The calm in Kazakhstan is restored, but the pressing questions on multiple human rights violations remain unanswered

[IMG | SOURCE: | ALT: Security forces open fire in Almaty, Kazakhstan] © Valery Sharifulin/TASS

In protest against a dramatic rise in fuel prices, thousands of people took to the streets of Kazakhstan in early January 2022. Their economic discontent was quickly followed by broader popular calls against corruption, political stagnation, and widespread injustice. Authorities responded with hostility to the protestors, by targeting and silencing journalists and activists, and by suppressing freedom of expression and the flow of independent information.

In an alarming development, as damage to property and the number of casualties grew, troops in the streets were instructed by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to open fire without warning. Additionally, when the protests spread and violence broke out in Almaty and elsewhere, the authorities shut down the Internet and disabled social media and other means of digital communication. Amid the violence and chaos of quickly unfolding events, the people of Kazakhstan and the international community were deliberately left in the dark by the government and unable to find the critical information needed to track events on the ground. As local human rights defender Tatyana Chernobil put it, “the full shutting down of the Internet in the entire country for over a day and in some regions longer left people basically incommunicado.” Those who might have been able to provide this information, including independent journalists and human rights defenders, were hampered in their efforts, faced reprisals by the authorities, and were even singled out publicly by the President as supposedly responsible for stirring up trouble.

Today the authorities appear to have restored order and are in full control of the situation in the streets. The government block on the Internet has been lifted and, unlike in the first days of the protests, we are now able to communicate with our colleagues in Kazakhstan. But we are not even close to understanding the full story surrounding these events and there are still many questions that the authorities have left unanswered. In the service of transparency and to quell harmful speculation and fear, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his government should provide immediate, direct and honest answers to these pressing questions.

The authorities conducted mass arrests in response to both the peaceful protests and the outbreaks of violence and, by their own account, held close to 10,000 people in detention by11 January. Now, the official figure has been reduced. According to the President’s statement on 20 January, the authorities are holding around 2,000 detainees. But urgent questions remain. How many of those detainees were peaceful protesters arrested under Kazakhstan’s strict law on public assemblies? What are the grounds for their detentions and what, if anything, is the evidence against them? And what are the conditions of their detention? Are they being provided access to lawyers? Are they being brought promptly before a court in order to review whether their detention is legal? Are they being allowed to communicate with the outside world and to notify their families or others of their whereabouts? Without clear answers to these questions, the people of Kazakhstan and international community are left fearing the worst.

So far, the authorities have given conflicting and vague messages about who they were targeting while trying to restore order. Given the history of lack of respect for the right to freedom of assembly in Kazakhstan, there is room for deep concern that many of those detained were in fact peacefully exercising their rights and were swept up in an overly aggressive operation by police and other security forces.

Under Kazakhstan’s unduly restrictive legislation, street protest is only allowed with express prior permission from the authorities, and even that is routinely and arbitrarily denied. Spontaneous protest, however peaceful, is “unlawful” in Kazakhstan. Under this law, any of the 1000s of people across the country who joined the protests in January are liable to receive heavy penalties, including fines and up to 10 days of “administrative detention” (up to 25 days if committed repeatedly within a year). This is short-term imprisonment imposed for exercising one’s right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

As information has slowly become available, there have been an increasing number of specific cases of detention around the country that we have been able to confirm. Among these were journalists arrested for reporting on the events from the street, including Lukpan Akhmediarov from Uralskaya Nedelya and Daryn Nursapar from Altaynews. In fact, the Ministry of Information confirmed on 19 January that as many as 18 journalists had been arrested and held for hours – six of them were given “administrative detention.” Activists Marua Eskendirova and Omangeldy Ozazbaev, from Uralsk, were arrested and detained for 20 days each for visiting a colleague in hospital, which the authorities classified as an “unlawful protest.”

There are even more harrowing stories. Environmentalist Artyom Sochnev, from Stepnogorsk, may face criminal prosecution for the “crime” of “inciting social discord” in connection with his solitary picket on 4 January in solidarity with other protesters.

As with questions that remain about the scale and nature of the detentions related to the early January events, we also are left without essential information about the people killed in that unrest. On 15 January the authorities reluctantly announced that 225 people had died in the protests, 19 of whom they said were identified as police or army personnel. But this number may not reflect the full picture. The Coalition of NGOs of Kazakhstan Against Torture said on 19 January that “the exact number of killed, wounded, or otherwise hurt civilians including casualties remains unknown”.

The lack of transparency regarding the circumstances of civilian deaths and any use of lethal force by law enforcement has been especially troubling. “From the human rights’ perspective, the government is yet to explain and account for the restrictions and the countrywide terrorism-related state of emergency” says Tatyana Chernobil, “For instance, the President must explain his order to use lethal force without warning, and the fact that a day earlier, on 6 January, police shot with live ammunition at the obviously peaceful protesters in Almaty and left at least one person dead and many injured”.

Similarly, the practice of holding detainees incommunicado, together with initial reports coming out about mistreatment of people in detention, has caused concern and consternation. People are looking for members of their families who disappeared during the protests. More reports are emerging of people being shot or beaten by the police and others interrogated in violation of their basic rights for fair trials. For instance, there are already two accounts of torture by the police in Atyrau: one from Zinat Urynbasarova who spent the night in the sports hall of the local police headquarters witnessing torture and other ill-treatment, and another from Sergei Shutov, who was subjected to torture or other ill-treatment in the same place for 11 hours.

In their statement, the Coalition of NGOs of Kazakhstan Against Torture confirm that people have been tortured by the police, but report that not a single official investigation into police conduct has been started. The right to freedom from torture is an absolute right that may not be restricted under any circumstances, including when there is a state of emergency.

The vulnerability of detainees to abuse is exacerbated by the endemic problem of violation of the right to a fair trial, not only in criminal but also administrative proceedings. Tatyana Chernobil raised this concern, saying, “The other issue is rapid administrative trials throughout the country without the due process of the law and the ensuing mass jailing, including of several journalists. People reported that hundreds, and probably thousands, of arrested civilians were denied access to their lawyers and families”. Justice and access to effective legal remedies, safeguards against torture and full respect for the right to a fair trial are fundamental for ensuring full and effective accountably for all the abuses committed in Kazakhstan during the turbulent events of January 2022.

The current crisis in Kazakhstan is the result of many years of ongoing and persistent governmental restrictions, the undermining of fundamental human rights and freedoms, and persecution of those who tried to exercise their rights. This must stop! The only way out of the crisis for Kazakhstan is through full respect for all human rights for all people in the country. And right now freedom of expression is paramount: everyone, mostly particularly the people of Kazakhstan, has the right to know precisely what occurred in the past few weeks and what precisely will come next.