Kazak Human Rights Activists Fear Crackdown

Experts predict further prosecutions and tightened censorship in the wake of unrest.

Kazak Human Rights Activists Fear Crackdown

Experts predict further prosecutions and tightened censorship in the wake of unrest.

January 5, 2022 Kazak government declared a nationwide state of emergency after protests over a fuel price hike erupted into clashes and saw demonstrators storm government buildings.
January 5, 2022 Kazak government declared a nationwide state of emergency after protests over a fuel price hike erupted into clashes and saw demonstrators storm government buildings. © ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV/AFP via Getty Images
Thursday, 13 January, 2022


The Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting is a project of IWPR

Human rights activists in Kazakstan fear a fresh crackdown as the authorities continue to exert control following recent protests.

From the start of the crisis, President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev insisted that “foreign-trained terrorists” on a rampage to seize power were behind the worst violence the country had experienced in its 30-year history.

As what started as peaceful demonstrations against fuel prices snowballed into violent unrest gripping Almaty, the country’s largest city, and elsewhere, the 68-year-old head of state dismissed calls from the international community to pursue a peaceful solution as “nonsense”.

“What kind of negotiations can you have with criminals? We were dealing with armed and well-prepared bandits, both local and foreign. Bandits and terrorists, who should be destroyed. This will be done soon,” he said in a televised address on January 7.

During an online meeting of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military alliance on January 10, Tokayev said that order had been restored in the country, but that the hunt for “terrorists” was ongoing.

Aided by the CSTO mission, reportedly numbering 2,030 troops and 250 pieces of military, the authorities have tamed the violence, but at a high cost.

As of January 11, the number of detained for taking part in the protests was close to 10,000, including foreign citizens. Reportedly, 366 persons were detained at the border, six of whom were wounded as they resisted arrest.

Journalist and human rights activist Sergei Duvanov said that Tokayev’s public statements were concerning. He warned that those who had reported or spoken about the peaceful protests in positive tones could face reprisal.

“Knowing our law enforcement officers, there are concerns that they could take it as a direct instruction to bring pressure and launch a crackdown. Of course, it is a handy excuse for the authorities to deal with outspoken, democratic voices, and clamp down on them,” Duvanov told IWPR.

Ordinary people, including state employees, also fear retaliation.

“I work in the press service of a ministry,” Saule (not her real name) told IWPR. “At the beginning of protests, all Kazakstanis, celebrities, representatives of state TV channels, artists reposted and called for peaceful protest. No one could even think what would happen next. Now that they stopped shutting down internet and hold investigations, our chief said that all those who supported the protests could seek another job. Most probably, they will find a reason to dismiss me.”

Independent observers have long described the country’s human rights as poor, with heavy restriction of fundamental freedoms of assembly and speech. Human rights activists, journalists and political opposition leaders have been arrested and imprisoned following unfair trials.

Since his presidential appointment in 2019, Tokayev has vowed to make human rights and political reforms, but critics note that his extensive diplomatic experience has enabled him to make promises to Western officials to stave off criticism, while little has changed at home..

Fundamentally, little has changed. In his January 7 speech, Tokayev directly blamed “so-called free media outlets” for fanning the unrest, a statement that rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have condemned.

Reports of detained or missing journalists and activists have already surfaced across the country. In Kokshetau, northern Kazakstan, local reporter Kuanysh Ospan was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison. In Uralk, north-western Kazakstan, journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov was given ten days detention on charges of participating in an illegal demonstration. The reporter’s lawyer Abzal Kuspan said that Akhmedyarov was covering the protest, but at one point addressed the crowd to urge them to remain peaceful.

In the capital Nur-Sultan, relatives of Makhambet Abzhan, a journalist with the independent outlet Exclusive and author of the popular Telegram channel Abzhan News, said that they had not been able to contact him since January 6. On January 7, Daryn Nursapar, an editor of the Altay News site, was detained in the eastern city of Ust-Kamenogorsk as he reported on the demonstrations and TV journalist Muratkhan Bazarbayev was shot dead in Almaty.

"Many innocent people could suffer.”

Marie Struthers, director of Amnesty International in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, urged the Kazak authorities to immediately release those detained arbitrarily.

“Protesters accused of internationally recognised crimes for violent actions should be provided with fair trials in accordance with international human rights law,” she said in an official statement.

At the peak of the unrest, officials from the interior ministry gave off-the-record briefings that militants from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had been brought to the protests.

In their official statements, the authorities did not specify countries and just stated that “foreign militants mainly from Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan” had joined the protests.

Reports indicated that other Kyrgyz citizens were detained in connection with the violence, including 38 in the southern city of Shymkent.

In one high-profile case, prominent Kyrgyz jazz musician Vikram Ruzakhunov appeared on Kazak state TV accused of receiving 90,000 tenge (207 US dollars) to join the violent protests.

The 36-year-old musician bore clear marks of a recent beating, and was released following an uproar in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, which has contributed 150 military personnel to the CSTO delegation.

“It proves that many innocent people could suffer,” Aset Utemisov, a member of the Bar Association of Almaty, told IWPR. “Participants to the riots may be sentenced to eight years or even for life. Each case should be investigated thoroughly.”

Some observers noted that Tokayev’s address to parliament on January 11 was more contained and nuanced than his statements at the height of the unrest. He distinguished between peaceful and violent protesters and indicated a new package of political reforms to be delivered in September following a public dialogue with civil society and experts.

But at the very least, analysts expect the government will curb already tight restrictions over peaceful gatherings.

“The authorities understood that radicals and foreign forces can turn a peaceful protest into a revolution,” said political expert Sayan Kalikber. “They will toughen censorship. Maybe Kazakstan will face economic sanctions. The new government consisting of old players won’t create democracy.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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