Skip to main content

The presidential election scheduled for December 4, 2005 will be an important test of Kazakhstan’s commitment to democracy, and a factor in determining your country’s place in the community of rights-respecting nations and in international bodies like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Human Rights Watch values its dialogue with the government of Kazakhstan on critical issues relating to human rights and the need to initiate reforms. We would like to express our strong concern over moves by your government to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Kazakhstan, and to offer concrete recommendations for improving human rights in advance of the upcoming election.

Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of your government’s continuing harassment of the political opposition and violations of the right to freedom of assembly, legal restrictions and other repressive measures against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and a crackdown on independent media. The issues of concern are set out below. It is essential that your government immediately undertake remedial actions to promote conditions for a free and fair vote.

Harassment of Political Opposition

Attacks on the ZSK
On August 3, 2005, the opposition movement For a Just Kazakhstan (ZSK) was finally registered, after having had its application rejected on two previous occasions. The registration was a positive step.

Leading ZSK figure Zharmahan Tuyakbai, now a presidential candidate, has been previously a target of politically-motivated physical attacks. On April 9, a brick thrown at Tuyakbai by unknown assailants during a meeting in eastern Kazakhstan injured his spokesman and a cameraman. On May 2, some fifty men stormed a meeting of opposition leaders in Shymkent, threatening to kill Tuyakbai “for Nazarbaev.” The men reportedly shouted slogans including “we don’t want another Bishkek,” in reference to the popular demonstrations that led to the ouster of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev in March. Tuyakbai managed to escape, but the attackers injured others, including an aide who shielded him.

Authorities announced that they would investigate what they characterized as a spontaneous attack. One suspect was arrested, tried, and convicted; he received probation. Opposition leaders argued that it was a planned provocation and accused the government of a cover up.

More recently, on the night of September 25, arsonists reportedly destroyed a ZSK campaign office in the town of Kostanai.

Persecution of the DVK
Among the several political factions comprising the ZSK movement are former members of the now-defunct Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party (DVK). The Kazakh government’s treatment of the DVK sets a discouraging precedent of intolerance for political opposition and free expression.

On February 9, 2005, the Almaty City Court upheld the Special Economic Court’s January 6 decision to shut down the DVK on the grounds that a statement by the party allegedly posed a threat to national security. The statement in question, issued by the DVK at its second party congress on December 11, 2004, said that the conduct of the parliamentary elections of September 2004 had “dashed the last hope for the possibility of political reform” in Kazakhstan. It stated that the DVK did not view the existing government of Kazakhstan—either its president or parliament—as legitimate and called on suitable segments of society to take decisive action, including civil disobedience, in protest.

As stated to you in earlier correspondence on this matter, as a nonpartisan organization, Human Rights Watch has no view on the content of the DVK statement. But we believe that the court rulings uncritically accepted the state’s argument equating the call for peaceful civil disobedience with specific acts interrupting the functioning of the state. There is no evidence that the DVK statement was in fact intended to cause or did cause any social disruption or illegal acts. We are also concerned that the government deliberately chose to seek liquidation of the party rather than less drastic administrative measures to halt the behavior it deemed unlawful.

The period during which the DVK’s appeal against the court’s decision was pending was marked by police harassment, violations of the right to free assembly, illegal detentions and mistreatment, and interference with the right to free expression. Consistent with past measures to limit the DVK’s right to assembly, local authorities denied it permission to hold a rally in Almaty on January 29 on the grounds that the rally would “violate public order.”

The DVK and two other opposition parties, Ak Zhol and the Communist Party, then opted to hold the demonstration outside the DVK headquarters. Police responded by warning schools not to let students participate in the rally and pressuring activists from other provinces to stay away from Almaty. Despite these attempts at interference, on January 29, a group of 2,000 to 5,000 people gathered to protest the dissolution of the DVK. After the meeting, the crowd began walking towards Astana Square in the city center. In response, police arrested seven DVK members, including party executive committee member Vladimir Kozlov, and charged them under section 2 of article 355 of the Administrative Code—for disobeying state representatives. Following proceedings that observers said were deeply flawed, five of the men were sentenced to administrative detention of from two to seven days, and the other two were fined.

