This week, Kazakhstan’s President Kasym-Jomart Tokaev signed into law new legislation supposedly reforming the right to protest in the country. But despite officials’ claims, the law doesn’t make it easier for people to exercise their right to protest –in some ways it will become more difficult.
Reforming Kazakhstan’s law on public assemblies became popular after authorities detained thousands protesting presidential elections last June. The previous law effectively prevented people from exercising their right to peacefully protest, so presidential pledges to adopt a new law sparked interest. But the result barely shifts the status quo.
Groups not formally registered in Kazakhstan are banned from organizing protests. So local feminist group Feminita, which was denied registration last year, can’t legally organize a protest. Neither can independent trade unions that have been unable to meet burdensome registration requirements. Kazakh nationals who have been declared “incapable” by a court, such as persons with psychosocial disabilities, are also banned, a blatant discrimination.
Those legally approved to protest face an obstacle course of rules and regulations to follow in order to actually exercise what, under the law, is more a privilege than a right.
For a start, organizers better know the difference between a “gathering,” “meeting,” or “picket,” versus a “demonstration” or “march.” The rules differ depending on what kind of protest they are planning.
While the authorities claim permission is no longer a prerequisite to protest, organizers must submit in advance a notice of intent, and, depending on the type of protest, wait three or seven days for local administration officials to “consider” and respond to the request. Spontaneous protests are not allowed.
And since participants are prohibited from saying anything constituting “incitement to social, racial, national, religious, class, or tribal discord,” they should be careful about speaking out on issues such as wage inequality or land rights. Doing so has landed activists in jail on vague and overbroad criminal charges in recent years.
The new law also retains restrictions that the vast majority of protests can only occur in pre-designated areas.
In 2015, the then-United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, said it best: “[Kazakhstan’s] approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning.”
Sadly, despite promised reform, that assessment remains just as true today.