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The EU should focus on widening free speech crackdown at human rights dialogue with Kazakhstan


This week the EU will hold a new round of its human rights dialogue with Kazakhstan to take stock of developments since the last meeting in November 2011. International Partnership for Human Rights and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law are asking the EU to prominently raise concerns about the widening crackdown on free speech and dissent seen in Kazakhstan during this period and to insist on measures by the authorities of the country to change course.

In a briefing paper for the upcoming meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Astana on 27 November, the two organizations highlight the following issues they believe the EU should raise with the Kazakhstani government:

·   The failure to ensure an impartial and thorough investigation of the December 2011 Zhanaozen events. During these events, more than a dozen people were killed and many more wounded as police used arms to put down riots that broke out following a months-long peaceful oil worker strike, which the authorities had sought to stifle. A few police officers have been convicted for “abuse of power,” but other officials who used excessive force or gave orders about it have not been held accountable. 

·   The imprisonment of individuals accused of involvement in the Zhanaozen riots following an unfair trial, whose credibility was undermined by the use of questionable witness testimony and torture allegations. Among those who remain in prison is strike movement leader Roza Tuletaeva, who was given the longest sentence. This reinforced the impression that she and others were punished for their role in the peaceful labour protest that preceded the Zhanaozen events. There are concerns that she has not received adequate treatment for her health problems in prison.

·   The renewed attack on the political opposition, which the authorities have sought to blame for the Zhanaozen riots. An emblematic case is that of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov who continues to serve a 7.5 year sentence on politically motivated charges, with the Supreme Court having refused to review his case, concluding that there were “no grounds” to do so. The Kazakhstani authorities have also actively pursued the extradition of Europe-based exiled opponents, who are at risk of unfair legal proceedings and ill-treatment if returned. UN experts have depicted as an extraordinary rendition the May 2013 return from Italy to Kazakhstan of the wife and daughter of exiled opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov, who the Kazakhstani authorities have sought to portray as the mastermind of the Zhanaozen events.

·   The closure of a number of major opposition media outlets for alleged “extremist” propaganda in late 2012 and the continued harassment of media and journalists who are critical of authorities, e.g. through the suspension of the activities of media for minor violations and punitive defamation suits brought by government officials. There have also been new cases of blocking of websites that post information challenging the official line.

·   The continued pattern of physical attacks against journalists that as a rule go unpunished. A rare exception to the widespread impunity for such attacks was the conviction and imprisonment of the perpetrators of the brutal 2012 attack on journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov this summer. Those who ordered the attack are, however, yet to be brought to justice.

·   Cases of persecution of civil society activists who are engaged in efforts to promote human rights, justice and accountability. Lawyer Zinaida Mukhortova was subjected to a new episode of forced psychiatric care this autumn and remains at risk of further such treatment in a protracted saga that began after she protested the actions of a ruling party member. Absurd charges of inciting religious discord have been levelled against anti-corruption campaigner Alexander Kharlamov, who also has had to undergo forcible psychiatric examinations. The case against him is still pending. Vadim Kuramshin is serving a 12-year prison sentence that appears to be retaliation for his defence of prisoners’ rights. He is held in a facility where he has reported about abuse, which reinforces concerns about his safety and well-being.

·   Continued restrictions of the right to freedom of assembly, in law and in practice. No large opposition rallies have taken place since mid-2012 as a result of the government’s reinforced attack on the opposition, while disproportionate and unlawful law enforcement responses to other assemblies have continued to be documented, such as detention, administrative sanctions, intimidation and alleged ill-treatment targeting participants.

The briefing paper by the two organizations also provides recommendations for steps the EU should request the Kazakhstani authorities to take to address the concerns described. As emphasized by the NGO community, it is essential that the EU pushes for the implementation of specific progress steps to ensure that its human rights engagement with Kazakhstan is result-oriented, as it is intended to be.
The full version of the briefing paper is available 

With the adoption of its 2007 Central Asia Strategy, the EU set out to engage in a “structured, regular and results-oriented” human rights dialogue with each of the governments of the region. Meetings are held annually or bi-annually with the participation of representatives of the European External Action Service and Central Asian government officials.  
The new round of the EU’s human rights dialogue with Kazakhstan will be held only weeks after negotiations on a new, enhanced EU-Kazakhstan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) 
resumed after over a year-long break. The negotiations on the new treaty, which will replace one in force since 1999, are expected to drag outfor a long time because of growing disagreements between the two parties. Along with other NGOs, IPHR and KIBHR have previously called on the EU to use the process surrounding the new PCA to condition closer relations with Kazakhstan on human rights improvements in this country, in line with the EU’s commitment to human rights values as a basis for its relations with third countries. In a resolution adopted a year ago, the European Parliament requested that progress on the PCA negotiations be linked to political reform progress in Kazakhstan. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton has also stated that success of the negotiations “will be influenced” by Kazakhstan‘s advancement on political reforms and its fulfilment of international commitments. In view of this, it can be expected that the outcome of the human rights dialogue with Kazakhstan will have direct bearing on the PCA negotiations.

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