outlets were forcibly closed or prevented from operating on administrative grounds or because they were accused of being a threat to national security. Journalists continued to face harassment and intimidation. Independent media outlets had difficulty generating advertising revenue, as businesses feared reprisals from the authorities if they placed advertisements in these publications.
In February, an appeal against the closure of the newspaper Adam Bol was rejected. Adam Bol had been closed down on national security grounds in December 2014, after it published an interview with a member of the opposition who was based in Ukraine. Later in the year, the Almaty city authorities attempted to close down its successor publication, Adam, on administrative grounds. In September, a three-month ban came into force, on the grounds that Adam was registered to publish in Russian and Kazakh, but was only publishing in Russian. In October, Adam was ordered by a court to close down upon the request of the Office of the Prosecutor General, on the grounds that it was illegally continuing to publish content via its Facebook page.
Amendments to the Communications Law adopted in 2014 gave the Office of the Prosecutor General the power to force internet providers to block access to internet content without a court order, should that content be deemed as “extremist” and a security threat. These powers were used to block access intermittently or permanently to Kazakhstan-based news outlets and to individual articles on international news sites.
The Criminal Code retained criminal sanctions for defamation and for vaguely worded offences of inciting social and other “discord”. At least four people faced criminal investigation for inciting national discord for their posts on social media sites.
A proposed Law on Protection of Children from Information Harming their Health and Development included administrative sanctions for “propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation” among minors.1 It was rejected by the Constitutional Council in May for technical reasons, but was expected to be revised and sent back to Parliament.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
Clauses in the Criminal and Administrative Offences Codes made it a criminal offence to lead or participate in an unregistered organization. “Leaders” of associations became a separate category of offenders, providing for harsher penalties; the definition of “leader” was very broad, potentially including any active member of an NGO or other civic association. In practice, many NGOs were denied registration for minor infringements.
In October, legal amendments affecting NGOs’ access to funding were passed by Parliament, and were signed into law in December. These will lead to the creation of a central “operator” to administer and distribute all state and non-state grants to NGOs, including foreign funding, for projects and activities that comply with a vaguely worded list of issues approved by the government. Failure to supply accurate information for the operator’s centralized database could lead to fines or a temporary ban on activities. Civil society activists were concerned that this new law would limit NGOs’ access to foreign funding and constrain their activities.
FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY
Freedom of peaceful assembly remained heavily restricted. Permission from local authorities was needed to hold any kind of street protest and this was often refused, or permission was given to hold the event in a non-central location. Penalties of up to 75 days’ administrative detention were introduced for violations of the rules on holding assemblies; “promotion” of a protest, including via social media, was effectively criminalized.
Authorities used “preventive” detention to stop peaceful protests from going ahead. In January, journalists were arrested on their way to a protest in Almaty in support of Adam Bol; they were taken to local police stations to “acquaint them with the law”, and released shortly after.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, who visited Kazakhstan in January and August, called on the authorities to allow an international investigation into the use of lethal force against protesters in Zhanaozen in 2011, and into reports of torture and other ill-treatment of those detained following the protests. He also expressed concern that the criminalization of “incitement of discord” in the Criminal Code could be used to criminalize the activities of political parties and trade unions.