Kazakhstan: Free civil rights defender Asya Tulesova

Asya Tulesova. Photo by Timur Nussimbekov/Adamdar.ca (https://adamdar.ca/)

Environmental and civic rights defender Asya Tulesova is currently in pre-trial detention facing criminal charges for taking part in a peaceful protest in the city of Almaty on 6 June. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR)  support the call of over 160 Kazakhstani human rights NGOs and defenders for her to be released from detention and for the criminal charges against her to be dropped.

Asya Tulesova, a well-known environmental and civic rights defender, was forcefully detained by police officers when taking part in a peaceful protest around several causes including against land sales to foreign citizens and credit amnesties in the city of Almaty on 6 June 2020. More than fifty other protesters were also rounded up by police. Asya was held for several hours in Medeu District Police Department during which time she was not allowed to contact her relatives or lawyers. She was released, but detained again later that same day without any explanation, and held for several hours before being released again in the evening.

Two days later, on 8 June, Asya was detained again  – this time as a suspect in a criminal case opened against her for knocking  the hat off a police officer as police officers were detaining protestors including elderly persons in a rather brutal manner during the 6 June protest , an incident that was captured on video. She has been charged with “non-dangerous infliction of harm to a representative of the authorities” (under article 380, part 1 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code). This offence is punishable by a fine of up to 8334000 Tenge (the equivalent of 18,000 EUR) or up to three years’ imprisonment. Since 8 June, Asya has been held in pre-trial detention.

On 9 June, 169 Kazakhstani human rights defenders and organisations published an open letter to President  Tokayev in support of Asya, calling for an end to police impunity for using excessive force and violence against peaceful protesters, and detentions of citizens exercising their right to freely and peacefully assemble. The signatories to the letter stressed that the criminal charges and detention measures taken against Asya were not commensurate with the misdemeanor she committed when knocking the hat off the police office, as police were forcefully detaining other protestors including elderly persons. The letter also states that crimes under article 380 are classed as of moderate seriousness and do not require a suspect to be detained in pre-trial detention, especially as in Asya’s case there was no risk of her attempting to escape judicial proceedings.

Asya has previously been targeted by police when peacefully protesting. In particular, on 21 April 2019 she  was detained together with  several other activists, as they held and filmed a peaceful protest at the start of the Almaty Marathon, holding up a banner saying: “You cannot run away from the truth”, with the hashtags #ForFairElections and #IHaveAChoice. This was a play on words designed to attract attention to the upcoming presidential elections a few weeks later. After a court decision, Asya was held for 15 days in administrative detention for the protest.

In addition to taking part in peaceful protests, Asya has also been involved in environmental activism, co-developing Almaty’s first urban air quality measuring project “AUA / Almaty Urban Air”, and worked on other social projects.

The right to peaceful assembly continues to be restricted in Kazakhstan. At present citizens must seek permission from the authorities to hold a demonstration – a request which is usually denied. This means that most peaceful demonstrations carried out in Kazakhstan are ‘unsanctioned’, as they have not been allowed by the authorities. Such ‘unsanctioned’ demonstrations are usually dispersed by the police, and protesters are often administratively charged and face up to 15 days of imprisonment, or varying fines. Despite promised changes, a new law signed into law by the president in late May 2020 continues to seriously restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan.

We are concerned that the charges against Asya Tulesova are not commensurate with the incident in which she was involved and fear that she is at risk of harassment and ill-treatment in detention in retaliation for her civic activism. We call for the charges against her to be dropped and for her to be released. We also urge the Kazakhstani authorities to cease harassing Asya Tulesova and to refrain from unduly restricting her right to freedom of assembly and other fundamental rights and ensure her security and safety.