A UN rapporteur has issued some damning findings on civil liberties in Kazakhstan, following a visit to monitor how Astana is upholding its commitments to freedom of assembly.
“I am deeply disappointed by an incident that has left me very worried about the safety of individuals I met during my trip, and generally concerned about the situation of human rights in Kazakhstan,” Maina Kiai, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a January 27 statement.
He was alluding to an incident in which unidentified individuals photographed his interlocutors in the city of Aktau, “in a manner commonly associated with secret police surveillance.” Kiai complained to the authorities and an arrest was made, but the rapporteur did not recognize the suspect (whom he was allowed to meet) as one of the perpetrators.
Kiai found that Astana offers “limited space for the expression of dissenting views.” He highlighted “a general fear of engaging in oppositional political activity or expression within the population,” partly due to “legislation that seeks to control the civil society sector, imposes serious punishments for organizing and participating in peaceful assemblies, stigmatizes and criminalizes dissent, facilitates the imprisonment of opposition political figures, and in general perpetuates a narrative that portrays critical political expression as threatening the stability of the state.”
Kiai noted that the right to freedom of association had been curtailed during his visit, with some individuals “held in preventive detention, preventing them from even seeking to exercise their rights.” On January 23, Guljan Yergaliyeva, the hunger striking editor of the closed magazine Adam Bol, and three other journalists were briefly thrown into police cells to prevent them from attending a small gathering in Almaty.
Kiai highlighted several laws as problematic from the point of view of Astana’s international human rights commitments, including the crime of “incitement to discord” (the maximum penalty for which was increased from 12 to 20 years in jail this year) and legislation governing freedom of assembly, requiring organizers to seek permission to gather 10 days in advance and granting the authorities the right to designate locations of gatherings. Legislation governing political parties, religious groups and trade unions was also singled out for concern.
The rapporteur hailed Kazakhstan’s commitment to revise freedom of assembly legislation, made to the UN in 2010, as “commendable,” but said it was “time to turn from words to action.”
He met victims and survivors of fatal violence three years ago in Zhanaozen, where “the pain and anger is still raw,” and visited opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov in the jail where he is serving a prison term over that turmoil.
Kiai thanked the government for its willingness to engage over freedom of assembly, and noted the concern of the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev for maintaining stability in the country. It was, however, “misguided” to use that argument to “wrongfully curtail the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association,” he said.
Kazakhstan’s best guarantee for maintaining stability, Kiai concluded, “is ensuring that all people living in Kazakhstan fully enjoy their rights as endorsed by the government through its voluntary ratification of international human rights law,” while “more tolerance and openness to free expression, especially of criticism, dissent and opposition, will serve to build a more just and stable society.” That would be “a fitting legacy for generations to come.”