The DVK also faced numerous obstructions in publishing its newsletter, Dauiis DVK (“Voice of the DVK”). Suppression of the newsletter apparently centered on an account of the January protest, published in the February 1 issue. On February 7, Sobirzhan Mukanov, deputy prosecutor of the city of Petropavlovsk, and Gennadiy Velzhanski, a city police officer, entered the local offices of the DVK without a warrant and confiscated 7,000 copies of Dauiis DVK. Mukanov claimed that the newsletter was “violating the law,” reportedly without specifying what offense had been committed.

We received confidential reports of another incident in which police detained an 18-year-old DVK worker at a provincial DVK office and kept him overnight in a freezing jail cell. The young man said that the police told him he should leave the DVK, and threatened to charge him with possession of extremist leaflets if he did not. When police released him the following day, the DVK worker returned to the office and found that the copying machine used to reproduce Dauiis DVK had been destroyed. The young worker also reported that police had threatened to kill him if he told his story, and he requested that we not make his name public.

On February 19, M. Tajigulov, the prosecutor of Kyzylorda province, opened an administrative case against Vladimir Kozlov because the February 1 issue of Dauiis DVK had featured, within the required information about the publication, the address of the local DVK office rather than the address of the printing house. Despite Kozlov’s explanation that the address reflected the location where the issue had been re-printed on a copy machine, the court decided to confiscate the issue and ordered Kozlov to pay a fine.

In an ongoing matter, as of this writing, the co-founder of the DVK and former chairman of its political council, Galymzhan Zhakianov, is serving the remainder of a seven-year term at the Shiderty settlement colony in Pavlodar province, having been transferred there from a general regime prison camp in August 2004. He was convicted in 2002 on charges of abuse of office, following a trial that international observers labeled as grossly flawed. He has reported that authorities opened new criminal cases against him when he refused to disavow his political affiliation and halt his political activities in exchange for his freedom. Human Rights Watch has previously expressed concern over his treatment while in detention. Zhakianov’s DVK colleagues and his wife have alleged that camp authorities denied him medical care and accused him falsely of violating camp rules, in order to limit his privileges. Both the ZSK and Ak Zhol have issued statements calling for him to be granted conditional release upon becoming eligible under Kazakh law (Zhakianov became eligible in early October).

On September 17, police raided an impromptu public exhibit in an Almaty market of photographs featuring Zhakianov. Officers confiscated the photographs and detained the organizers of the exhibit for questioning. The organizers were released a short time after, but police did not return the photographs.

Violations of the Right to Freedom of Assembly
Recent government violations of the right to free assembly also demand attention. New legal limitations imposed on public assembly threaten to undermine this right, which is particularly alarming in light of the upcoming election period.

Amendments to the country’s law on elections enacted on April 15, 2005 included a regulation banning demonstrations during the voting and result determination period. The amendment to section 6 of article 44 of the law on elections states that protests and rallies are prohibited from the last day of the pre-election campaign (i.e. from one day prior to the day when people go to the polls) until the state electoral commission publicly announces the official outcome of the election, which can be up to ten days after voting ends. Violation of the law regulating demonstrations during voting periods carries heavy administrative penalties, including a fine on individuals ranging from ten to fifteen times the minimum monthly wage. The new law places unnecessary and unreasonable restrictions on freedom of assembly. A potential effect of the law would be to eliminate the possibility for the opposition to organize public demonstrations in the event of an unfair vote. Such a measure appears specifically designed to prevent mass demonstrations such as took place following flawed elections in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

International opposition to the new law has been strong. Ambassador Christian Strohal, director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, objected to the new restrictions on freedom of assembly, saying, “This amendment is contrary to OSCE commitments, and such a prohibition obstructs fundamental rights that are characteristic of a genuinely democratic society.” He urged your government to send the law back to parliament or to the Constitutional Council for further evaluation. The international organization Freedom House echoed Strohal’s comments, saying that the new law “contradicts international standards of free assembly.”

