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Kazakhstan: Continued Scrutiny of Rights Progress Needed

Disappointing Record on Reforms During OSCE Chairmanship

UPDATE: Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Kazakhstan prosecutor general on December 2,  expressing concern about the fate of 29 Uzbek asylum seekers in custody of the Kazakh authorities and facing extradition to Uzbekistan.

(Astana) - Kazakhstan's international partners should intensify their engagement to make sure the government carries out human rights reforms, even after its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) ends in December 2010, Human Rights Watch said today.  The human rights situation in Kazakhstan has been declining, Human Rights Watch said.

In the last days of its chairmanship, Kazakhstan will be the host of an OSCE summit meeting, the first since 1999, in Astana, the capital, on December 1 and 2, 2010.

"The disappointing paradox is that Kazakhstan has been very active as OSCE chair but took few if any meaningful steps to improve its own human rights record," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It could have led the OSCE by example, but instead let its human rights record stagnate."

In anticipation of its OSCE chairmanship Kazakhstan had promised human rights reforms, particularly in the area of media freedoms. But throughout its chairmanship year, the government maintained restrictive new amendments to media and Internet laws. It also has blocked a number of websites and weblogs, though the popular Russian-language blogging platform Livejournal was unblocked several weeks ago.

Kazakhstan has a vibrant civil society. Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, local and foreign, are in Astana for the OSCE summit and for the review conference that preceded it, to discuss human rights issues at numerous forums.

But generally, independent journalists who criticize government policies and practices face threats and harassment. During Kazakhstan's chairmanship year excessively harsh penalties for civil defamation were imposed on journalists. According to the media watchdog International Foundation of Speech Freedom Protection (Adil Soz), at least five journalists have been accused of criminal libel and five others were physically attacked by unknown persons. Proposals to decriminalize defamation have not advanced in the parliament.

A newspaper editor, Ramazan Yesergepov, is serving a three-year prison sentence. Yesergepov was convicted in 2009 on charges of publishing classified information after his newspaper published an internal letter by the Committee for National Security in which the agency appeared to be attempting to sway a criminal investigation against a local businessman. Yesergepov's trial was not open to the public, and he was denied a lawyer of his choice.

"Kazakh government officials point to the existence of opposition newspapers as evidence that there are no restrictions on media freedoms," Denber said, "But in fact there is a chilling environment for freedom of expression."

Kazakh authorities also maintained restrictive rules on freedom of assembly and during 2010 have punished several activists for breaking them. Some of them had held one-person pickets.

The authorities refused to register a major opposition party, Alga!. They rejected appeals to open a new, independent investigation into a car accident involving the country's leading human rights defender, Evgenii Zhovtis, who is serving a four-year prison term for vehicular manslaughter, imposed following an unfair trial.

In July, Aidos Sadykov, a longtime opposition political activist, was sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism accompanied by resistance to the police," in what appeared to have been a politically motivated set-up. The trial court refused to admit as evidence a videotape with exculpatory evidence.  

In 2010 Kazakhstan arrested dozens of individuals under extradition requests from the Uzbek government, extradited 4, and continues to detain another 29. While the charges have not been made public, they are reportedly related to religious extremism. There is significant, credible evidence that persons prosecuted in Uzbekistan on religious extremism charges face a grave risk of torture or other forms of ill-treatment in detention.

In a positive move, broad penal reforms have passed the lower house of parliament, including an amendment to the criminal procedure code that would ban returns of individuals to countries where they would be at risk of torture.

The government has done little to address abuses against migrant tobacco workers. The farmers who employ them have not provided workers with written contracts or paid them periodic wages, instead offering only lump sum payments at the end of the eight- or nine-month growing season. Child labor remains a serious problem in tobacco and cotton farming, even though experts agree that these are two of the worst forms of child labor worldwide.

"Kazakhstan's chairmanship candidacy was controversial because of the government's poor human rights record, but its supporters argued that the chairmanship would help prompt reform," Denber said. "Now OSCE states have a duty to continue scrutiny, support Kazakhstan's civil society, and urge the government to adopt reforms."

Some of the steps Human Rights Watch said the Kazakh government should be urged to take include:

  • Stop filtering internet content or blocking access to websites, and refrain from adding further unwarranted restrictions to the law "On mass media";
  • Release Yesergepov and conduct an independent review of the charges against him;
  • Release Zhovtis pending a new investigation;
  • Place a moratorium on criminal libel charges, 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;
  • Remove excessive restrictions on freedom of assembly, including abolishing unnecessary limitations on locations where demonstrations can take place;
  • Rigorously investigate and prosecute employers who unlawfully retain migrant workers' passports and other identity documents, fail to provide written employment contracts or pay regular wages, force employees to work long hours and to work without appropriate days off, employ child labor, or commit other violations of Kazakh law.
  • Facilitate the lawful hiring of migrant agricultural workers each year depending on the actual need of employers, including in the tobacco-growing Enbekshikazakh district of Almaty province.
  • Stop any further forced return of asylum seekers to Uzbekistan, regardless of the outcome of their asylum applications, if they are at risk of torture in Uzbekistan.

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