(Berlin) – Kazakhstan security forces have arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters and others, ill-treated and tortured some detainees, and interfered with detainees’ access to lawyers following nationwide protests in early January 2022, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch received credible reports of dozens of cases in which police arbitrarily detained peaceful protesters and other people, and subjected some detainees to ill-treatment and torture, including with electric shocks and beatings with batons. Human Rights Watch also documented cases of authorities’ arbitrary interference in the work of lawyers.
“Kazakhstan’s arbitrary detentions of peaceful protests and abuse of detainees is a cause for deep concern,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakh authorities should immediately put a stop to the abuses, ensure that every detainee’s rights are protected, and bring to justice those who beat or tortured them.”
Between January 11 and 25, Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed 12 people, consisting of six detained on January 3 and 4 in Almaty and then released, five lawyers representing detained activists and protestors in various parts of the country, and a person whose close relative was in pretrial detention and is facing criminal charges of mass rioting. Human Rights Watch also reviewed media reports, information from local human rights defenders, and official government statements.
Reporting and monitoring by Kazakhstan rights groups and independent media complements the Human Rights Watch findings. These groups and reporters documented dozens of other cases of arbitrary detention, and reported on a number of cases of brutal police beatings in custody and law enforcement’s forcible transfer of wounded people from hospitals to various detention facilities.
Media have reported at least two cases of deaths in custody in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, allegedly as a result of police mistreatment and one such case in Kyzylorda. These violations and abuses seriously undermine efforts to restore public order and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said.
Kazakh authorities have stated that nearly 10,000 people had been detained across the country in connection with January’s peaceful protests, which later spiraled into unrest and violent clashes with security forces. According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, as of January 25, 898 detainees were facing various criminal charges, including mass rioting and acts of terrorism. Another 63 people already sentenced to detention for administrative offenses remained in custody.
Activists and others interviewed said that police arbitrarily detained them on January 3, before they could reach the protests, and interrogated them for many hours. Six people said they were refused access to the lawyer of their choosing and five were subsequently convicted and sentences to detention for administrative offenses.
A 55-year-old man from Almaty said that on January 3, at around 2 p.m., he was part of a group of people who gathered to support oil workers’ protests in the city of Zhanaozen. “Some people were filming,” he said. “We only walked about 200 meters when OMON [special forces] blocked our way. They were already waiting for us. We had no placards.… We were taken to the police station … there was pressure on us, psychological pressure.”
He said they were not allowed to call their families or get a lawyer of their choosing but were represented by a lawyer on duty. “I was sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest,” he said.
At least one activist said he had been beaten in custody. Two Almaty-based lawyers also told Human Rights Watch that their clients had been beaten, in some cases to a degree that amounts to torture.
“There were eight people in the cell for six. We slept on the floor,” said the activist who had been beaten. “[Police] insulted us, used foul language against us. I heard people being tortured and beaten … screaming day and night. Every time we left the cell, they beat us. [Police] were forcing [us] to give false confessions. [Police] placed bags on the heads [of some of my cellmates].”
Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they faced interference while trying to meet with their clients.
An Almaty-based lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, said on January 12 that she did not have access to two of her clients for eight and nine days respectively, and that it was nearly impossible to get any information about the detainees because military officers were guarding police stations and would not let the lawyers enter.
Kazakh authorities should immediately end all arbitrary arrests, including by releasing those still in custody, put a stop to all beatings and mistreatment of detainees, and halt the arbitrary prosecutions of peaceful protestors and activists for the exercise of their civil and political rights. The authorities should ensure that those lawfully detained have their full due process rights, family visits, and adequate medical treatment and that lawyers do not face arbitrary interference in their professional work.
The Kazakh government should ensure that allegations of human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture, deaths in custody and unlawful killings, are promptly, independently, and effectively investigated, and that anyone responsible for abuses is held to account, Human Rights Watch said. They should also allow and facilitate national and international human rights groups to monitor the situation of people detained during the January protests and unrest.
Kazakhstan’s international partners should urge the government to urgently take these steps. Should Kazakhstan fail to take action, the European Union, its member states, the United States, and other partners should seek an international investigation into the January events, including the treatment of detainees and excessive use of force by security forces.
“For many years Kazakhstan has had a reputation for banning protests and detaining and beating peaceful protesters,” Williamson said. “The government should use this crisis to fundamentally change its approach – by allowing peaceful assembly and making clear that beatings and torture in detention will not be tolerated.”
For detailed findings and accounts, please see below.
Protests began on January 2 in western Kazakhstan over a rise in energy prices and spread quickly across the country, with the focus widening to broader economic and political issues. After law enforcement forcibly dispersed peaceful protests in Almaty on January 4, rioters and some protesters attacked security forces and public buildings and looted shops. On January 5, President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev declared a nationwide state of emergency and on January 6 called in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a regional security organization, to help reestablish security.
