On May 29, Zhanar Sekerbaeva and Gulzada Serzhan, co-leaders of the feminist group Feminita, were holding a private event to discuss gender equality in Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan, when unidentified men tried to break up the gathering by harassing and filming participants.
A police officer arrived at the hotel where the event was taking place, but instead of trying to get the men to back off, the officer confronted Sekerbaeva. A video recording of the encounter posted on Facebook shows the officer forcibly grabbing Sekerbaeva and manhandling her into his car.
Sekerbaeva told Human Rights Watch that after she was shoved into the vehicle, another man opened the opposite door and tried to pull her out of the car by her hair. He was not successful, she said, but he did punch her in the face.
Ignoring the attack that happened in his own car, the officer took Sekerbaeva and Serzhan to the police station, threatening to press criminal charges for “offending a police officer.” Police held Sekerbaeva and Serzhan at the station for eight hours, interrogating them about what they were doing in Shymkent.
At around midnight, the police insisted the two activists leave Shymkent immediately. They were not charged. Sekerbaeva said she asked the police to allow them to travel back to Almaty, where they live, by train, but the police refused.
Instead, five police officers escorted Sekerbaeva and Serzhan to Almaty in a police vehicle – an eight-hour journey – telling them the reason they had been detained and were being driven back was “for their own safety.” A police officer even accompanied her to the toilet, Sekerbaeva said.
Embassies of the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom issued statements of “deep concern” over the attack on the feminist activists, and called on Kazakh authorities to respect equal rights for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Kazakhstan.
The police’s response to Saturday’s events – targeting the activists rather than their attackers – shows just how urgent the need is for better protection of women’s and LGBT rights in Kazakhstan today.