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Kazakhstan: Widespread Human Rights Abuse amid Attempts to Hold Peaceful Protests

21May 2016

Report on the Demonstrations of May 21, 2016.

Law enforcement officers in Kazakhstan arbitrarily detained or arrested more than a thousand individuals, including human rights defenders, journalists, protesters and passers-by in an effort to thwart peaceful protests on May 21, the newly formed Coalition for the Right to Peaceful Assembly in Kazakhstan said in a preliminary report released today.

Member organizations of the Coalition documented sweeping government interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in the run-up to, and during, May 21, including the use of administrative and criminal charges against activists involved in, or perceived to be involved in, the planned peaceful protests. The Coalition also documented violations of the right to legal counsel in a series of cases.

The Coalition for the Right to Peaceful Assembly in Kazakhstan was formed in late May 2016, and is an informal network of local and international human rights organizations working to promote and protect the right to peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan. The Coalition currently consists of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Freedom House Kazakhstan, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, the Adil Soz Foundation, the International Legal Initiative and Action of Christians Against Torture. The Coalition has been gathering information about human rights violations in the wake of the planned demonstrations before, during and after May 21. This report is the result of numerous interviews with journalists, activists, human rights defenders and others, and is intended to chronicle and document the human rights abuses surrounding the May 21 planned peaceful protests.

Among the more than thousand arbitrarily detained or arrested on May 21, were at least 54 journalists, 5 human rights defenders and numerous civil society activists. During the mass-detentions, 6 lawyers affiliated with the Coalition reported that they were not given access to their clients in detention. Numerous detainees claimed to have been subjected to forced and unlawful fingerprint taking and some may have been victims of ill treatments during arrests or detention.

According to official data from the Kazakhstan General Prosecutor, the authorities have raised administrative charges against 51 individuals who were detained on May 21. The General Prosecutor has not released information about criminal charges against anyone detained or arrested on May 21; however the Coalition has information about several individuals who are facing charges for their involvement, or perceived involvement, in the planning of the protests. These individuals were all arrested prior to May 21. Furthermore, the Coalition has information about at least thirty additional individuals who were administratively charged during the week leading up to May 21, simply for expressing their intention to participate in the protests.

The Coalition for the Right to Peaceful Assembly in Kazakhstan called on the authorities of Kazakhstan to:

          –  Guarantee the right to peaceful assembly, in compliance with article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);

          – Release all individuals, still in detention or under arrest, involved or perceived to be involved, in the organization of the planned May 21 peaceful protests

          – Drop all criminal charges brought against all individuals, involved or perceived to be involved, in the organization of the planned May 21 peaceful protests

          – In compliance with article 19.2 of ICCPR, guarantee all citizens, including reporters and journalists, the right to freedom of expression

          –  In accordance with article 158 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, open criminal investigations into all reported cases of undue interference with, and obstruction of, the lawful professional activities of journalists, including detentions, confiscation of equipment and deletion of footage

          – In compliance with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, allow all human rights defenders and activists to carry out their work within their mandate and in accordance with Kazakhstan’s international obligations


Background

In late April, public discontent over a proposed amendment to the country’s land law fueled demonstrations in western Kazakhstan. The demonstrations soon spread across the rest of the country, and, on May 21, protesters planned to continue the string of peaceful demonstrations in numerous cities in Kazakhstan. In response, the police turned out in massive numbers to stop the protesters from gathering in Astana, Almaty, Uralsk and other cities. Through mass-detentions and arrests before and during the planned protests, the blocking off of central city squares, and with a heavy police presence, the authorities effectively prevented the planned demonstrations from taking place.

Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Kazakhstan in 2006, states that “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized”. Article 19.2 of the ICCPR states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to (…) impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice”. In addition, article 158 of the Kazakhstan Criminal Code forbids the obstruction of the lawful professional activities of journalists.

The Coalition has documented numerous clear violations of the above-mentioned articles, in instances outlined below of criminal and administrative charges being raised against activists, arbitrary arrests and detentions of protesters, activists, human rights defenders, journalists and social media users.