According to the authorities, 227 people were killed, including 19 members of the security forces, and thousands injured. Human Rights Watch research published on January 26 showed that security forces used excessive force, including lethal force, such as shooting at protesters and rioters, on at least four occasions between January 4 and 6 in Almaty. The authorities have not provided any numbers for missing persons.
Human Rights Watch informed all interviewees of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways the information would be used. Former detainees and one family member have been identified with pseudonyms to protect their identity and security. Three lawyers gave interviews on condition of anonymity. Two lawyers agreed to be identified. One of the lawyers’ clients is named, based on permission from a family member. Two other clients are identified with pseudonyms.
Information gathered by Human Rights Watch shows that starting on January 3, the police in various parts of the country sporadically detained dozens of people for allegedly violating Kazakhstan’s peaceful assembly law under art. 488 of the administrative code. Many of those detained were subsequently convicted and sentenced to detention for the code violation.
On January 4, Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported that police in Almaty detained a total of more than 100 peaceful protestors at two separate protest marches.
Human Rights Watch interviewed five people from Almaty who said police detained them arbitrarily on January 3, before they could join the peaceful protest on the main square. Another person said that the police dragged him off a bus on January 4, as he was going home from a family event. A lawyer in Astana said that her male client was arbitrarily detained in his office.
The people detained on the street said they were taken to police stations, where police interrogated them for many hours, then took them into online hearings with administrative courts, where they were sentenced to 15 days’ detention. The sixth person, on the bus, said he was held for about a week without charge. These detentions illustrate interference with people’s fundamental rights to freedom of assembly and speech.
Maryam, one of the first five, said she was in a group of about 20 people, peacefully walking down the street in central Almaty on January 3 when special forces surrounded them:
We had no placards, no banners. Nothing.… We [me and four men] were put into police vehicles and delivered to a police station. We were provided no information on our detention.
Bolat, 28, said:
I was detained on January 3 in Almaty, at around 4 p.m. as I was going to my car. I spent about 16 hours at the police station. There were five other people detained with me. I was sentenced to 15-day administrative arrest the same night.
Dastan, an activist from Almaty who was detained on January 4, said:
Police detained me in front of other people.… They [police] provided no explanation for my detention, arbitrarily held me in police custody for one week. They [police] later acknowledged that they feared that [if they released me] I would call on people to join the protests.
At least two lawyers interviewed said their clients have been denied access to timely and appropriate medical treatment, including access to medication for diabetes and asthma.
Muratbek Esengazy, a 58-year-old civil activist from Besagash, Almaty province, was released from pretrial detention on January 27, but is facing mass riots charges that could lead to eight years in prison. A relative said that police arrested Esengazy at his home in the afternoon of January 12. The police officer said that they were taking him to Talgar district police department, but that he didn’t know where he would be transferred afterward. About four hours later, Esengazy’s family learned that he was in police custody in central Almaty.
Zhanara Balgabayeva, a lawyer, said that on January 10, police detained her client, Erken, an activist from Almaty, outside the city morgue, where he had gone to look for his brother who had been shot and killed by unknown persons in Almaty on January 6. Erken is in pretrial detention facing criminal charges of mass rioting.
On January 25, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that 9,257 administrative cases had been opened. Courts have sentenced 3,314 of them to detention for administrative code offenses, 63 of whom are still in detention, and issued warnings against another 4,584 people. The office also reported that 1,149 people have been released from custody, and 397 administrative cases dismissed for lack of evidence.
The Prosecutor General’s office also reported that 2,044 criminal cases were opened into the January events and 898 suspects detained.
Beatings, Ill-Treatment, and Alleged Death in Custody
Human Rights Watch documented several cases of severe beatings in custody.
Dastan, the activist from Almaty who spent six days arbitrarily detained, said that he was severely beaten by police in custody and that they ill-treated some of the seven other men with whom he shared his cell. He said:
On the third day at the police department in Almaty, I was beaten by police officers. When I was transferred to the Almaty temporary detention facility, I was severely beaten for four days. [Police officers] beat me with batons, machine guns … kicked me.
They threatened me that if I go to the peaceful protests, I will pay for it.
There were eight people in a cell meant for six. We slept on the floor. [Police] insulted us, used foul language against us. I heard people being tortured and beaten … screaming day and night. Every time we left the cell, they [law enforcement officers] beat us. [Police] were forcing [us] to give false confessions.
[Police] placed bags on the heads [of some my cellmates]. My cellmates were detained at different times in different places. One young man was visiting his friends in Almaty when he got detained. Some [men] were delivered from the airport area.
Through the small cell window, I could see [police] carrying naked people, covered in blood…
Galym Nurpeisov, a lawyer who represents several detainees, said that two unidentified masked police officers in camouflage uniforms severely beat Esengazy, one of his clients:
For about 10 minutes, [they] methodically beat [my client] with a rubber truncheon on his right thigh and on the area underneath his kidneys, after he refused to answer any questions in absence of the lawyer of his choosing.
On January 24 a special prosecutor opened a criminal investigation in response to Nurpeisov’s complaint that police had mistreated Esengazy.
