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Fears of Police State in Kazakstan

Rights groups fear wider use of intercepts could erode civil liberties.
By Daulet Kanagatuly
Rights activists have expressed concern that legal amendments relaxing rules on the use of phone tapping and monitoring of private correspondence could be used to infringe people’s rights.



During a hearing on January 30, the lower house of the Kazak parliament approved changes to the law governing investigative operations, the criminal code and the criminal procedural code.



The changes were proposed by law enforcement ministries, who say they will improve the efficiency of criminal investigations and will lead to more prosecutions.



But human rights defenders are worried that the new legislation could be used to restrict civil liberties, and argue that the police are trying to compensate for their own inefficiency.



The amendments must now progress through the upper house or Senate before being submitted for President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s signature.



If passed, the changes would allow criminal investigators to use techniques such as phone tapping and monitoring of private correspondence to look into a wider range of crimes.



This kind of surveillance is already legal for investigations into serious crimes including murder, terrorism, and certain kinds of corruption.



But under the new legislation, they could also be invoked during investigations of a lesser crimes including inciting or funding terrorism, kidnapping, and human trafficking.



Other proposed changes relate to how evidence is held and how investigations are documented.



According to Kazakstan’s deputy prosecutor general Johann Merkel, who presented the bill to the parliament, the criminal legislation is currently too liberal. After the end of the Soviet Union, he said, many serious crimes were reclassified into lesser categories.



This left law enforcement bodies including the security service, the conventional police and the financial police unable to use intercepts when investigating such crimes.



Merkel said the restrictions placed on investigators’ powers had led to crimes going unsolved. Only 60 per cent of all criminal cases go to court, he added.



“An analysis [of investigations] shows that one of the reasons for inefficient crime-solving is the legal prohibition on using ‘special operations’ techniques related to phone tapping,” said Merkel.



The draft amendments would allow intercepts to be used in cases involving an additional 34 types of crime. The deputy prosecutor said that every year, 90,000 crimes falling into these categories are committed.



Human rights groups and other experts are against the amendments, arguing that society as a whole is being asked to pay for the police’s inefficiency by losing important civil rights.



“[Police want] to compensate for their lack of professionalism and make their work easier at our cost, at the cost of our rights,” said Ninel Fokina, director of the Almaty Helsinki Committee. “They’ve stated officially and openly that they find it difficult to solve crimes, so they want an opportunity [to use techniques] reserved for serious crimes in application to lesser ones.”



Fokina said the law enforcement agencies already had extensive powers as things stand.



A former police colonel who asked to remain anonymous agreed that law enforcement agencies themselves were to blame for the low crime-solving rate. He accused them of an “appalling lack of professionalism”, and said they were over-reliant on intercepts.



He said he thought they were pushing through the legislation so that material they were already gathering through covert surveillance could be used as evidence.



“I suspect that they’ve been illegally tapping the phones of suspects for a long time but are unable to use the material,” he said.



The former officer warned that if the amendments were approved, it could increase repression.



“This is an ideal instrument [with which] to deal with dissent,” he said. “A phrase accidently dropped during a phone conversation or in a personal letter can grow into a thick crime file, from where it can be linked to [accusations of involvement] in underground organisations.”



Virtually anyone could become a suspect, he said, since people make throwaway comments in the heat of the moment, which could subsequently be used against them.



Fokina said that because of the lack of transparency surrounding law enforcement in Kazakstan, it would be difficult to stop the new legislation being misused.



Others said that information gathered from bugging could be used not only to persecute dissidents, but also to extort money from businesses.



“The aim will be to find some well-to-do guy or a thriving company, collect enough compromising material from tapping to build up a thick criminal file, and then demand that they pay a certain amount of money for it to be closed,” said Almaty-based lawyer Sergei Utkin.



Utkin echoed the retired police colonel’s suspicions that the initiative was a way of legalising phone tapping that went on anyway.



“Law enforcement officers across all ministries understand that they are breaking the law [through illegal surveillance]. Of course they want to make it legal,” he said.



Meanwhile, interior ministry spokesman Bagdat Kojahmetov defended the amendments, saying there were strict safeguards in place to prevent them being abused.



He said that any application for the right to use surveillance had to be backed up by a proper justification, it had to relate to a criminal case, and it needed to be approved by a prosecutor.



Daulet Kanagatuly is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.