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Symbolic burning of a funeral wreath during celebration of International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020. © 2020 KazFem Photo/Eiri Dusenova

Update: In an online hearing on April 7, an appeals court in Kazakhstan upheld the lower court’s ruling penalizing the Women’s Day march activists with administrative fines. On April 8, parliament passed, in a second reading, the controversial draft law on protests, despite strong opposition from activists. The law will now go to the Senate for passage.

(Berlin) – A Kazakhstan court has convicted two activists who were prosecuted for peaceful acts of free expression during an International Women’s Day march in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kazakh authorities should vacate the convictions.

On March 11, 2020, in closed hearings, Almaty’s specialized inter-district administrative court found Irina Pukhnatova, better known as Arina Osinovskaya, and Fariza Ospan guilty of administrative charges of petty hooliganism for the symbolic burning of a funeral wreath in a public place. The act took place during a March 8 women’s rights rally against all forms of violence against women and gender discrimination. Osinovskaya was also convicted for violating the law on organizing and holding peaceful demonstrations. Both were penalized with administrative fines. They plan to appeal.

“Instead of protecting its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, the Kazakh government is using the judicial system to repress and convict women activists who were standing up for the rights of all women,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakh authorities should immediately halt the prosecution, vacate the conviction, and stop using the law to stifle freedom of assembly and expression.”

Fariza Ospan at the Almaty march during celebration of International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020. © 2020 KazFem Photo/Eiri Dusenova

Kazakhstan’s authorities have, for years, routinely used the repressive law on peaceful assembly, adopted in 1995 and last amended in 2004, to ban or restrict public demonstrations and protests. The Kazakh parliament is currently considering a new law, but local human rights activists have expressed concern that the draft will allow unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly to persist.

Several feminist groups organized the March 8, 2020 protest in the center of Almaty. One of the co-organizers told Human Rights Watch that they informed the Almaty city administration in December 2019 of their intent to march in the city center on March 8, stating their readiness to coordinate the route with the authorities and asking them to ensure the participants’ safety. On January 6, Almaty city authorities responded by saying that the applicants’ “statement” did not meet the demands of the law and that they were returning it to address the deficiencies.

The response also stated that it was recommended to hold all nongovernmental social and political events outside of the city center, citing a 2005 decree by the local government. Because Kazakh authorities regularly stifle freedom of assembly by rejecting requests on grounds of technical “deficiencies” or by claiming that the proposed protest sites are unavailable, the organizers decided to proceed with the planned march without resubmitting an application.

Osinovskaya told Human Right Watch that the march itself was peaceful, although city administration officials intervened twice by shouting into loudspeakers that the march was unsanctioned.

On March 10, 2020, Ospan posted on her Facebook page that she had received a summons to report to the police station on March 11. On March 11, Osinovskaya also posted on her Facebook page that she had received a summons. The hearings for both women took place on March 11. Ospan told HRW that from the moment they arrived at the police station they were accompanied by police officers, including over lunch and even to the toilet, until the actual court proceedings began. Although the judge initially granted Osinovskaya’s motion to allow media and independent monitors into the courtroom for her hearing, it was held behind closed doors, with no media or monitors allowed inside. Ospan’s hearing was also closed.

According to information Human Rights Watch received from reliable sources, at least three other women activists are the subject of police inquiries following the march.

The Almaty March 8 rally was a protest against gender-based violence and inequality, including domestic violence, which is not criminalized as a standalone offense under Kazakhstan’s laws. Domestic violence in Kazakhstan, including deaths at the hands of an abusive husband or partner, is a serious concern for local and international organizations. A new draft law on combating domestic violence, currently in the lower chamber of Parliament, does not criminalize domestic violence as a standalone offense.

Marchers in Almaty celebrating International Women's Day, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020. © 2020 KazFem Photo/Darina Batskih
As protests increased in Kazakhstan in 2019, the authorities routinely denied government critics or political opposition permits for peaceful meetings, regularly dispersed demonstrations, sometimes using force, jailed people who tried to publicly express views in opposition to the government policies, and arbitrarily detained picketers.

Most recently, on March 1, 2020, dozens of activists were detained ahead of unauthorized protests in the city of Nur-Sultan and in Almaty. The peaceful protests had been called following the suspicious death in pretrial detention of an activist, Dulat Agadil. The protests were called by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), a group banned in Kazakhstan, the unregistered Democratic Party, and the youth movement Oyan, Kazakhstan! (Wake Up, Kazakhstan!), formed to advocate for reforms.

President Kasym-Zhomart Tokaev promised on several occasions in 2019 that he would initiate a new protest law and encouraged local authorities in the meantime to lift restrictions on protests.

The draft law “on the procedure for organizing and conducting peaceful meetings in the Republic of Kazakhstan” proposed by the Ministry of Information and Public Development on February 2, 2020 for online public discussion has been criticized by local human rights organizations and human rights defenders.  

The draft law, which went to Parliament’s lower chamber’s review on February 10, remains restrictive and still gives the authorities power to approve or reject requests to hold events, depending on the size and form of the gathering. The authorities would still be able to determine an event’s location and its maximum size, and to propose alternative locations, times, and dates. The authorities would be able to end the event if a larger number of people participated than announced, among other reasons. The draft also introduces new restrictive regulations on journalists covering the protests.

The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Kazakhstan’s Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kazakhstan ratified in 2006. 

Arina Osinovskaya at the Almaty march during celebration of International Women's Day in Almaty, Kazakhstan, March 8, 2020. © 2020 KazFem Photo/Darina Batskih

During the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Kazakhstan, which took place in November 2019 and whose outcome was adopted on March 12, 2020, several other countries and international organizations called on the government to criminalize all forms of violence against women and girls and to guarantee freedom to assemble peacefully.

“The Kazakh government should revise the draft protest law and bring it line with international standards to ensure that no one is prosecuted for expressing their views,” Williamson said. “Kazakhstan’s international partners should publicly urge the government to end the crackdown on peaceful protests, its organizers, and participants.”

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