The Kazakh government already has a poor record when it comes to respect for freedom of assembly. In one particularly serious incident, police and Special Forces (OMON) officers detained about eighty people on May 1 in Astana after they participated in an authorized public rally and pop concert supporting the presidential policy initiative “For Legal Kazakhstan 2030.” Several young people wearing orange scarves and carrying orange balloons given to them by the organizers of the concert were detained, threatened, and beaten by police as they left the stadium where the event had been held; police told the detainees that wearing orange was a problem because of its symbolic role in the political unrest in Ukraine. The organizers themselves were charged with holding an unsanctioned procession, despite the fact that the rally and concert were sanctioned by the local government administration in accordance with the law and that law enforcement representatives had themselves participated.

More recently, on September 18, OMON officers reportedly used excessive force when attempting to prevent nearly a thousand residents of the Shanirak neighborhood of Almaty from reaching the office of the akim (mayor). The protesters were marching peacefully to express their dissatisfaction with the poor state of housing in the neighborhood. Police beat marchers with clubs and detained several of them.

Human Rights Watch views these cases as representative of a serious deterioration of respect for the right to free assembly in Kazakhstan. We are concerned that your government is resorting to excessive and illegal methods to silence citizens who are peacefully expressing their views.

Legal Restrictions on NGOs
Human Rights Watch applauds the decision of the Constitutional Council to reject the broad limitations placed on NGOs in the proposed laws “On the Activities of Branches and Representative Offices of International or Foreign Non-Commercial Organizations” and “On the Introduction of Amendments and Additions into Certain Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Matters Related to Non-Profit Organizations.” These laws would have dealt a serious blow to civil society.

However, troubling amendments to the election law, enacted on April 15, and portions of the law on national security, enacted on July 8, have already come into force. These amendments have resulted in restrictions on the activities of international NGOs and inhibit their cooperation with domestic groups. Although the restrictions are couched in terms prohibiting direct support to particular candidates and political parties, their impact is likely to be much wider.

The law “On Amendments and Additions to the Constitutional Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan ‘On Elections in the Republic of Kazakhstan,’” signed on April 15, created new provisions regulating the actions of foreigners and foreign and international organizations. The amendment to section 1 of article 27 of the law on elections states that “...foreigners, stateless persons, foreign and international organizations shall be banned from activities which create obstacles for or assist in the promotion and election of candidates, political parties, lists of candidates from political parties, [and] achievement of certain results in the elections.” The new legislation builds on the restrictive language in section 3 to article 33 of the law on elections, which stipulates that “ financing or indirect participation in financing of the elections in the Republic by international organizations and international public associations, foreign organizations, foreign legal entities and citizens, or stateless persons shall be prohibited.”

The July 8 law “On Amendments and Additions to Several Legislative Acts on Issues of Ensuring National Security”sets harsh penalties for violations of this new law. The newly added article 102-3 of the Administrative Code envisions punishment for “…engagement by foreigners, stateless persons, foreign legal entities and international organizations in activities to promote [the] nomination and election of candidates, political parties by party list, and securing required election results” by a fine of twenty to thirty times the minimum monthly wage and possible deportation from Kazakhstan, in the case of individuals. Other legal entities are to be fined four hundred to one thousand times the monthly minimum wage.

Human Rights Watch is seriously concerned that such legislation could be used to interfere with democracy-building programs and fair election initiatives such as seminars on political organizing or voter registration, and international or internationally-assisted election observation. We were troubled also by your statements on September 12, 2005 warning NGOs that the government would “closely watch” them to ensure that international groups did not “mix themselves up in the political life” of Kazakhstan.

Harassment of Civil Society Groups
The government has taken aggressive measures against civil society groups during the past several months. Since March, at least thirty-three NGOs have been subjected to investigation by officials from the public prosecutor’s office and the tax police on allegations that they passed Western aid money to political opposition parties.

