Kazakhstan: exhibition in support of “Bloody January” torture victims

On 26 June – the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture –  Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR), the Kazakhstani Coalition against Torture and International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) organised a photo exhibition in Almaty at the “Art Lane Café” to demonstrate solidarity with the victims of torture during the “Bloody January 2022” protests in Kazakhstan.

The event, which was attended by many torture victims, human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and representatives of the international community, was part of a broader ongoing campaign calling for an effective independent investigation into the January 2022 events with the participation of international and national civil society experts. The campaign has featured stories by torture victims published by the analytical online journal ‘Vlast’ and on KIBHR’s and IPHR’s social media channels, as well as several media articles (such as the following one published by IPHR in Vlast on 26 June 2023).

In her welcoming remarks at the Almaty event, Roza Akylbekova – Coordinator of the Kazakhstani NGO Coalition against Torture and Deputy Director of KIBHR – noted that 29 June marks the 25th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s accession to the UN Convention against Torture. And yet,  torture remains a common practice in Kazakhstan, and the January events (known as “Kantar“ in Kazakh) are a particularly clear example of this. Akylbekova referred to the fact that the Human Rights Alliance for Fundamental Rights, when interviewing 62 people detained in relation to the January 2022 events or their lawyers, found that 71 percent had been tortured.

Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of KIBHR, stressed that only political will is needed in order to abolish torture quickly: h political will : “But Kazakhstani officials demonstrate their interest in this only in international UN fora, and forget about their promises as soon as the plane touches down at Astana airport. I am sorry to say that for thirty years we have been saying the same thing, for thirty years we have been trying to prove that torture is evil and the worst thing is that it destroys trust and faith. Moreover, it  destroys the principle of the rule of law. It’s a pity that it’s taken thirty years, but on the other hand this stone is shifting a little” the KIBHR director ended his short speech on a cautiously optimistic note.

Rachel Gasowski, Director of the Central Asia Programme at IPHR, stated that a year and a half after the events of Bloody January, the government of Kazakhstan has failed to acknowledge that systematic human rights violations took place in January 2022 and that no effective and transparent investigation has been carried out, nor adequate compensation provided to the victims and their families. Only one or two per cent of complaints of torture have reached the courts. She expressed solidarity with the victims of torture and their relatives.

At the same time, victims of torture during the January events remember the nightmare as if it were yesterday, and the state’s reluctance to investigate torture cases will prevent them from moving on and forgetting their experiences.

Sayat Adilbekuly, a young photographer from Almaty, was dragged along with Yermek Abdrashev from the 7th city hospital in Almaty on a January day and thrown into a van together with other wounded people, transferred to a pre-trial detention center where both were severely tortured. Abdrashev, who had partially lost his sight after a sniper bullet hit his optic nerve, could still see light and dark, but after security officials beat him over the head he was left completely blind.

If he [Yermek] had immediately had an operation on his eye, he might not be walking with a cane now,” says Adilbekuly.

Sayat Adilbekuly, who has changed his attitude toward the government since the events of January 2022 is convinced that : “We need a complete reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the State Security Committee (KNB) and all state structures.”

In addition, he spoke of  the utter indifference on the part of the prosecutors and doctors who visited the wounded in the detention centre: the prosecutors present observed torture but failed to intervene,  and the medical stuff paid no attention to injuries sustained through torture. When the trials to decide on measures of restraint began, none of the state lawyers Adilbekuly  had heard of  filed torture complaints.

Other victims also spoke out at the event  – most of whom had been interviewed for the joint report “We are not even crying anymore” – torture, ill-treatment and impunity in Kazakhstan in connection with the “Bloody January” events, published earlier this year  by   the Kazakhstani NGO Coalition against Torture, KIBHR, IPHR and OMCT – and stated unanimously that to date there had been was no progress in the investigations into their complaints about torture – that the authorities had just gone back to their daily business and pretended that everything has been forgotten. All shared disbelief that the state is capable of investigating and punishing its own representatives, and that it is unlikely that any reforms will help as long as the system remains unchanged.

Neither Sayat Adilbekuly nor Yermek Abdrashev have managed to achieve justice. Although the charges were dropped against both of them, and the Almaty prosecutor’s office apologized to Abdrashev  in June, the state has not provided any compensation to cover his treatment, although there is a chance of restoring his eyesight.

As Adilbekuly stressed when we met him in April in Almaty, accountability is key to effectively combatting torture and ill-treatment in Kazakhstan: 

“Those who tortured and ill-treated people must finally be held accountable. That’s why I would like to see an international investigation into the January events!”

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For a more detailed report from the Almaty event in Russian, as well as more photos from the event, see the following article on KIBHR’s website.