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(New York) - President Barack Obama should use the upcoming visit by his Kazakh counterpart to raise concern about Kazakhstan's disappointing human rights record and to press for immediate improvements, Human Rights Watch said today. President Nursultan Nazarbaev will be in Washington, DC for the Nuclear Security Summit on April 12 and 13, 2010, and is scheduled to meet with President Obama on April 12.

As the chair-in-office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for 2010, Kazakhstan has a particular obligation to promote and respect human rights, Human Rights Watch said. While Kazakhstan promised human rights reforms in anticipation of the chairmanship, and has produced a plan, the start of its chairmanship has been characterized by inaction on reforms. It maintains restrictive legislation on freedom of assembly, the media, and the internet, and at times blocks a number of websites and weblogs. It refuses to register the main opposition party Alga!, and it has turned down appeals to reopen a case against the country's leading human rights defender, Evgenii Zhovtis, who is in prison following an unfair trial.

"President Obama should make clear that the United States expects meaningful reforms in Kazakhstan," said Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The meeting is a crucial opportunity to send a strong signal to Kazakhstan's leadership that it should finally improve its human rights performance."  

For example, President Obama should make clear that he will only support an OSCE summit meeting that Khazakhstan wants to hold during its tenure if credible reforms are forthcoming, Human Rights Watch said.

Nazarbaev's visit to the United States coincides with the end of the first 100 days of Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship, a role many had hoped would help trigger human rights reforms in the country. Instead, the period has been marked by stagnation and, in some areas, a number of setbacks, Human Rights Watch said.

"If this meeting doesn't result in rapid progress on rights reforms, including Zhovtis's release, it will harm US credibility as it pursues its relationship with Kazakhstan," Berg said.

Human Rights Watch noted that the US took a principled stand on Kazakhstan's chairmanship bid, highlighting concern about its human rights record as falling short of the standards expected of a prospective chair, but ultimately refrained from blocking the appointment. In the two years since Kazakhstan was formally approved to hold the position this year, the United States has on numerous occasions raised concerns regarding human rights setbacks in Kazakhstan and called on the Kazakh government to undertake reforms.

"We count on President Obama to maintain a principled US position on the pressing need for rights reforms in Kazakhstan," Berg said. "He should urge the Kazakh leader to demonstrate a genuine commitment to human rights and carry out the necessary reforms without further delay."

Chronology of the first 100 days of the Kazakh OSCE chairmanship

Kazakhstan's poor human rights record made the country's effort to hold the OSCE chairmanship controversial. When it was granted the chairmanship for 2010 in late 2007, the foreign minister at that time, Marat Tazhin, promised reforms in election, media, and local government laws. While some positive steps were taken in early 2009, they were cosmetic and did not fundamentally improve the human rights situation.

The Kazakh government contends, though, that it was awarded the chairmanship in recognition for its successful reforms. For example, in his first speech at the OSCE Permanent Council, Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabaev called the decision an "objective recognition by the international community of the impressive achievements of Kazakhstan and President Nursultan Nazarbaev." The government has also repeatedly responded to calls for change by independent human groups in Kazakhstan by referring to the international community's "approval" of its human rights record.

The first 100 days of Kazakhstan's chairmanship have, in fact, produced disappointing human rights developments in Kazakhstan. Since January 1- when Kazakhstan assumed the OSCE chairmanship - the government has taken no steps to address human rights concerns about media freedom or certain other areas highlighted by its international partners and human rights groups.

It maintains restrictive amendments to media and internet laws and at times blocks a number of websites and weblogs. It maintains restrictive legislation on freedom of assembly. It refuses to register the main opposition party Alga! and it has turned down appeals to reopen the case against Zhovtis, even though his trial and appeal were unfair and violated international standards.

These developments do not bode well for the implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan 2009-2012 (NAP), which the government put forward in May 2009. The plan strives to strengthen human rights protection, and calls for reforms in freedom of expression and assembly, and the like. The government has used the plan to counter criticisms about stalled reforms and concerns about the human rights situation expressed by its international partners during these first 100 days. But so far, while the government said it has implemented some aspects of the plan on gender equality, domestic violence, health care, and criminal justice reform, the plan has had no impact on other core rights issues. Also, while the plan was signed by the president, it is a declaration of intent rather than a firm work plan or legally binding document.

Leadup to 2010

On the eve of Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship, on December 8, 2009, President Nazarbaev signed a law called, "On Amendments and Additions to Some Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan Concerning Protection of the Rights of Citizens to Privacy." The law sets out a five-year prison term for publishing information about individuals' private lives, with no waiver for public-interest issues. The law was criticized by local and international groups, including the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

For at least the past 18 months, the government has sought to regulate the internet and internet content more closely. On July 10, 2009, Nazarbaev signed a package of amendments to laws dealing with the media and the internet, under which all forms of internet content - including Web sites worldwide, blogs, and chatrooms - could potentially be considered "internet resources" and therefore subject to existing restrictive laws on expression. The law also expands the grounds for banning certain media content relating to elections, strikes, and public assemblies, using broad wording that could give rise to arbitrary interpretation. Kazakhstan's international partners expressed strong concern about the law and its spirit.


