Kazakhstan: Litany Of Abuses Continues, Even Under EXPO 2017 Spotlight

Kazakhstan: Litany Of Abuses Continues, Even Under EXPO 2017 Spotlight

On 9th June 2017 EXPO-2017, a specialised international exhibition, opened with great fanfare in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. The Kazakh government invested considerable resources into the event, which runs for three months, in an effort to improve the country’s international image. However, the crackdown on dissenting voices has continued unabated, dashing hopes that the authorities may take some steps to ease pressure on civil society while Kazakhstan is under the international spotlight.

This update on developments since May 2017 has been prepared for the CIVICUS Monitor by International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) based on KIBHR’s monitoring of the situation in the country.

Expression

Persecution of Outspoken Activists

Kazakhstan’s authorities continue to detain, prosecute and imprison independent journalists, civil society activists, trade union leaders and other outspoken individuals in retaliation for their exercise of freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms. Recent examples of such cases include:

Larisa Kharkova, President of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (CITUK), went on trial in the city of Shymkent in July 2017 on charges of embezzlement and fraud related to the use of trade union funds. In his closing statement, the prosecutor requested the court to requalify the charges against her to abuse of office. On 25th July, the court found her guilty on these charges and sentenced her to four years of court-imposed restrictions on her freedom of movement. If she violates these restrictions, her sentence may be turned into a prison sentence. The court also sentenced her to 100 hours of community work and banned her from holding leading positions in public associations for five years. Kharkova denied any wrongdoing, and highlighted numerous procedural violations in the course of the investigation. She plans to appeal the verdict. As previously covered by IPHR and KIBHR, CITUK was closed down by court order in January 2017 for allegedly failing to confirm its status under the country’s restrictive 2014 Law on Trade Unions. Hundreds of oil workers in the Mangystau region joined a peaceful hunger strike to protest against the court’s decision. In April and May 2017, two other trade union leaders, Nurbek Kushakbayev and Amin Yeleusinov were sentenced to two and half and two years in prison, respectively, on criminal charges also considered to be politically motivated. The sentences against the three trade union leaders are a blow to independent trade union activity in the country. As pointed out by KIBHR in a statement, the authorities appear to view such activity as particularly threatening within the context of the prolonged economic crisis in the country.

On 12th June 2017, an Astana court rejected a complaint filed by imprisoned civil society activist Max Bokayev regarding the decision to have him serve his sentence in a prison colony in Petropavlovsk, a city located some 2000 kilometers from his home city Atyrau. Prison authorities transferred him to Petropavlovsk, although national law states that prisoners should serve their sentences in facilities located as close as possible to their place of residence. To protest the court ruling, Bokayev began a hunger strike, which he continued for two weeks before ending it. Bokayev has serious health issues, including chronic Hepatitis C, which makes the prison experience particularly difficult for him. As previously reported, Max Bokayev and fellow civil society activist Talgat Ayan were sentenced to five years in prison in November 2016 for   their role in peaceful protests against land reforms. Their case is emblematic of the current crackdown on critical voices in Kazakhstan.

The pre-trial investigation in the case of independent journalist Zhanbolat Mamay, who has been in detention since February this year, ended at the beginning of July. The trial against the journalist is expected to start in a near future after he has familiarised himself with the indictment, which consists of more than ten volumes of text. According to the indictment, Mamay laundered some 100,000 USD, stolen from the BTA Bank through his Tribuna-Sajasi kalam newspaper. Anti-corruption authorities have accused him of being an “accomplice” of former BTA Bank Head Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled government opponent who was recently sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in a trial held in absentia. The charges against Mamay are believed to be aimed at penalising him for his journalistic activities, and both national and international human rights groups have called for his release. In May 2017, an Almaty court dismissed a complaint filed by Zhanbolat Mamay regarding the alleged ill-treatment of him in pre-trial detention. As covered before, Mamay reported being beaten by fellow detainees in February, allegations that were confirmed by his lawyer and members of the National Prevention Mechanism against Torture who visited him in detention. However, the authorities have failed to carry out a thorough and impartial investigation into the allegations of ill-treatment, and the criminal case opened on this ground has now been closed. Kazakhstan’s NGO Coalition against Torture has appealed to Kazakhstan’s General Prosecutor on this ground.