Arrests and detention prior to 21 May

Criminal charges against individuals involved in, or perceived to be involved in, the May 21 peaceful protests

During the week leading up to May 21, police detained or arrested at least 30 civil society activists and social media users. Most of the detained or arrested individuals had expressed their intention to participate in the planned demonstrations, whereas others had applied to local authorities for permission to hold peaceful protests.

In Atyrau, authorities have charged several activists under articles 24, 179 and 272 of the Criminal Code (“Preparations or Attempts to Commit a Crime, “Propaganda or Public Calls to Overthrow the Constitutional Order of Kazakhstan” and “mass dis-order”).

Activist Maks Bokaev was arrested on May 16, initially on administrative charges of violating the law regulating peaceful assembly (488 of the Administrative Code). On June 1, it became known that Bokaev was currently facing criminal charges, which appear to be raised in retaliation for his involvement in the calling for protests against the proposed land law amendment. Bokaev had been an active and outspoken opponent of the land reforms, and had with a high visibility advocated participation in and called for protests. On May 6, he applied to local authorities for permission to hold peaceful protests, an application that the authorities turned down ten days later, on the day of his arrest. Bokaev had earlier been a member of the newly created Land Reform Commission, and it appears that authorities consider him a leading figure in the protests movement. He is now charged under articles 24 and 179 of the Criminal Code (“Preparations or Attempts to Commit a Crime” and “Propaganda or Public Calls to Overthrow the Constitutional Order of Kazakhstan).

Along with Bokaev, authorities in Atyrau on May 16 also arrested activist Talgat Ayan. Ayan had together with Bokaev advocated against the land reforms and called for protests. He is also charged under articles 24 and 179. Furthermore, activist Erlan Bashakov reportedly* face the same charges.

On May 23, authorities in Atyrau reportedlyx raised charges against Sagyngaly Kapizov, Gatau-Gali Bokhan and Kubaydolla Sholak. All three are reportedly charged under articles 179 and 272 of the Criminal Code (“Propaganda or Public Calls to Overthrow the Constitutional Order of Kazakhstan” and “mass dis-order”). Sholak has since his arrest been in house-arrest. On May 31, authorities transferred Kapizov to house-arrest and released Bokhan on bail.

In Uralsk authorities have reportedly charged singer-songwriter Zhanat Esentaev under article 174 of the Criminal Code (“Incitement of Social, National, Clan, Race, or Religious Discord”). He was arrested on May 17. Esentaev is known for his political songwriting, and local activists say he is charged in retaliation for the lyrical content of his songs.

Administrative charges against civil society activists and social media users

During the week leading up to the planned protests, authorities also detained more than 30 activists and social media users, in what appeared to be an effort to keep outspoken persons away from their community in the run-up to and during the demonstrations. Most of the detained were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention. The following paragraphs illustrate some of the instances.

In Astana, police arrested and detained Makhambet Abzhan, a civil society activist from the NGO Shanyrak on May 17. Abzhan was hurriedly sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention on grounds of not complying with police orders. Furthermore, Makhsat Ilyasuli was given 15 days of administrative detention.

In Almaty, police arrested and detained human rights defender Bakhytzhan Toregozhina on May 17, after she made her intentions to participate in the planned protests known on Facebook. Toregozhina posted on her Facebook page at 18:32 that three police officers came to her home and took her to the Almalinsky District police station. Along with Toregozhina, civil society activist Marat Uatkan, as well as social media users Kuat Kunbolatov, Suyundyk Aldabergenov, Geroykhan Kistaubaev and Moldir Adilova were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention on May 18. They had all expressed their intention to participate in the planned protests.

In Uralsk, police arrested and detained social media users Aybolat Bukenov and Baurzhan Alipkaliev as well as civil society activist Isatay Utepov on May 18. On May 19, police arrested and detained well-known former journalist Lukpan Ahmedyarov. They were all handed 15 days of administrative detention after posting information about the planned meetings in social media.

In Shymkent, police arrested and detained civil society activist Daniyar Kultaev and social media users Zhadyra Dyuysenbekova and Ibrakhim Alserke. On May 18 authorities sentenced them to 15 days of administrative detention for spreading information about the planned protests.