On January 14, in a video address to the first OSCE Permanent Council under the Kazakh chairmanship in Vienna, President Nazarbaev said that Kazakhstan is "firmly committed to the fundamental principles and values of the OSCE." He underlined that building a democratic society has been "a conscious choice" for Kazakhstan and that the government "will pursue further political liberalization." 

On January 27, the Kazakh movement "For a Free Internet" stated that the authorities had blocked more than a dozen websites, including the popular Russian-language blogging platform Livejournal. The internet - and blogs in particular -  play an important role in the exchange of information in Kazakhstan because although the country has 2,500 media outlets, the government can control most mainstream outlets through a variety of direct and indirect means.

On January 28, the defense team for Zhovtis, founding director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan requesting a review of the case against him, arguing that it did not comply with national law and international standards.

Zhovtis had been found guilty of manslaughter on September 3, 2009, following a motor vehicle accident in which a young man was killed. The investigation and trial leading to his conviction were marred by serious procedural flaws that denied him the right to present an effective defense and gave rise to concern that this human tragedy may have been politically exploited.

Zhovtis was sentenced to four years in a colony-settlement, Ust-Kammenogorsk, a penal establishment allowing more freedoms than an ordinary prison, for example the right to work and settle outside the colony, subject to the discretion of its director. The director, however, chose not to allow Zhovtis to live or work outside, and instead offered him low-paying work in the colony that does not correspond to his qualifications as a lawyer. According to a complaint Zhovtis filed to the prosecutor general of Kazakhstan, the administration issued Zhovtis disciplinary warnings after he refused to sign contracts for this work. To avoid further harassment and warnings, Zhovtis signed a work arrangement with the settlement colony's knitting factory in January. 

On January 28, Ramazan Yesergepov, editor of the newspaper Alma-Ata Info, lost his appeal to be released on parole. He was arrested on January 6, 2009 and sentenced to three years in prison on August 8 for disclosing state secrets, after the newspaper published an article making corruption allegations against local authorities based on classified documents. His trial was not open to the public, and he did not have access to a lawyer of his choice. Article 70 of the Criminal Code provides for release on parole following the completion of one-third of a sentence.


On February 1, the Almaty Medeu district court issued a ruling that banned media outlets from carrying any reports that could "damage the honor and dignity of Timur Kulibaev," the son-in-law of President Nazarbaev. The court ordered the seizure of all editions of Respublika, Golos Respubliki, Kursiv, Kursiv-News and Vzglyad that contained letters by an exiled former government minister and opposition leader, Mukhtar Ablazov, accusing Kulibaev of corruption. After an international outcry, the court reversed its ruling on February 9, but the newspapers were not compensated for the seized editions.

On February 5, the United Kingdom delivered a statement at the United Nations Security Council debate on the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, stressing that this prestigious role "brings with it important responsibilities to promote and embody the principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, good governance and the rule of law on which the OSCE is founded." The UK underscored that "the spotlight will inevitably fall on how well Kazakhstan meets these commitments."

On February 12, during Kazakhstan's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council, UN member states raised concerns about the chilling environment for media outlets and journalists and issued recommendations to improve the media situation, including a moratorium on criminal libel cases and a cap on defamation awards in civil suits. Recommendations also included calls for Kazakhstan to stop trying to filter internet content or block access to websites, and refrain from adding further unwarranted restrictions to the mass media law. Kazakhstan will respond to these and other recommendation flowing from the UPR during the June session of the UN Human Rights Council.

On February 17, the six-month period for the organizational committee to register the opposition party Alga! expired without the party having been registered. A group of citizens, who had been trying to register the party since 2006, had formed an organizational committee to register the party and organized a founding conference in accordance with the  amendments and additions to the Law on Political Parties" signed by President Nazarbaev in February 2009. In its Madrid statements the Kazakh government had promised to ease the registration process for political parties.

On August 18, 2009 Alga! had submitted its documents for registration, but the Justice Ministry suspended the registration. The ministry told Alga! that because some of people registered as party members were in fact deceased, each of the party's 50,000 members needed to be verified.

Under the law on political parties, authorization for a party's organizational committee automatically expires six months after it submits registration documents.  So Alga! would have to start the registration process tabula rasa, which involves among other things, convening a new founding congress, establishing an new organizational committee, and submitting documents de novo to the Ministry of Justice.   


On March 1, the head of the Agency for Information and Networks stated that a computer emergency response team had been established and started to work "on a blacklist of destructive websites." The same official mentioned that religious and political websites in particular would be considered for the list.

On March 10, following a visit to Zhovtis by staff of the United States Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), its chairman, Benjamin L. Cardin, and co-chairman, Alcee L. Hastings, called on Kazakhstan's government to treat Zhovtis fairly while his appeal works its way to the Supreme Court. They also urged the government to improve conditions in the prison where he is held.