Mahkambet Abzhan, head of the Astana-based NGO Shanyrak, is being investigated on charges of fraud and unauthorised conduct in relation to a housing dispute. Abzhan has been engaged in efforts to mediate between the members of a cooperative who have bought shares in a new residential complex that the construction company has failed to build for several years. According to Abzhan, the charges are groundless and aimed at putting pressure on him because of his efforts to address housing rights issues and defend the rights of victims of violations of such rights. On 14 June, law enforcement authorities searched the apartment of Abzhan and that of his wife, and ten days later, a local court sanctioned his arrest for two months. Last year, Abzhan was one of several dozen civil society activists, human rights defenders and social media users who were detained in connection with a wave of peaceful protests against land reforms. He was subsequently sentenced to two years of court-imposed restrictions on his freedom of movement for allegedly disobeying and resisting police.

As covered on the Monitor, civil society and social media activist Berik Zhagiparov went on trial in May 2017 because of Facebook posts about alleged corrupt practices at a mining company in the town of Zhezkazgan, where he lives. The head of staff at this company requested that Zhagiparov be held criminally responsible for defamation and ordered to pay moral damages of more than 5,000 EUR. In June, the case ended with a settlement: the head of staff of the mining company withdrew his claims after Zhagiparov publicly rebutted the allegations and apologised.

KIBHR has also documented several other recent cases where civil society activists have been subjected to pressure by law enforcement authorities, including by being summoned and warned; detained and threatened with criminal prosecution; and fined for complaining about unlawful actions by police. As a result of the pressure, some activists have publicly announced that they are giving up their civic engagement.

New Draft Media Legislation

At the end of May 2017, the government approved draft legislation that introduces amendments to a number of laws on information and communications. Some of these amendments would improve existing legislation, for example by reducing penalties for media outlets for violations of technical requirements. However, other amendments are of serious concern to journalists. Among these is a new requirement for journalists to verify the accuracy of information prior to disseminating it by inquiring with relevant bodies or officials or other means. At the same time, the draft legislation dictates that state bodies may take up to 15 days to respond to inquiries from media outlets and lists a number of grounds on which such requests may be rejected, for instance because a decision on the issue is pending or access to information on it is restricted. The draft legislation also requires journalists to obtain consent for the publication of private or commercial secrets without providing any clear definition of what information is considered to constitute such secrets. Local journalists working with foreign media would have to obtain accreditation with the foreign ministry, similar to foreign journalists.

The parliament is expected to consider the draft legislation when lawmakers return from their summer recess.

Regulating and Restricting Internet and Mobile Phone Use 

As covered before on the Monitor, arbitrary blocking of websites is a regular occurrence in Kazakhstan. In a recent example, internet providers blocked access to the US-based Foreign Policy journal in late June after it published a highly unfavourable assessment of the EXPO currently taking place in Astana. Minister of Information and Communications Dauren Abayev said that his ministry was looking into the issue, but denied that it had any role in blocking access to the site. At the time of writing, the site was available again.

Earlier this year, Kazakhstan’s Committee on National Security adopted new technical regulationsfor mobile phone operators, which will enter into force in February 2018. These regulations attracted attention when Telia Company, to which Kazakhstan’s Kcell operator belongs, issued a statement on the issue in May 2017. The Scandinavian company pointed out that the new regulations may have a potentially serious impact on freedom of expression by allowing authorities to access telecommunications networks for surveillance purposes without having to request permission by operators. Telia Company stated that it advocates for solutions whereby governments do not have direct access to its networks but the company retains operational and technical control. In response to a media inquiry, the Committee on National Security stated that communications would be recorded only in cases where prosecutors have sanctioned such measures or those affected file a request about this.

Association

Excessive Tax Inspections of NGOs

As covered before on the Monitor, three human rights groups were subjected to tax inspection after an article published on the nur.kz site last summer suggesting that they use foreign grants to “influence political processes” in Kazakhstan in ways that threaten national stability. Tax authorities claimed that a “concerned citizen” filed a complaint against the NGOs on the basis of this article.

