Despite repeated promises by Kazakhstan’s authorities to reform the country’s restrictive protest law, on March 26, parliament rushed through the first vote on a bill that would ultimately maintain the government’s tight control over peaceful assembly.
Activists in Kazakhstan have criticized the draft law and questioned the timing and rushed vote. On March 15, in response to the first reported cases of COVID-19 in the country, Kazakhstan implemented a “state of emergency,” banning all mass gatherings, including protests. Activists argued rushing the bill to a vote while much of the country is under strict lockdown lacked transparency and made it difficult for the public to participate or mobilize.
On its face, the draft law appears less restrictive than its predecessor, the 1995 law on peaceful assembly. In some cases, it would require organizers to notify authorities of their intent to protest rather than having to obtain a permit, though they would be limited to a state-approved list of locations.
However, the bill still gives the authorities power to approve or reject requests to hold events depending on their form. Government officials can propose alternative locations, times, and dates. If the organizers do not consent to the change, the event will be canceled. None of this complies with international norms for respecting freedom of assembly.
In a positive step, parliamentarians proposed on March 31 to exclude an article of the draft law that would impose worrying new restrictions on journalists covering demonstrations.
Activists say the proposed law would do little to change the authorities’ current practices of invoking technical grounds to deny permission to protest and rounding up and detaining any gathering of peaceful protesters. They also expressed concerns that their key recommendations are not reflected in the bill and called for the government to submit the draft to international expert review, to assess whether it adheres to human rights norms.
With the country under lockdown and protest activity limited as a result, there is no clear reason why the government should rush ahead with a vital bill that will undermine citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly. Parliament should postpone any further votes until activists’ concerns are taken into account and the emergency situation is lifted to enable proper transparency.