During the course of this government campaign, foreign-based and international organizations such as the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), the Eurasia Foundation, the World Health Organization (WHO), Internews, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the United States (U.S.) Red Cross Society have been subjected to audits of their financial records going back many years. Domestic NGOs subjected to similar examinations included the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) and the Adil Soz Freedom of Speech Defense Fund. Several organizations, including KIBHR and IWPR, were found to owe back taxes; none were given copies of the findings made by the public prosecutor’s office.

Procuracy officials have said that the spate of inspections of NGOs was sparked by a complaint issued by parliamentarian Erasyl Abylkasymov that Kazakhstan risked facing an upheaval similar to those that took place recently in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia. NGO leaders assess that the government’s aim has been to intimidate NGOs in order to consolidate state power.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that these investigations may be politically-motivated attempts to intimidate and silence NGOs in retaliation for their criticism of government policy and actions. This campaign also appears to be an effort to smear civil society groups by portraying them as politicized or as proxies of Western donor organizations. We are particularly concerned that this climate of government harassment of civil society could intensify as the presidential election nears.

Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law
Government persecution of the country’s leading human rights group has been particularly intense. On March 3, Kazakhstan’s ombudsman Bolot Baikadamov accused the KIBHR of publishing biased information and distorting the situation in Kazakhstan in its reports on human rights developments. The ombudsman reportedly communicated these accusations to you directly, and they were subsequently made public in the national media.

More recently, during the night of August 14, unknown persons broke into the offices of the KIBHR. The organization’s staff believes that the theft of computer equipment was not simply a burglary perpetrated by common criminals, as other expensive equipment was left in place. Moreover, the fact that the perpetrators searched through the Bureau’s papers suggests that the burglary may have been a politically-motivated attempt at intimidating the organization.

Soros Foundation Kazakhstan
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the government’s recent investigation and harassment of the Soros Foundation Kazakhstan. The actions came in apparent retaliation for the perceived role that the Soros Foundations in Ukraine and Georgia played in assisting civil society groups that were active in promoting change in those countries. In December 2004, the Kazakh government filed charges of criminal tax evasion against the Soros Foundation Kazakhstan. The financial police alleged that the organization owed back taxes amounting to more than 81 million tenge (approx. U.S.$623,000). The organization decried the action as politically motivated.

Youth Organizations
Human Rights Watch is also concerned that your government has taken specific measures to discourage youth activism. Two organizations, the Society of Young Professionals of Kazakhstan (OMPK) and Kahar (“Protest”), were denied registration, making them illegal entities prohibited from holding demonstrations or fielding candidates for public office. Authorities claimed that registering the OMPK would violate the constitutional prohibition against organizations “directed towards the violent overthrow of the constitutional system.” Advocates from within the group and throughout the NGO community dismiss this characterization as spurious. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the government’s apparent resistance to such youth groups is a further reaction to the perceived role of young people in the recent political upheavals in other states of the former Soviet Union.

Fifty police officers and security personnel broke up a peaceful demonstration (involving releasing balloons) sponsored by Kahar on April 12. Alikhan Bektasov, the former chief of the Almaty city police department’s section on NGOs, told the Deutsche Welle news service that the authorities had acted to prevent a “Kyrgyz scenario.”

Crackdown on Independent Media
The organization Reporters without Borders reports that, with virtually all broadcast media in Kazakhstan owned by companies closely associated with the government, newspapers have been the principal source of alternative information. As of this letter’s writing, new and drastic measures were being taken against Kazakhstan’s independent media. On September 26, the Vremya (“Time”) printing house nullified, without explanation, its contracts with seven independent newspapers: Soz (“Voice”), Svoboda Slova (“Freedom of Speech”), Epokha (“Epoch”), Pravda Kazakhstana (“Truth of Kazakhstan”), (“”), Azat (“Liberation”), and Zhuma Tayms (“Friday Times”). Editors reported that other printing houses in the Almaty area refused to take on their publications. A week later, after the newspapers’ editors had gone on a hunger strike, the Daur publishing house agreed to publish five of the papers.

