Every time authorities in Kazakhstan crack down on peaceful protests, I find myself coming back to the words of Maina Kiai, former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The “[g]overnment’s approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning,” he said after visiting Kazakhstan in 2015.
Instead of trying to prove him wrong, Kazakh authorities seem intent on punishing citizens for attempting to exercise their right to express their views publicly.
In the last week and a half, authorities have jailed four people who tried to publicly express views – in three out of four cases, views that are aligned with what Kazakh officials have stated themselves or are words taken directly from the constitution.
On April 19, Bolatbek Blyalov, an activist in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital, who has repeatedly found himself in government crosshairs for trying to protest, was jailed for 15 days after announcing on his Facebook page that he had filed an application to protest against the idea of developing a Russian-Kazakh nuclear power plant. According to Radio Azattyk, the court ruled he violated Kazakhstan’s public assembly law for announcing his intent to protest before permission was granted.
On April 21, Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov were jailed for 15 days for violating Kazakhstan’s public assembly law after hanging up a banner along the Almaty marathon route which read “You can’t run from the truth.” Tulesova said in court the inscription was in reference to upcoming presidential elections. Three others who filmed the banner were fined along with Tulesova and Tolymbekov for violating Kazakhstan’s public assembly law.
On April 29, Roman Zakharov, an Almaty-based artist, hung a banner over a main highway in Almaty which read “The people shall be the only source of governmental power” – a direct quote from Kazakhstan’s Constitution. Zakharov was detained soon after hanging the banner and charged with “petty hooliganism,” allegedly for littering in public. He was sentenced to five days in prison. That same night, however, his sentence was converted to a fine on appeal.
Individuals who speak out peacefully in the face of Kazakh government repression, and who pay with their liberty for doing so, should be freed, not prosecuted.