Kazakhstan: Civil society groups put hope in UN body to highlight human rights violations and set benchmarks for progress

Geneva, Brussels, The Hague, Almaty 12 July 2011. A UN review of Kazakhstan this week should address problematic practices that stifle dissent and limit fundamental freedoms in this country, three human rights groups said today. Among such practices are the use of libel charges and defamation suits to intimidate outspoken journalists, mass detentions of participants in unsanctioned protest meetings and raids and fines targeting religious groups that worship without state registration. In a briefing paper prepared for the review, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, International Partnership for Human Rights and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee document these and other abuses that merit close scrutiny.

The UN Human Rights Committee, an independent expert body that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), will review Kazakhstan’s record under this treaty during its session in Geneva on 14-15 July. It’s the first time that Kazakhstan will be reviewed under the treaty since ratifying it in 2006.

“The government of Kazakhstan argued that the decision to grant it the OSCE chairmanship for 2010 amounted to an ‘objective recognition’ of its far-reaching achievements with respect to democracy and human rights,” said Harry Hummel, Executive Director of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee. “The Human Rights Committee now has the opportunity to set the record straight and highlight serious human rights violations that continue to take place in the country.”

The 16-page briefing paper  compiled by the Human Rights Bureau, International Partnership for Human Rights and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee surveys the implementation in Kazakhstan of three rights protected by the ICCPR: freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of religion. Based on a review of relevant legislation, as well as information reported by the Human Rights Bureau and other NGOs, the briefing paper outlines major concerns and makes recommendations for steps that the authorities of Kazakhstan should be urged to take to improve the current situation.

“Intimidation and harassment of journalists and media who report critically on those in power, crackdowns on participants in peaceful anti-government protests and persecution of religious minorities are key concerns to which the Human Rights Committee should pay particular attention,” said Roza Akylbekova, Acting Director of the Human Rights Bureau. “It should insist on the need for effective and comprehensive measures to address these problems.”

In the area of freedom of expression, the briefing paper draws attention to the following issues:

  • Media face harsh sanctions for “offenses” of a merely technical character. For example, media that fail to notify authorities when changing address or distribution area or neglect to provide authorities with free copies of their editions may be suspended or terminated;
  • The fact that insult and slander remain criminalized, with special protection afforded to the president and other public officials, has a chilling effect on freedom of speech;
  • Civil defamation suits often take aim at critical media reports and result in excessively high moral damages. In a total of 85 defamation suits brought against media and journalists in 2010, claims for moral damages exceeded 13 million EUR;
  • Journalists remain vulnerable to threats and physical attacks;
  • Ramazan Yesergepov, chief editor of an independent weekly, is currently in prison after being convicted of “disclosing state secrets” when publishing information on a tax evasion case.

As regards freedom of assembly, the briefing paper points out that:

  • Advance permission is required for any kind of public gathering and local authorities enjoy wide discretion to restrict or prohibit the conduct of assemblies;
  • In most cases, groups that are critical of the authorities are denied permission to organize assemblies. If granted permission, they are typically only allowed to assemble in specifically designated areas located on the outskirts of cities;
  • Because of restrictive legislation and practices, about 80% of all assemblies held in 2009-2010 were unsanctioned;
  • Heavy police presence and mass detentions frequently characterize law enforcement responses to unsanctioned assemblies staged by groups protesting current policies;
  • People who organize, participate in, observe or even just happen to be at the place of peaceful but unsanctioned protests risk being warned, fined and sentenced to administrative arrest for up to 15 days. Trials in these cases are frequently held in the absence of a lawyer

With respect to freedom of religion, the briefing paper stresses that:

  • While the government of Kazakhstan champions itself as a leader in promoting religious tolerance, religious minorities that are considered “non-traditional” (such as Protestant, Jehovah’s Witnesses and independent Muslim communities) are subject to hostility and harassment;
  • Religious groups are required to register with authorities in order to operate legally. Those that experience difficulties in registering or refuse on principle to register may be fined and suspended for carrying out worship, prayer meetings and other basic religious activities;
  • Foreign members of “non-traditional” groups have been deported for carrying out missionary activities without registration;
  • Arguments by the Kazakh government that restrictions on freedom of religion are necessary because of the threat of religious extremism are untenable and inconsistent with the Kazakh Constitution and the ICCPR.

The Human Rights Bureau, International Partnership for Human Rights and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee expressed hope that the concerns and recommendations included in their briefing paper will be reflected in the Human Rights Committee’s review. They also called on the international community to closely follow the process and its outcome.

“Kazakhstan’s international partners should use the review to step up efforts to press for human rights change in this country,” said Brigitte Dufour, Director of International Partnership for Human Rights. “The committee’s recommendations for measures that are needed to remedy existing violations will provide an important means of leverage.”

Donwload the full text of the briefing paper.
Read the Russian version of the document.

For more information:
Roza Akylbekova, Acting Director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (“Human Rights Bureau”) (Russian, Kazakh), tel.: +7 701 713 6509
Brigitte Dufour, Director of International Partnership for Human Rights (English, French), tel.: +32 473 36 38 91
Harry Hummel, Director of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (English, Dutch), tel.: +31 70 392 6700