Human Rights Watch strongly supports OSCE efforts to monitor human rights observance in Kazakstan, and welcomes the strong statement of concern issued as a result of the November 16-20 ODIHR assessment mission to that country.
We write to you today to share a summary of findings of an ongoing field investigation which strongly suggests that the presidential elections in Kazakstan scheduled for January 10, 1999 represent a perversion of the democratic process. This vote, and the manipulation of candidate registration and campaigning which have preceded it, are not a sudden departure from a record of democratic reforms, as some have maintained, but are fully in keeping with the government of Kazakstan's seven-year record of subverting, canceling or postponing elections, dissolving parliament, and ruling by presidential decree. We wish to share here fresh documentation of Kazakstan's violations of its citizens' civil and political rights, and to suggest specific benchmarks for measurable, minimum progress in achieving urgently needed reform as the cooperation between the OSCE and Kazakstan, codified in the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding, develops.
The evidence summarized here points alarmingly to the government's blatant bad faith in its work with the OSCE and other bodies engaged in assisting it to enhance compliance with its international human rights commitments. Human Rights Watch is particularly distressed by the adoption of new laws and decrees intended to stifle the legal exercise of electoral rights, the continued intimidation of the print media and the unjustifiable restrictions on broadcast media, and violations of freedom of association, speech and political participation that hinder the development of civil society.
Restrictions on Freedom of the Press
Kazakstan violates its citizens' right to freely disseminate and receive information through the media in several ways, all of which have in common the hypocritical veil of legality obscuring what amounts to politically-inspired censorship. Direct and indirect censorship have intensified as elections have neared.
- In early 1997, the government of Kazakstan stripped the independent, privatelyowned broadcast media of their broadcasting rights, with the government directed re-sale of frequencies held by these firms. These sales violated a myriad of Kazakstan's laws, including the terms of the licenses granted to the thirty-seven companies in September, 1996, which provided rights to use those frequencies until April, 1998. In addition, the owners of the frequencies were not informed of the conditions or rules of sale, with the result that although many proffered the selling price named by the government, none were able to retain their channels. Interviews with participants and their counsel revealed that the Kazakstan courts repeatedly refused to consider the substance of the appeals they have lodged. The new owners of these frequencies, several of whom are related to, or have close ties to, President Nazarbayev, have considerably changed the content of the programs aired, replacing news and information with music and entertainment.
- In September, 1998, the government of Kazakstan began to exert various forms of pressure against an array of privately-owned newspapers with ties to former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. The most shocking instance concerned the paper XXI Vek, whose editorial offices were extensively damaged by a firebomb on September 26. Interviews with editors of several of these papers reveal striking similarities in all cases. First, printing presses broke contracts and unilaterally refused to continue printing several of the papers. Secondly, the state tax police began investigations against several papers, seizing their property and arresting bank accounts. Thirdly, Kazakstani customs agents began to seize print runs of several of the papers forced to print outside Kazakstan. A court-awarded libel settlement has halted publication of one of the papers (a higher court refused to address the substance of an appeal), while a frivolous suit against another for supposed infractions of the 1991 Law on the Press have temporarily halted its publication. According to several sources, state security personnel in civilian dress continue to harass distributors of one Almaty newspaper, 451 Gradusa po Farengeitu (Farenheit 451).
- Testimony from journalists confirms that editors of state-owned media outlets impose direct censorship, in particular to enforce the taboo on any criticism of the President or his policies. The politically-motivated dismissal of a popular provincial radio journalist followed on the heels of several of his programs being rejected by the station director, and warnings to alter critical programming.
In addition, the government of Kazakstan has seriously encroached on individuals' right to free speech, by subjecting political activist Petr Svoik to criminal charges for allegedly "inciting ethnic conflict." Svoik unequivocally denies the offense; a group of Kazakstan's leading intellectuals have written an open letter in his support. This charge, lodged against Svoik as he served a three-day administrative sentence for participation in an unregistered public association (see below), carries a possible sentence of seven years imprisonment, and has, as intended, thrown a pall over opposition efforts to criticize the conduct of elections.
Freedom of Association Violations
Though Kazakstan can boast a wealth of non-governmental organizations, evidence gathered from sources in several cities suggests that the government of Kazakstan has begun to limit its citizens' right to form public associations in connection with the upcoming elections.
- The government of Kazakstan has systematically denied official registration to several groups which formed for the express purpose of participating in election and campaign monitoring. On October 15 the leaders of one stillborn group, Za Chestnye Vybory (For Honest Elections) were fined and given administrative jail sentences for their roles in organizing the movement. In contrast, the Ministry of Justice registered within days an association with a similar mandate, but organized by figures within the government and those from groups which openly support Nazarbayev ("Public Committee for Monitoring of Presidential Elections in the Republic of Kazakstan").
