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Kazak Police Plan Sparks Controversy

A proposal to widen the powers of Kazakstan’s police force is leading to fears of a return to the Soviet era.
By Zamir Karajanov

A plan to get criminals off the streets by widening police powers has sparked controversy in Kazakstan and led to fears of a return to Soviet-style law enforcement in the country.


The Kazak interior ministry is asking the government to force taxation authorities, the health department and notaries to work with the police to identify wanted criminals. In the case of notaries, parliament must approve a law change compelling them to work with the police.


In an interview with IWPR, the head of the criminal police at the interior ministry, Sultan Kusetov, explained that the ministry will be sending lists of criminals on the run to these agencies to be cross checked with anyone who went through their system.


Taxation departments, for example, have district tax numbers for anyone registered to work legally in the country. Notaries, who verify and certify signatures and documents, are a vital part of life in bureaucratic Kazakstan and their services are used by much of the population.


Police maintain the new measures - among various iniatives of the ambitious interior minister Zautbek Turisbekov - are essential to help capture more than 3,000 suspects currently on the run.


But human rights activists and legal experts are outraged, saying the changes give police too much power over all Kazaks, not just criminals, and could easily be abused.


Healthcare workers, in particular, are worried, warning that police demands for the names of patients in drug treatment centres or psychiatric clinics are unethical and violate their Hippocratic oath to respect the privacy of those they treat.


Temirbulat Akhmetov, a former KGB colonel, says the proposals are nothing new. “It’s just the old practice of the Soviet police and KGB,” he told IWPR, recalling Soviet searches “in all areas where the criminal could appear, at notary offices or passport offices”.


But even critics agree something must be done about the criminals roaming the streets of Kazakstan. Only a tiny fraction of those wanted in connection with numerous serious crimes are ever caught. Last year, of the 3,193 criminals being sought by law enforcement officials, just 941 were arrested. Legal experts blame police inefficiency.


Lawyer Nurlan Ustemirov says that Kazak law-enforcement bodies have “a very weak intelligence service. They do not have sufficient abilities to prevent crimes about to be committed, being committed or that have already been committed. These new initiatives have appeared because of a lack of professionalism”.


Even the interior ministry accepts there are problems within its ranks – an unusual development from a secretive department that in the past preferred to keep any problems to itself.


A recent departmental press release, however, hinted that without the cooperation of outside agencies and the general public it could not work effectively. In July, Turisbekov also weighed in, saying, “Many of our employees do not even know what criminals are wanted locally, not to mention those wanted nationally or internationally.”


Despite the need for improvements in the way suspects are bought before the courts, there remain concerns that some unscrupulous officers may not simply seek out information on criminals but instead request for data on ordinary citizens that would then be used for personal gain.


Ustemirov worries that corrupt officials could use the more intrusive system to find out damning information about their opponents.


“Information about a disagreeable person who for some reason was treated by a psychiatrist or in a drug clinic may be used against what he writes or says,” Ustemirov said.


He also felt the interior ministry’s latest proposals look as if they want to shift part of their workload which should be carried out by police to other institutions like the health ministry or other public agencies.


“What the police are intending to do is task the health ministry with the job of looking for criminals they’re supposed to be searching for themselves,” Ustemirov said. “They are not giving direct orders but doing it indirectly.”


Human rights activist Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, said established legal procedures are all the police should need to bring criminals to justice. The changes, Fokina said, are an effort by the government to dig deep into the finances and personal dealings of ordinary citizens, not just those charged with a crime.


“[In Soviet times], a person didn’t even have the right to have a typewriter without registration in the appropriate bodies. Everything conformed to the interests of total control. Now, in my opinion, it is not the interests of finding criminals that are given priority, and not even the interests of total control, but rather the commercial interests of the Interior Ministry,” Fokina said.


The ministry will now seek approval from the government and parliament for the proposals, which is expected by early 2005.


Zamir Karajanov is an independent journalist in Almaty.


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