Kazakhstan has been added to a watch list of countries that have seen a rapid decline in civil liberties. After the January protests, the government continues to crack down on peaceful protesters, civil society activists, opposition party supporters and independent journalists.
The new watchlist is published by CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks the latest developments in civil liberties, including the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, in 197 countries and territories. Other countries on the watch list are El Salvador, India, Tunisia, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
On January 2, 2022, peaceful protests against a sharp increase in fuel prices began in the Mangystau region of Kazakhstan. In the days that followed, protests spread to other regions, with thousands of people voicing demands for broader social and political change. In circumstances that remain unclear, protests turned violent and security forces responded with excessive and lethal force. As a result, over 200 people were killed and thousands injured. Peaceful protesters, activists and bystanders, including children, are among those killed.
The intense security operations included the detention of more than 10,000 people, many of whom had not been involved in any violence or unlawful acts, and were only exercising their right to peaceful protest. Journalists and human rights activists were among those arrested. In some cases, detainees were reportedly held in makeshift detention centers and denied access to legal assistance and the right to inform relatives of their whereabouts, with alarming allegations of use of torture and ill-treatment against detainees. Concerns about the authorities’ response to the January events are heightened by their widespread use of “terrorist” rhetoric and the president’s controversial order to security forces to “fire without warning” during the crackdown on the unrest that followed.
“As requested by UN experts, the Kazakh authorities should refrain from misusing the term ‘terrorism’ and ensure that such allegations are not used to stigmatize, discredit and undermine silence those who peacefully express dissenting opinions and protest against the current situation in the country.. At this time, it is crucial that the authorities respect their international obligations regarding fundamental freedoms in order to ensure lasting security,” said said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS.
Nearly 3,000 criminal cases were under investigation at the beginning of February 2022 in connection with the January events. These include cases brought against peaceful protesters, civil society representatives and opposition activists, some of whom have been charged with broad criminal offenses such as “knowingly disseminating false information” and “incitement to hostility”, which can be widely used and interpreted to stifle legitimate freedom of expression.
“Given the shocking scale of the loss of life and widespread human rights violations reported in the context of the January 2022 protests, it is of the utmost importance that these events receive a thorough, impartial and effective investigation and that all those responsible for the violations are held accountable. The Kazakh authorities should seek cooperation with the international community to this end and welcome the efforts of human rights groups to document and guarantee the justice for the violations,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR).
An information blockade also ensued during the January events, with a nationwide internet blackout for several days and authorities obstructing journalists covering the crisis. Several internet resources have been blocked because authorities alleged they contained false information about the protests. Several journalists from independent media have been summoned for questioning about their work during the protests, and at least one journalist is facing a criminal investigation in relation to the January events.
Authorities also targeted opposition movements, including the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and the Koshe (street) Party, as well as the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan and other groups. People affiliated with these movements have reportedly been detained, interrogated and prosecuted for their peaceful participation in the protests, with several claiming to have been ill-treated in detention.
“The Kazakh authorities must refrain from using the events of January 2022 as a pretext to repress civil society activists, human rights defenders, opposition supporters and independent journalists who criticize the authorities , denounce injustice and repression and call for democracy and social policies. change in the country. They must immediately drop all criminal charges against these actors in retaliation for the legitimate exercise of their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association and end the intimidation and harassment against them,” said Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Director of the International Human Rights Bureau of Kazakhstan. Rights and Rule of Law (IPHR).
Kazakhstan is currently classified as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 43 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically assigned to countries where civic space is strongly contested by those in power, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see full description of ratings).
IPHR and KIBHR cooperate with the CIVICUS Monitor on preparing regular updates on civic space developments in Kazakhstan.