In Semey, police arrested and detained civil society activists Farid Ishmukhametov and Kenzhebek Sultanbekov. Prior to their detention, the two activists had applied to local authorities for permission to hold peaceful protests. On May 19, they were given 15 days of administrative detention.

In Akmolinskaya, Oblast civil society activists Kurmangazy Rakhmetov and Aslan Kurmanbaev were given 15 days of administrative detention on May 19, after spreading information about the protests through Facebook.

Events on May 21

Members of the Coalition were present in Almaty on May 21, and witnessed how the police had blocked off Old Square in order to prevent protesters from gathering. Coalition members also witnessed firsthand how the police detained several protesters on the nearby streets. Some were forcefully dragged into police cars; others were put in waiting buses. The Baiterek Square in Astana was likewise controlled by the police and central Squares in other cities were blocked in a similar fashion.

According to first estimates more than 1000 individuals were detained in Almaty, hundreds in Astana, approximately 20 in Uralsk and numerous people in other cities.

Arrest and detention of human rights defenders and civil society activists

Almaty

In Almaty, police arrested and detained human rights defender Amangeldy Shormanbaev, Human Rights Expert and Project Coordinator at the International Legal Initiative, in his office. Shormanbaev told the Coalition that police detained him around 9.15am, when he had just arrived at work in the morning. “The officers didn’t give me a reason as to my detention, and took me to the Almaly police station, where I was kept until 3.40pm”, Shormanbaev said.

The Almaty police detained an additional two human rights defenders affiliated with the International Legal Initiative. Yulia Kozlova and Zhanna Baytelova were assigned as observers with the human rights group when they were arrested by the police around 12.00am. Baytelova told the Coalition that two officers wearing black masks detained her and colleague Kozlova. They identified themselves as observers from the International Legal Initiative, but were nonetheless detained and put on a waiting bus. After ten minutes on the bus, Baytelova and Kozlova noticed the Almaty press-secretary from the Ministry of Interior. When the press-secretary recognized them, they were released. Baitelova saw that the police detained around 50-60 people, among them random passers-by.

The police also arrested and detained two human rights defenders from the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHRRL). Journalist and human rights defender Andrey Grishin told the Coalition that police arrested him and his colleague Andrey Sviridov, also a journalist and human rights defender with KIBHRRL around 12.15am. At the time of his detention, Grishin was located at the northern part of the Abay/Zheltoksan intersection, whereas his colleague was at the southern part of the same crossing. The police then forced them onto a waiting bus and drove them to the Medeu District police station. After around three hours of detention, police took their statements and released them. Grishin said that around 60-70 other detainees were held at the station.

In Uralsk, at around 11.30am, police arrested and detained civil society activist Azamat Mukhanov. Mukhanov told the undersigning groups that three police officers detained him nearby Abay Square and pushed him into a police car. He was then driven to the police station where he was held for around seven hours without any explanation as to his detention. At the police station, Mukhanov counted around ten other detainees, he said.

In Astana, police detained civil society activist Zaurbesh Battalova and roughly forced her onto a bus. Battalova, who is the head of the Development Fund for Parliamentarism, was kept in detention for three hours.

Arrests and detentions of journalists

Almaty

Vyacheslav Polovinko, a reporter for the Kazakhstani Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty service and Novaya Gazeta, told the Coalition that he was arrested around 11.30am in Almaty. Polovinko was present near a gathering crowd on Abay Street, covering the protests as a journalist. Polovinko was not part of the crowd of protesters and identified himself as a journalist. Nonetheless, four masked officers grabbed him and forced him onto a waiting bus. Inside the bus Polovinko noticed around 50 detainees. Police later transferred him to a minibus and drove him to the Turksib District police station outside the city. Authorities released him after about 90 minutes in detention.

Apart from Polovinko, police in Almaty also arrested and detained journalists Ramazan Esergepov (Journalists in Distress), Vladimir Tretyakov (freelance photo-correspondent), Ermurat Bapi (DAT), Alken Kenzhebaev (Tribuna), Madina Aimbetova (Vremya), Toktarali Tanzharyk (Dala Men Kala), Nurtay Lakhan (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kazakhstan Service), Rysbek Sarsenbayulu (Zhas Alash), Roman Egorov (Vremya), Kasym Amanzhol (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kazakhstan Service), Asylkhan Mamashuly (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kazakhstan Service), Artem Miusov (NUR.kz), Gulnar Bazhkenova (Esquire.kz), Zhanbolat Mamay (Tribuna), Andrey Grishin (the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law), Andrey Sviridov (the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law), one un-identified journalist from “Megapolis”, and one un-identified journalist from “Svoboda Slova”.