On March 12, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, president of KazAtomProm, a state-owned nuclear company, and his bodyguard, Talgat Kyztaubaev, were sentenced to 14 and 5 years respectively, following a closed trial without the presence of a lawyer of their  choice. Dzhakishev was convicted of receiving bribes and embezzlement (article 311 and 176 of the Criminal Code) and Kyztaubaev of embezzlement. Both men have made allegations of torture and ill-treatment that the court did not examine.

Dzhakishev was arrested on May 21, 2009. On July 7, the Committee for National Security (KNB) sent a request to the Almaty Bar Association and to the Almaty Department of Justice to disbar his defense lawyer, Daniyar Kanafin, on the grounds that he had publicly criticized Kazakhstan and created a negative perception of the authorities. Kanafin had publicly stated that the security agency violated national and international law by preventing him from meeting his client because he did not have special clearance. On July 22, the Almaty Bar Association decided not to disbar Kanafin, but he remains unable to see his client.

Another seven men who are witnesses in the case, including Dmitry Parfenov, vice president of KazAtomProm, have been held for months by the security agency in safe houses in Astana, allegedly under the witness protection program. But the restrictive measures ostensibly applied to protect them - including severely restricted freedom of movement and communication with the outside world - resemble a custodial rather than a protection regime.

They are under constant surveillance; Parfenov may leave the premises only blindfolded and with a guard. His wife, Natalya Yemelyanova, was allowed to visit only twice a month, because, the authorities told her, they could not provide guard service for more visits. After a court rejected her complaint about her husband's de-facto custody at the end of December, the security agency cancelled her visits with her husband completely.

On March 22, Igor Lara, a journalist with the independent daily Svoboda Slova, was assaulted and repeatedly beaten by three unidentified men near his home in the western city of Aktobe. He suffered a broken nose, a broken jaw, and multiple contusions to the head. According to the Kazakh media watchdog Adil Soz, Lara did not file a complaint with law enforcement officials because he does not trust them to investigate properly.

Lara recently covered a 19-day strike over pay cuts by 10,000 oil-workers at OzenMunaiGaz in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen. Reporters Without Borders reported that the assailants did not take any of Lara's belongings and that one had said "Lara, this is a greeting from Zhanaozen." The biggest shareholder at OzenMunaiGaz is the state-owned company KazMunaiGaz.

On March 26, the Administrative Court in Almaty sentenced Vladimir Kozlov, head of the organizational committee to register the party Alga! to 10 days of administrative arrest. The judge found Kozlov guilty of holding an unsanctioned protest (article 373, paragraph 3 of the Code of Administrative Offences). Kozlov had distributed leaflets criticizing the trial and sentencing of Dzhakishev and calling for his release. He distributed the leaflets along a pedestrian zone in Almaty called the "Arbat;" other individuals distributing commercial leaflets at the same time where not arrested.

Public assemblies are tightly controlled in Kazakhstan. Any public meeting of a political nature that is not organized directly or indirectly by the government, or that does not support government policies, is likely to be relegated to city outskirts, denied a permit, or broken up by police.

Kazakhstan's law on public assemblies requires demonstrations as small as a one-person picket to be registered with the relevant municipality mayor's office at least 10 days in advance, and requires detailed information about the demonstration, its goals, participants, and the like. The authorities are using this problematic law to prevent "undesirable" protests and public gatherings. According to monitoring conducted by the coalition of NGOs "Kazakhstan 2010," in 2009, 80 per cent of all protests, gatherings and demonstrations were held without prior registration.

The human rights action plan put forth by Kazakhstan acknowledges that legislation and law-enforcement practices regarding freedom of assembly "to some extent do not correspond to international standards." But the government has made no effort to liberalize legislation and has yet to respond to a draft law submitted to the president's Commission on Human Rights by several Kazakh human rights groups in September 2007.


Regarding freedom of expression, the Kazakh government should:

  • Ensure thorough and impartial investigation into the physical attacks on journalists and bring the perpetrators to justice;
  • Immediately release Ramazan Yesergepov;
  • Place a moratorium on criminal libel, take all necessary steps to abolish the relevant articles in the Criminal Code relating to criminal libel, and establish a cap on defamation awards in civil suits;
  • Stop any attempt to filter internet content or block access to websites, and refrain from adding further unwarranted restrictions to the mass media law.

Regarding freedom of assembly, the Kazakh government should:

  • Remove excessive restrictions on freedom of assembly and ensure the laws and regulations on demonstrations conform with Kazakhstan's international human rights obligations on freedom of assembly.

Regarding the right to access to counsel, the Kazakh government should:

  • Ensure that the Committee for National Security (KNB) cannot deny defendants the right of access to legal counsel of their choice and the ability to prepare a defense as provided under international law.

Regarding the case of Evgeniy Zhovtis, the Kazakh government should:  

  • Open a new investigation in which Zhovtis is allowed to exercise his rights as a suspect fully;
  • Release Zhovtis pending a new investigation;
  • Immediately stop Zhovtis' harassment in detention and guarantee him the full rights to which inmates of a colony-settlement are entitled.

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