Legal Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
The new legislation on national security has put unreasonable limits on free expression in Kazakhstan. Amendments to the law “On Mass Media,” included in the July 8 law “On Amendments and Additions to Several Legislative Acts on Issues of Ensuring National Security,” give the courts new powers to interfere with freedom of expression. The legislation contains what appears to be deliberately vague language that leaves it open to abuse for political purposes. Article13-4 states that media outlets can be shut down for “violat[ing] Kazakhstan’s integrity,” condoning “extremism,” and “undermining state security.” This provision could be used to bar coverage of the political opposition or to prevent journalists from exposing crimes committed by government members.

“Honor and Dignity” Litigation
Recently, large number of what appear to be politically-motivated government lawsuits, which accuse critical and independent media of insulting officials’ “honor and dignity,” have undermined the right to free expression in Kazakhstan. Indeed, the statutory basis for these actions is fundamentally incompatible with the international standard of freedom of expression, because it renders the media criminally or civilly liable even when it publishes statements that are factually true or that are clearly presented as editorial opinion. Of dozens of incidents of state antagonism toward critical media observed by Human Rights Watch during the past months, the following are some of the most troubling examples.

On May 5, 2005, the independent newspaper Respublika (“Republic”) was shut down by order of the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport. The paper’s attorney, Sergei Utkin, stated that the Ministry’s order was illegal since only a court can order the closure of a media outlet. The ministry claimed that it issued the order because the newspaper’s parent company, Bastau, had been liquidated by the Almaty City Economic Court in March following a lawsuit brought by the Kazakh government. The piece that sparked the legal action against Bastau was the January 20 publication of an interview given by Russian parliamentarian Vladimir Zhirinovsky on the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy (“Echo Moscow”), in which Zhirinovsky allegedly made disparaging remarks about the Kazakh state and people. The government’s lawsuit charged Respublika with “inciting national enmity” and insulting the honor and dignity of the Kazakh nation. The Ministry of Culture’s action forced the newspaper to cease publishing under the Respublika banner. Editors were forced to start a new newspaper (see below).

In a separate incident, in April, Kazakh authorities attempted to arrange for the extradition from Russia of Respublika’s editor-in-chief, Irina Petrusheva, on charges of tax evasion. Petrusheva is a Russian citizen who fled Kazakhstan in 2002 after receiving death threats presumed to be in retaliation for her newspaper’s critical reporting. Russian authorities briefly detained her, but prosecutors determined that the statute of limitations on the charges had expired and refused to comply with the extradition request.

Government harassment of the independent newspaper is longstanding. Respublika formerly published under the banner The Assandi Times, until that newspaper was forced to close when it lost a government lawsuit and went bankrupt in July 2004. The Presidential Administration sued The Assandi Times on charges of insult to the “honor and dignity” of senior government officials after the newspaper’s editors published a statement saying that they believed government officials had been involved in the publication of a fake edition of the newspaper distributed in June that discredited the political opposition.

Police acting on orders from the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport confiscated 1,000 copies of the successor to the Respublika newspaper, Set’Kz (“Kz Network”), on May 20, 2005. An hour after the incident, Interior Ministry officers delivered a copy of a letter from the Ministry of Culture to Set’Kz’s editorial board. The letter was addressed to the Vremya printing house, which prints the newspaper, and said that Set’Kz’s license had been revoked. The Ministry of Culture later claimed that Set’Kz could not be printed legally because it had violated the terms of its license by not publishing within six months of receiving its license. However, the editors were able to produce evidence that the first issue of Set’Kz had been printed on September 17, 2003—well within six months of being granted its license. According to the law, the timing of publication of subsequent issues is at the publisher’s discretion.

On August 25, 2005, the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan ruled that the Ministry of Culture, Information and Sport’s decision to revoke the license was legal, but ignored evidence presented by Set’Kz proving that it had printed within six months of receiving its license.

Publication of the independent newspaper Soz (“Voice”) was disrupted this year following a lawsuit by the National Security Committee (KNB) against the owner and publisher. The suit, widely regarded by media rights groups as politically motivated and aimed at shutting down the newspaper, centered on charges that the paper had insulted the KNB’s “honor and dignity” when it published allegations made at a press conference held by opposition political activists, who said they were under surveillance by the KNB during the 2004 parliamentary election campaign. The KNB won its suit for five million tenge (approx.U.S. $40,000) in damages. The owner’s and publisher’s bank accounts were frozen in February 2005 and they lost an appeal hearing in March.

