(New York, December 1, 2008) - The Kazakh government should make meaningful human rights reforms before it takes over the chairmanship of a major regional organization, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Kazakhstan's human rights record is inconsistent with standards embraced by the regional group, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and so its chairmanship, which will start in 2010, risks undermining the integrity of the institution's human rights principles.
The 55-page report, "An Atmosphere of Quiet Repression: Freedom of Religion, Expression and Assembly in Kazakhstan," is being released before the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting on December 4 and 5 in Helsinki. In the report, Human Rights Watch documents Kazakhstan's extensive restrictions on freedom of religion, expression, and assembly, which are inconsistent with its international obligations on human rights.
"Kazakhstan has no time to lose in making necessary rights improvements," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Before it becomes chair of the OSCE in 2010, it should show its people and the world it is serious about reform."
The OSCE agreed a year ago to give Kazakhstan the chairmanship in 2010, which will make it the first post-Soviet country to be named to lead the organization. Ensuring that participating states respect human rights is a core function of the OSCE.
When the OSCE made the decision about the 2010 chairmanship, the Kazakh government pledged, among other things, to reform a number of restrictive laws pertaining to elections and the media. On November 11, the Kazakh government sent draft amendments to Parliament, but these appear to consist of relatively minor changes. The text of the draft laws have not yet been made public, but the government summarized them in an announcement on November 11.
"The new draft amendments are a small step forward, but do little to address core problems and offer no path to real change," said Denber. "Moreover, Kazakhstan's human rights record is weak in other areas that need meaningful reform."
The Human Rights Watch report details how minority religious groups have been variously categorized as "sects" or "non-traditional" and have come under increased scrutiny and pressure from the authorities. Groups such as Krishna Consciousness, minority Muslim groups, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others face hostility from the media. In some localities, several of these groups have faced obstacles to registering, which is required for them to legally operate, and they have been the targets of police raids, inspections, and government challenges to their claims on their land and property. A crackdown on missionaries - who must also register and have local authorities approve their religious literature - has resulted in a number of deportations from the country.
On November 26, the Kazakh Parliament adopted amendments to the religion law, although the day before, an expert team from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights agreed with the Justice Ministry to prepare a second review of the draft amendments.
While Human Rights Watch has not had the opportunity to review the adopted amendments, the latest draft sent to the Senate proposed further controls that would violate freedom of religion - for example, by excessively regulating missionary activity and imposing draconian restrictions on the distribution of religious materials.
Journalists operate in an environment of anxiety, facing intimidating lawsuits and, not infrequently, personal threats. Libel continues to be a criminal offense, and journalists speak of the tightly regulated environment and say privately that there are topics they do not dare cover. Threatening phone calls, visits by the police, and successive lawsuits are common. All radio and television stations are de facto controlled by the government or its allies, and websites critical of the government are often blocked by the authorities.
The government's November 11 draft amendments to the media law do not address these problems. The draft would, among other things, abolish the registration requirement for television and radio media - which at any rate need to obtain a broadcasting license from the government. While welcome, this change does nothing to liberalize the registration for other forms of media. Libel remains a criminal offense.
Public assembly is very tightly controlled, and any politically motivated public meeting is likely to be denied a permit or broken up by police, or both. Human Rights Watch was told by civic groups in each city it visited that they were not allowed to protest or even gather in the city center, but instead are sent to designated areas for public gatherings, far from city centers and difficult to access by public transportation. Official demonstrations, on the other hand, are permitted in the city center.
"While Kazakhstan does not have frequent or dramatic crackdowns, the repression is unmistakable and effective," Denber said. "The OSCE should use the meeting of the Ministerial Council in Helsinki as an opportunity to hold Kazakhstan to account and have it promote the organization's principles in leading by example."
Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Kazakhstan to carry out quickly and consistently the human rights reforms that it has promised the OSCE it will make and that are required of it as an OSCE member. In particular, the government should:
- Revise the draft religion law to bring it into conformity with the Kazakh constitution and international human rights standards;
- Make public a review of the draft religion law by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights;
- Place a moratorium on criminal libel cases and review the relevant articles in the Criminal Code with a view toward abolishing criminal libel, and establish a cap on defamation awards; and
- Abolish legal provisions that permit unnecessary restrictions on locations where demonstrations can take place.
Human Rights Watch also urged the OSCE participating states to prevail upon Kazakhstan to carry out the needed reforms.