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Kazakh Authorities Target Rights Groups in Coordinated Attack

Kazakhstan’s Partners Should Condemn Government’s Stifling of Free Association

From left to right: the head of Erkindik Kanaty, Elena Shvetsova, with lawyers Olga Enns and Roman Reimer, in the office of the deputy head of the tax department, Erlik Mukanov, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, January 18, 2021. © 2021 Saniya Toiken/RFE/RL

Correction: The dispatch was updated to remove reference to legal amendments adopted in 2015. The changes to the administrative code requiring nongovernmental organizations to report on receipt and expenditure of foreign funds was adopted in July 2016.

Update: As evidence of Kazakhstan authorities’ continued harassment against rights groups, on January 25, tax authorities fined and suspended for three months another two Almaty-based human rights groups, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and the International Legal Initiative. Tax authorities are expected to consider the cases of at least three other rights groups in the coming week.

The ongoing crackdown on local human rights groups casts serious doubt that Kazakhstan’s leadership is genuinely interested in reforms or improving its rights record.

On January 15, tax officials in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, fined and suspended for three months the operations of elections monitoring group Echo. On January 18, officials in Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital, fined the human rights group Erkindik Kanaty. At least four other groups – Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, International Legal Initiative, Legal Media Center, and MediaNet – have been summoned to local tax offices in the coming days. They too are under threat of fines and having their operations suspended.

Kazakh authorities harassing rights groups is, unfortunately, not new. Authorities have an arsenal of restrictive laws and overbroad charges at their disposal to use against activists and groups who do not toe the government line. For example, officials imposed bogus tax audits on three rights groups in 2017 and have repeatedly denied registration to a feminist group in recent years.

But what’s shocking about this latest attack on freedom of association in Kazakhstan is how many groups are being targeted at once and the blatantly unlawful manner in which the authorities’ are acting.

The tax authorities’ claims pertain solely to regulations around how these organizations report the receipt and expenditure of foreign funding to support their activities.

Tax authorities in cities thousands of kilometers apart brought claims against over a dozen rights groups in November 2020, in some cases, years after alleged reporting violations supposedly took place, despite a provision in the law that limits bringing such claims to two months after the alleged violation.

Kazakhstan’s international partners – the European Union and its member states, the United States, and international organizations operating in Kazakhstan – should speak out in support of these respected human rights groups and against the coordinated and unlawful actions of the Kazakh authorities against them. Their future existence could depend on it.

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