Following tax inspections that ended in December 2016, the Almaty-based NGOs Liberty and International Legal Initiative (ILI) were levied about 7,000 and 3,500 EUR, respectively, in back taxes and fines for allegedly failing to pay corporate income tax on grants received from foreign donors, such as the European Commission, the US State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy and others. These penalties were imposed, although foreign grants of non-profit organisations are tax exempt according to applicable provisions of national law. At the beginning of June, a local court rejected the appeal filed by Liberty against the decision of tax authorities in its case. Later the same month, Almaty City Court upheld a court ruling from April, which deemed lawful the decision of tax authorities against the ILI.

The tax inspection of the third NGO, the Astana-based NGO Dignity, ended only in June, after dragging on for nine months. In this case, the tax authorities concluded that they had not found any violations of tax regulations.

Systematic Targeting of Religious Minorities 

As covered before, Kazakhstan’s legislation seriously restricts the activities of religious communities, and religious minority communities are often subjected to harassment and discrimination.

Recently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced growing pressure. According to a press release issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on 29 June, a local court suspended the activities of the community’s branch office in Almaty and fined it an equivalent of 1,800 EUR for alleged violations of safety rules discovered during an inspection of the office earlier the same month. Prior to this, in mid-May 2017, some 40 armed police and security officials raided the Almaty branch office in an operation that attracted wide public attention. The raid was supposedly carried out in response to information received by an anonymous source indicating that unregistered migrants were possibly being accommodated at the Jehovah’s Witnesses office. In another recent incident, in connection with a Jehovah’s Witness congress held in Almaty on 22-25 June, police stopped buses transporting hundreds of foreign guests and held the buses for up to three hours for supposed checks of the drivers. In May this year, Astana-based Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “inciting religious discord” because of his discussions on religious issues with a group of young people.

These developments have resulted in fears of further harassment among Jehovah’s Witnesses, not the least since they have taken place at a time when the Supreme Court in neighbouring Russia recently ruled to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organisation.

Reforming the Legal Profession

When speaking to the parliament on 29th May 2017, Justice Minister Marat Beketayev outlinedproposals for reforming the legal profession in the country. He said that these reforms were needed to address the problem of lack of access to qualified lawyers and to improve the functioning of the legal profession. The proposed measures included: decreasing fees for admission to the Republican Bar Association, requiring lawyers to regularly undergo training and subsequent exams at accredited external education centres and universities, strengthening disciplinary mechanisms for lawyers, and introducing mandatory pro bono legal assistance services by lawyers. The International Commission of Jurists warned that the proposed measures for amending the regulatory framework of the legal profession “may undermine its independence” and “are contrary to the principle of self-regulation of the profession”. The organisation stressed that any proposals for reform should be developed and agreed on in consultation with members of the bar in accordance with international standards on the independence of lawyers. Representatives of the lawyers’ community in Kazakhstan have, in particular, expressed concern that the requirement to pass re-qualification exams may be used as a lever against lawyers working on politically-sensitive cases.

Peaceful Assembly

As IPHR and KIBHR have reported before on the Monitor, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is routinely restricted in Kazakhstan. A recent case of concern documented by KIBHR is as follows:

A peaceful protest on corruption and socio-economic issues was planned for 26th May 2017 in Baikonur, a city hosting the Baikonur Cosmodrome that is rented and administered by the Russian Federation under an agreement with Kazakhstan. However, the organiser, Marat Dauletbayev who heads the organisation Baikonur for Civil Rights called off the protest after what he believed was an attempt to intimidate him. According to Dauletbayev, police searched his flat on 23rd May, allegedly to investigate a complaint from neighbours about noise in the flat. He was not at home at that time, but a friend of his and two workers were there. Dauletbayev said that police summoned him the following day and requested him to sign an explanatory note about the presence of individuals in his flat not registered at that address. The police officers drew up an administrative protocol on the alleged violation of residency registration rules, for further processing under Kazakhstan’s law. According to Dauletbayev, the police officers also spoke to him about the planned protest.

Following these developments, Dauletbayev decided not to go ahead with the protest, fearing provocations during the event. He filed a complaint with Baikonur’s prosecutor about the actions of police, but it was dismissed. Earlier this year in January, a local court convicted Dauletbayev of defamation because of Facebook posts accusing Baikonur’s mayor of corruption in relation to the allocation of land plots. The activist was sentenced to one year in prison, but did not have to serve the sentence as he qualified for release under an amnesty act adopted in connection with the 25-year anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence.

 IPHR – International Partnership for Human Rights

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