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(Berlin) – Authorities jailed approximately a dozen activists and have harassed others in cities across Kazakhstan in advance of peaceful protests planned for May 21, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. The protests are planned over proposed amendments to the country’s land code that would expand opportunities for foreigners to lease unused farm land in Kazakhstan.

The activists were arrested between May 16 and 18. In rushed hearings, courts ordered over half a dozen be jailed for up to 15 days in administrative detention for violating Kazakhstan’s code on public assemblies in connection with their plans to attend the rallies.

“No one should be locked up for simply wanting to attend a peaceful protest,” said Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakh authorities should immediately free everyone rounded up in connection with the protest plans, allow the May 21 protests to take place, and move to amend the repressive law on public assemblies.”

Hundreds of people across Kazakhstan protested in late April and early May against proposed amendments to the land code that would extend to 25 years the time foreigners could lease land in Kazakhstan. Protesters are concerned that long-term leases could result in the effective loss of Kazakh land to foreigners and foreign investors.

On May 5, President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced a moratorium on the changes and said a government commission would be formed to review the land reform issue.

Wanting to keep pressure on the government, activists in at least half a dozen cities, including Astana, the capital, applied for permission to hold protests on May 21. Despite their efforts to abide by a highly restrictive public assembly law, activists posted on Facebook that city administrations had denied their requests.

Instead, the authorities rounded up and jailed activists and others who had been outspoken on the land reform issue, including those who had sought permission to protest, activists and news reports said.

In Atyrau, a city in western Kazakhstan where the first protest was held in late April, three activists were summoned to the prosecutor’s office on May 17, and warned that they should not call for participation in the unsanctioned May 21 protest. That evening, police detained two of them, Maks Bokoev and Talgat Ayan, who had spoken out about the issue. An Atyrau court sentenced both to 15 days under article 488, part 3 of Kazakhstan’s administrative code on public assemblies.

In Almaty on the night of May 17, police rounded up at least six activists: Moldir Adilova, Suiunduk Aldabergenov, Kuanysh Kunbolatov, Kural Medeu, Bakhytzhan Toregozhena, and Marat Uatkan. All were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention in hearings in the middle of the night and the following morning.

Ermek Narymbaev, an activist who was also detained for questioning that day in Almaty, and who tried to attend the hearings, told Human Rights Watch that trial monitors and journalists were not allowed in the courtroom. The hearings that night lasted until after midnight, he said.

Isatai Utepov and Zhanat Esentaev of Abyroi, a group of civic activists in Uralsk, in northwestern Kazakhstan, were denied permission by the city to hold the protest. A fellow activist, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, told Human Rights Watch that on May 15, the city administration had pressured Utepov and Esentaev to urge others in their social media networks not to attend, but that they had refused.

The following day, police searched their homes and the Abyroi office as part of a criminal investigation into charges of “organizing mass protests,” media reports said. Esentaev was arrested on May 17. His lawyer was quoted as saying that Esentaev is under investigation on charges of “inciting social discord.”

On May 18, Baurzhan Alipkaliev, who had held an individual protest in Uralsk on May 3 against the proposed amendments, was sentenced to 15 days for violating the country’s public assembly law in connection with Facebook posts about the May 21 protest.

Local authorities in other cities have also targeted activists who had commented in social media networks or applied for permission to protest the land code change.

In Astana, courts on the night of May 17 sentenced activists Maksat Ilyasuly and Makhambet Abzhan each to 10 days’ administrative detention, and searched the home of a former parliament member who had applied for permission to protest on May 21, on grounds he was “illegally storing weapons.” According to media reports, Kuanish Sultanalin and Manas Abdimanap, in Talgar, near Almaty, were also arrested and sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest.

On May 18, President Nazarbaev called for “constructive dialogue to resolve difficult problems” and urged regional authorities to actively participate in outreach on land reform.

Kazakhstan’s law on public assembles is highly restrictive and effectively denies citizens the right to exercise their fundamental right to peacefully protest, which is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Kazakhstan ratified the ICCPR in 2006.

In January 2015, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, said after a visit to Kazakhstan that the country had “very limited space for the expression of dissenting views.” Kiai found that the “[g]overnment’s approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning.”

Kazakhstan has ignored repeated calls by UN human rights bodies and others to bring its law regulating peaceful assemblies in line with international standards, Human Rights Watch said.

“Arresting activists to stop them and others from exercising the right to peaceful protest not only violates Kazakhstan’s obligations but is shortsighted and could easily backfire,” Rittmann said. “If Kazakh officials are serious about resolving issues through dialogue, they should allow peaceful protests and immediately end this campaign to muzzle government critics.”

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