On May 31, Soz announced that it had transferred the last installment of the five million tenge compensation to the KNB. Despite receiving the money awarded by the court, the KNB continued to pursue Soz. As part of the original suit, the court had effectively shut down the company that published the newspaper. At the request of the KNB, the court then nullified a new publishing agreement the paper had with another company. On the night of June 1-2, court officers seized all of the issues of Soz printed under another agreement, which had not been deemed invalid by the courts. The seizure was thus illegal and an additional incident in a pattern of harassment by the KNB that extended beyond legal proceedings. On June 10, the KNB finally withdrew its complaint in light of the payment of damages.

Zhuma Tayms Data Nedeli
The Zhuma Tayms Data Nedeli (“Friday Times – Week’s Data”) faces what appear to be politically-motivated criminal charges filed by the Almaty KNB on February 2. The paper is accused of insulting the “honor and dignity” of the president in the article “It is Time to Know Whom to Elect,” published in November 2004. The article, written in the form of a satiric pamphlet announcing presidential elections, included the sentence, “…our candidate [for the presidency] would be Notnursultan Notabishevich Notnazarbaev.”

Zhuma Tayms was previously published as SolDat (“Soldier”), which also was known for its criticism of the government and was the successor to Dat (“Period/Dot”), which was closed following a government “honor and dignity” suit in 1998. SolDat’s editor-in-chief, Yermurat Bapi, was convicted on tax evasion charges in 2003 and barred from practicing journalism for five years. The newspaper was subsequently closed down.

Internet Access
The Internet is an evolving and important source of independent news and information for many people in Kazakhstan. We are deeply disturbed by reports that access to websites critical of the government has been blocked. In May the independent web-based newspaper Navigator ( reported that its website had been blocked by Kaztelecom, a state-owned Internet provider. This appears to be part of a pattern of government interference with Internet publications. The U.S. State Department’s country report for 2004 noted that “… the Government periodically blocked clients of the two largest Internet providers, Kaztelecom and Nursat, from direct access to several opposition websites, including Evrazia, Navigator, and Kub, although access was still available through anonymous proxy servers.” Routine monitoring carried out by Navigator to determine the time it took to access independent websites indicates that bandwidth is limited or access is blocked altogether for these sites. Navigator’s August 16 report found that the websites Svobodnaya Azia and Evrazia were blocked even via proxy servers on the Kaztelecom service.

The organization Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported that the websites of political opposition figures and parties are also regularly blocked. For example, on January 7 RSF stated that authorities blocked the site of the Ak Zhol party after it posted an article criticizing the January 6 court decision liquidating the DVK party.

The Kazakh government’s policies are jeopardizing the democratic process in the country and trampling some of the fundamental rights necessary for a free and fair presidential election. This situation threatens to undermine the credibility of the Kazakh government both at home and abroad. Immediate changes are required to address these problems and bring Kazakhstan into line with its own Constitution and with international human rights standards. In advance of the December vote, we urge your government to:

  • End harassment of the political opposition;
  • Institute cooperation with international election experts to ensure that the election process is consistent with international standards for fair elections;
  • Permit peaceful demonstrations and gatherings;
  • Allow domestic and international NGOs to operate without fear of harassment or prosecution on spurious charges;
  • Reject policies that aim to impede international nongovernmental cooperation, and;
  • Cease using the courts and police to silence independent media, whether print, broadcast, or online. Work towards reforming Kazakhstan’s law on Mass Media to ensure that freedom of expression is safeguarded.
  • With the presidential election approaching, the international community is expecting your government to ensure that the political climate in Kazakhstan is conducive to a free and fair vote and guarantees fundamental rights of all citizens.

    Thank you for your attention to these pressing concerns.


    Holly Cartner
    Executive Director
    Europe and Central Asia division
    Human Rights Watch

    Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

    Region / Country

    Most Viewed