Uralsk

In Uralsk, police detained editor-in-chief of “Uralskaya Nedelya” (Newsweek Uralsk), Tamara Eslyamova. Eslyamova was seeking to carry out her professional duties as a journalist when police detained her nearby the central Abay Square. She was kept in detention for about seven hours, without access to water or food. Police wrongfully accused her of having organized the protests, for which she was later fined with 106 000 Kazakhstani Tenge (approx. 300 USD).

In Uralsk police arrested Sanat Urnaliev, a journalist working with the Kazakhstan service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Urnaliev told the Coalition that he was detained around 10.50am on the central square in Uralsk where he was covering the planned protests. Three police officers apprehended him and he was sent to the Abay District police station in Uralsk. At the police station, officers confiscated his cell phone and two iPhones that he had on his person. From his phones the police deleted footage of his own detention as well as other videos that he had recorded before his detention. He was only released after 6.00pm when he demanded to see a lawyer.

Police in Uralsk also detained the following on May 21: Raul Uporov (Newsweek Uralsk), Oleg Velikiy (KTK-42), Natalya Glebova (Moy Gorod), Kazbek Kuttymuratov (Dana) and Kaliya Mustakhieva (Moy Gorod).

Atyrau

In Atyrau, police arrested Murat Sultangaliev, a journalist with the Ak Zhayik newspaper, when he was documenting the detentions of protesters taking place at the central Makhambet Square. Four police officers overpowered him and pulled him, by his arms and legs, onto a bus. He was then driven to the police station where the police photographed him, took his fingerprints and confiscated his work phone, without presenting him with any charges. The police deleted all video and photographic footage from his phone, including material documenting the detention of protesters.

The undersigning groups have information that police in Atyrau furthermore arrested and detained the following journalists on May 21: Azamat Maytanov (Ak Zhayik), Lev Guzikov (Ak Zhayik), Marat Takulin (Ak Zhayik) and Saniya Toyken (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kazakhstan Service).

Astana

In Astana journalist Zhumabike Zhunusova from “Dat” and “Novaya Gazeta” Kazakhstan, was covering the meetings with Russian journalist Yuliya Kislitsina from “Rossiya Segodnya”, when they were arrested on Baiterek Square. Zhunusova told the undersigning groups that the two journalists had walked to the square with the intention of covering the planned demonstrations, if they would materialize. At Baiterek Square, the two journalists witnessed that around twenty protesters were arrested and detained by police on Baiterek Square. They were not photographing or otherwise recording the events. Zhunusova reported that they were initially approached by one official from the Prosecutor’s office, to which they identified as journalists and not protesters. The official returned their documents and allowed them to continue their professional journalistic activities. Shortly after, at 10.15am, several police officers grabbed them and forcibly put them on a bus. This time they also clearly identified themselves as journalists and even quoted the Kazakhstani law to the officers, but were nonetheless detained. Zhunusova said that she counted 16 detainees on the bus, which took them to the Almaty District police station. At the station she counted another ten detainees.

According to information available to the Coalition, police in Astana also detained journalists Irina Sevostyanova (Vlast), Anara Bekbasova (Ratel.kz), Makhmud Baykhodzhaev (NUR.kz), Medi Bekmaghanbet (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kazakhstan Service), Erzhan Amirkhanov (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Kazakhstan Service), Dmitry Pokidaev (Novosti-Kazakhstan), Elena Preobrazhenskaya (Interfaks-Kazakhstan) and Svetlana Tumakova (ITAR-TASS).

Karaganda

In Karaganda the police detained Elena Ulyakina (Novy Vestnik), Botagoz Omarova (101 TV), Ayman Sagatay (101 TV) and Aleksandr Tirtishets (101 TV).

According to information available to the Coalition, the police also detained several journalists in Zhezkazgan, Aktobe, Shymkent and other cities.