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Human Rights Watch calls on governments to put pressure on Kazakhstan at the Human Rights Council

Governments should use an upcoming review of Kazakhstan’s rights record at the United Nations to hold the country’s new president to his pledges to respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said today 4 November. On 7 November, Kazakhstan will undergo its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, elected Kazakhstan’s president in June, is no stranger to the UN. He headed the UN’s office in Geneva before becoming the hand-picked successor of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who ruled the country for 30 years before his resignation in March.

“President Tokaev knows the UN like few others do, and yet since becoming president, he has failed to bring Kazakhstan closer to UN human rights norms,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries at the UN review should press Tokaev to deliver on much-needed reforms and to respect dissent and public debate.”

Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record has deteriorated since its Universal Periodic Review in October 2014 according to Human Rights Watch. Authorities cracked down on peaceful protests critical of government policies, and in mid-2016 jailed activists Max Bokaev and Talgat Ayan for expressing their views.

Max Bokaev was sentenced to five years in prison in May 2016 after participating in peaceful protests against proposed land code amendments. He was sentenced together with another activist, Talgat Ayan, though Ayan was released on parole in April 2018. Bokaev remains unjustly imprisoned, even after the government signed a five-year moratorium on the unpopular land reform.

Kazakh authorities have taken no steps to lift significant restrictions in law and practice on the right to peaceful assembly. Authorities routinely deny permits for peaceful protests against government policies. Police break up even single-person unauthorized protests, and arbitrarily detain organizers and participants.

On 10 May 2018, for example, police detained dozens of people in cities across the country peacefully protesting against torture and politically motivated imprisonment. In June 2018, a court in Taldikorgan sentenced a man to three days’ arrest for his unsanctioned protest against police abuse. On 27 February 2019, police detained hundreds of people in multiple cities in Kazakhstan who had tried to protest outside venues where the ruling political party, Nur Otan, was holding its annual conference.

In March 2018, a court banned the unregistered opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), finding the group’s activities “extremist” and authorities have targeted its supporters, including with criminal sanctions. Impunity for torture and ill-treatment in detention persist. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people continue to face discrimination. Free speech was suppressed, and independent journalists harassed or prosecuted for their work. Kazakh authorities strictly control freedom of religion under a 2011 religion law.

“Kazakhstan continues to be a place where the government harasses, detains, and imprisons those who voice dissenting opinions,” Williamson said. “The UN’s top human rights body should put President Tokaev to the test and press him to translate long-overdue promises into tangible reform.”

Human Rights Watch asks UN members participating in Kazakhstan’s UPR debate to urge Tokaev’s administration to:

  • Respect freedom of assembly by allowing protests to take place without unjustified detentions or arrests, and reform the restrictive protest law;
  • Free those who have been wrongfully imprisoned for activism, particularly Bokaev and Baltabay;
  • Amend criminal code art. 174 on “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” and art. 274, which broadly prohibits “disseminating knowingly false information,” so as to prevent arbitrary prosecutions that violate human rights norms;
  • End restrictions on independent labor union activity and the persecution of trade union activists.

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