- Authorities from several municipalities repeatedly denied permission for members of the group Pokolenie (Generation) to hold public demonstrations in September and October. Authorities arrested and fined participants of the group's unsanctioned meetings; participants testified to the use of excessive force and humiliation by the police.
Violations of the Right to Participate in Public Affairs
Human Rights Watch considers that the calling of presidential elections for January 10, 1999 violates Kazakstani law by altering the results of the 1995 referendum extending the president's term in office and setting elections for October, 2000. According to the Constitution of Kazakstan, only another referendum can overturn provisions adopted by referendum. The October 8 decision of parliament left only a limited time for potential candidates to surmount the considerable barriers to registration (including a fee equaling 1,000 times the minimum monthly wage, and the collection of signatures from 2% of the voting population), which in and of themselves constitute a serious limit on the right to stand for elections.
The government of Kazakstan engaged in a concerted effort to control the outcome of the vote, in the first place by eliminating certain potential candidates. Even more disturbingly, the machinery of the state has been deployed in support of the sitting president's candidacy. When viewed in light of the overwhelming concentration of power in the hands of the president (who controls appointments of local governors, judges and members of the Central Electoral Commission), these facts mitigate against any possibility of a truly contested election, and against the government's claims of compliance with its OSCE commitments.
- In May, 1998, parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Elections which disqualify any person with a standing conviction from the year prior to the vote from running for any public office. Courts cited this law as the grounds for denying former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, activists Mels Eleusizov and Asylbek Amantai, all of whom were convicted of administrative offenses (Kazhegeldin and Eleusizov for participating in the meeting of "For Honest Elections," see above), registration as candidates. Kazhegeldin has continued to organize political support among the opposition, for which several of his supporters have been harassed or assaulted.
- First-hand testimony from employees of state-run enterprises, schools, universities, and hospitals, and from students and traders in public markets, informs that the directors of these institutions participated in gathering signatures in support of President Nazarbayev's candidacy by instructing their subordinates to sign, often using explicit or implicit threats to coerce compliance. Sources also report conversations with public officials confirming explicit instructions from the central government, complete with target figures, on conducting the signature-gathering campaign. According to Kazakstani law, only registered members of a candidate's campaign staff may gather signatures.
- Though election officials are forbidden from officially supporting one or another candidate, the chairwoman of one local electoral commission announced publicly her intention of campaigning for Nazarbayev.
- Supporters of Communist Party candidate Serikbolsyn Abdildin relate that party members sitting on local election commissions have been dismissed, and that municipal authorities have denied permission to use local meeting halls. First-hand accounts suggest harassment of Communist Party activists by local police.
The complex of intimidation, prejudicial laws and administrative practice excludes any possibility of free and fair elections. Recognizing this, the OSCE has called for the postponement of elections so that conditions for a truly participatory process can be met. With the understanding that the government of Kazakstan has no intention of postponing the vote, the OSCE has decided to send only a limited assessment mission. However, the Kazak press has distorted this fact, reporting that the OSCE will send a limited quantity of election observers. Therefore, Human Rights Watch calls on the OSCE to:
1. Send a clear and unambiguous message to the government of Kazakstan of the unacceptability of the practices outlined above, by refusing any participation in or observation of the Kazak presidential vote by delegations of any size or composition whatsoever.
2. Review terms of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with Kazakstan recently, postponing the establishment of the planned OSCE Almaty field office until basic preconditions for free and fair parliamentary elections, scheduled for October, 1999, have been met.
- Firstly, Kazakstan's legislature should repeal amendments to article 4(4) to the "Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakstan, with the force of constitutional law, ‘on elections in the Republic of Kazakstan,'" from May 8, 1998, which disqualify persons who have been subject to administrative penalties (fines or prison terms) for violations of the law during the year preceding the elections, and those with convictions resulting in sentences which have not been served by the date of registration, from standing in any national or local elections.
- Secondly, article 188(2) outlawing participation in any unregistered social organization should be struck from the Kazak administrative code, and the convictions of all those persons charged with this offense should be overturned.
- Thirdly, the Kazak Ministry of Justice must expeditiously register any independent citizens' organizations formed to monitor the election process, removing the differential barriers to registration for those groups presumed to be in support of the current government, and those presumed to be in opposition.
- Fourthly, the Main Procuracy should initiate an investigation into reported violations of the Law on Elections, and ensure that election officials found guilty of overt or covert support for any candidate will be removed from electoral commissions.
The upcoming elections in Kazakstan, marred as they are by violations of national and international law, can provide an opportunity for the international community to show its unequivocal disdain for the deterioration of civil and political freedoms in that country. Human Rights Watch urges the OSCE to continue its principled stance against Kazakstan's mounting record of anti-democratic steps, and to consider incorporating the above recommendations into its own proposed benchmarks for progress.
Executive Director/Europe and Central Asia Division