(New York) – Kazakhstan should immediately annul any order to security forces to shoot to kill without warning, Human Rights Watch said today. Such an order violates Kazakhstan’s international legal obligations to respect and protect the right to life.
The order came as national security forces and Russia-led foreign troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) are deploying in response to days-long anti-government protests across the country and an outbreak of violence in Almaty, the country’s largest city. The police and armed forces should do their utmost to protect human life and should only use force, in particular lethal force, as a last resort. Relevant authorities should ensure that any allegations of abuse and unlawful killings are promptly, independently, and thoroughly investigated.
“Kazakhstan is in the midst of its most violent crisis since independence and the world is watching to see if the government will show it respects its people’s basic human rights,” said Letta Tayler, an associate Crisis and Conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “It is crucial for Kazakh authorities to ensure that all security forces on the ground act with a view to safeguarding human life and are held accountable if they don’t. This starts with immediately canceling a ‘shoot without warning’ order.”
President Kasym-Jomart Tokaev said in a televised speech on January 7, 2022, that he had “given the order to shoot to kill without warning.” As of January 6, a day after Kazakh security forces staged a police operation in an attempt to restore order in Almaty, official sources reported that “dozens” of protesters and at least 18 police officers had been killed and over 1,000 people injured. Video footage Human Rights Watch reviewed shows security forces firing live ammunition while other images show bodies of people in civilian clothes who had been shot in the head and appear to be dead.
Protests began on January 2 in Zhanaozen, an oil town in western Kazakhstan, over a sharp increase in gas prices. By January 4, thousands of peaceful protesters in other parts of the country had joined in, demanding overdue socioeconomic and political reforms. Authorities in Kazakhstan have long restricted fundamental rights and rejected calls for genuine reforms such as lifting restrictions on peaceful protest and free speech and bans on opposition groups, and ending politically motivated prosecutions of government critics.
President Tokaev on January 5 accepted the resignation of his government and reinstated a price cap on gas in response to the protests. But he also imposed a national state of emergency, including a ban on mass gatherings, and repeatedly blocked the internet, creating an information vacuum in many parts of the country. All international disruptions to internet access and other forms of communication, which the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned in 2016, should be lifted immediately, Human Rights Watch said. In addition to violating freedom of expression and association, these restrictions can make it difficult to access health care, education, and social services.
As police attempted in the afternoon of January 5 to disperse peaceful demonstrations in Almaty using teargas, stun grenades, and, in at least one other location, Aktobe, a water cannon, a number of protesters in both cities reacted by throwing stones at them and commandeering some of their vehicles. This prompted several units to surrender or retreat, based on videos and social media postings Human Rights Watch reviewed.
That evening, people in civilian clothes began attacking police officers and seized several state and public buildings in Almaty, including city hall and the international airport, causing significant damage. They also set numerous buildings and cars on fire. Video and photographs on social media, as well as official statements, indicate that unidentified people carried out looting in various parts of the city. In one case, a man appearing to participate in looting could be seen shooting semiautomatic rounds in the air.
In the early hours of January 6, President Tokaev called the protests and riots “an act of aggression” and requested help from the CSTO, a security alliance of six countries in the region, to respond to “terrorist gangs […] who have undergone training abroad.” He did not elaborate or offer any evidence for his claims. Within hours, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia, who currently chairs the alliance, announced that it would deploy a military “peacekeeping” force. It was later reported that the force would be composed of at least 3,000 Russian paratroopers and troops from Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia.
Later that day, after a law enforcement operation in Almaty, a police spokesman, Saltanat Azirbek, told reporters that “dozens of assailants have been eliminated and are being identified.”
Video Human Rights Watch reviewed of January 6 events showed Kazakh security forces shooting live ammunition in the streets of Almaty. A local news outlet, Orda.kz, reported that a loudspeaker on a military vehicle parked on Almaty’s Republic Square that afternoon was warning bystanders: “Leave, we will shoot!” Correspondents from various other local news outlets described Kazakh security forces shooting at unarmed protesters.
Kazakhstan’s Internal Affairs Ministry stated on January 7 that 3,811 people had been detained. Hours earlier, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced it had opened pretrial investigations into “terrorism” and “organizing and participating in mass riots,” adding that the punishments for these crimes range from eight years in prison to life, with deprivation of citizenship.
It is unclear where or in which conditions detainees are being held, or if they have access to legal representation. The authorities should ensure that everyone who has been detained in recent days is afforded all due process rights, including access to a lawyer of their choice, Human Rights Watch said.
For years, Kazakh authorities have used vague and overbroad “terrorism” and “extremism” laws and measures to arbitrarily restrict free expression and peaceful dissent. In 2019, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, wrote after visiting Kazakhstan that she was “deeply concerned” at how such measures were being used against government critics and religious minorities and “to target, marginalize and criminalise the work of civil society.”
On the evening of January 6, the CSTO secretary general, Stanislav Zas, stated that foreign forces deployed to Kazakhstan “have the right to use weapons in the event of an attack by armed gangs.” International human rights law allows security forces to use only the force necessary and proportional to defend themselves or others from serious threats and to use deadly force only when no other means, such as arrest, is feasible to stop an imminent threat to human life.
The reports of widespread deaths and injuries and the Kazakh government’s descriptions of protesters as “terrorists” raise concerns that domestic police and military are using excessive force, including against unarmed people, Human Rights Watch said. The January 7 Russian Defense Ministry announcement that CSTO forces in Kazakhstan would be headed by Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov also raises serious concerns, Human Rights Watch said. He was a commander in Syria between April and September 2019, during a devastatingly abusive assault by Syrian and Russian forces on the Idlib governorate and surrounding areas that displaced nearly half a million people.
The Kazakh government should ensure that its own police and military, as well as CSTO forces, use force strictly in compliance with international legal norms, and that they protect the public. The authorities should hold these forces accountable if they commit crimes. They should immediately retract the “shoot without warning” order and clarify domestic and foreign forces’ rules of engagement and detaining powers. They should free any protesters or others arbitrarily arrested for reasons other than direct engagement in violence and drop any arbitrary “terrorism” charges against them.
The government should also ensure that CSTO forces in Kazakhstan use de-escalation techniques, resort to force only proportionately and if necessary, and are equipped with and trained in the use of “less-lethal” weapons.” Stun grenades should not be used in large crowds, and given winter conditions in Kazakhstan, using water cannon should be avoided. Teargas should not be used in closed spaces. International standards limit the use of less-lethal weapons as a last resort to disperse assemblies that are violent, and even then, only when necessary and in proportion to the threat.
Forces on the ground should presume all assemblies to be nonviolent, even if the authorities call them unlawful, if there are isolated incidents of violence, or if external actors – such as counter-protesters or provocateurs – engage in violence. Assemblies are often diverse gatherings, and participants do not lose their individual rights simply because some are behaving violently. Because of the heightened risk of Covid-19 for detainees and jail staff, the authorities should also refrain from holding people in custody for offenses that do not involve inflicting or threatening serious bodily injury or a known likelihood of physical harm.
“The flurry of reports and images from Kazakhstan showing dead protesters and troops indiscriminately firing live rounds suggests that police and soldiers are flouting norms on use of force designed to protect among others, the right to life,” Tayler said. “The Kazakh government should show zero tolerance for excessive force by its security forces or any foreign troops in the country and enforce respect for international legal norms.”