Balgabayeva, Erken’s lawyer, said that when she finally saw him on January 19 for the first time since his January 10 detention, he told her, “They were trying to kill me, but I survived.” Erkan faces up to eight years in prison on charges of mass rioting.
Balgabayeva also said that another activist client from Almaty, Ashat, detained on January 4 in Almaty, was also beaten and tortured while in detention. She said: “He was tortured by electric shocks, beaten by batons, arms, kicked for six days.”
On January 20, Balgabayeva filed a complaint with the special prosecutor alleging that Ashat had been ill-treated and tortured in custody.
Another male detainee, detained by police in Almaty on January 3 and released on January 5, said that he saw others being beaten by police while in custody.
A lawyer from Almaty said that he saw dozens of detainees injured and wounded, including by gunshots, when he was able to enter Almaty’s police stations and other detention sites. Another lawyer from Almaty said that he is aware of credible reports that police beat many detainees to obtain forced confessions.
Sergey Shutov, an activist who on January 4 participated in a peaceful protest in Atyrau, in Western Kazakhstan, said in a January 14 Facebook post that law enforcement beat him after they detained him on January 11:
They took me to this room, pushed me against the wall, and began to beat me. The first hit was to the chest, after which I covered my face with my hands and squatted in pain, there were kicks and punches on my head, back, shoulders and lower back. They asked me if I would still go to rallies, I screamed in pain, asked them to stop. Then … they took me to the place where I stood in the center of the hall in a stretch position.… The beatings, on and off, lasted from 12 p.m. until about 6 p.m.… There were about 15 other detainees beaten as well.
Shutov said that he was sentenced to two days’ detention for “actively participating in the [unsanctioned] protest” and was released on January 13. He filed a complaint with police that he had been tortured in custody. On January 13, the press service of the police commandant’s office of Atyrau region issued a report denying allegations of torture in the Dynamo sports complex, where Shutov and others said they had been beaten.
Media in Kazakhstan have reported several deaths in detention. The sister of Zhasulan Anafiyaev, a father of six from Almaty who died in detention, gave an interview to Azzatyq TV, a YouTube channel of Radio Azattyk. She said that police detained Anafiyaev at home on January 8 and a week later returned his body to the family. Anafiyaev’s death certificate lists his official cause of death as chronic pancreatitis, but she said there were bruises all over his body, his temporal bone on his head and nose were depressed, and he had a hole in the forehead that was consistent with being inflicted before he died.
The brother of a 49-year-old archaeologist from Almaty, Erlan Zhagiparov, in an interview with the Silk Road YouTube news channel said that when he picked up his brother’s body from Almaty morgue on January 12, his hands were still in handcuffs, he had two gunshot wounds on his body, his arms were badly injured, and his body had many marks of beatings. Erlan Zhagiparov had called a friend on the evening of January 6 saying that officers from the national guard had detained him. The tag attached to his body had January 7, 13:16 as the date and time of his death. The official cause of death was by gunshot.
The son of Aitbai Alieyev, an activist from Kyzylorda, said in a media interview that police detained his father at his home on January 5 and that on January 9 he found his father’s body, with large scars on his head, in the morgue in Kyzylorda.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently investigate these three cases.
On January 25, the Prosecutor General’s office reported that it had received 109 complaints ‘related to unauthorized methods of investigation’ and opened 21 investigations into allegations of abuse of power by the security forces. It has also reported that it has seven pretrial investigations in torture cases ongoing, and that 20 further allegations of torture are currently under official investigation.
The Kazakhstan anti-torture coalition, a body consisting of more than 50 human rights groups and independent experts, in its January 19 statement, reported that it has received 24 allegations of alleged ill-treatment and torture, including one by a minor.
Ill-treatment and torture of detainees is strictly prohibited under international law as a violation of bodily integrity and guarantee of humane treatment, and it undermines the ability to ensure a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said.
The prohibition of torture is one of the most fundamental in international law. Kazakhstan is party to the Convention against Torture, which defines torture as intentionally inflicting severe pain or suffering for a prohibited purpose, such as to obtain a confession. International law requires investigation and prosecution of those who carried out the abuse, as well as those who ordered it. Kazakhstan has consistently failed to prevent torture or investigate allegations of torture in detention facilities and hold abusers to account.
Art. 2 of the of the convention stipulates that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Lack of Access to Legal Counsel
The five people who were sentenced to detention for administrative offenses on January 3 told Human Rights Watch that police and law enforcement officials denied them access to lawyers of their own choosing. Police confiscated their phones immediately after they arrived at the police stations, they said. The interviewees said that they were held for many hours, sometimes for more than 16 hours, at police stations in Almaty with no explanation for the grounds of their arrest. They also said that police interrogated them without having any access to lawyers, and that they, and dozens of others detained with them, were subject to rushed overnight online court hearings, with court-appointed lawyers representing them, and then sentenced to detention periods ranging from 10 to 20 days.
Maryam, from Almaty, said:
When I requested to have a lawyer of my own choice, they [police] told me “You will have a lawyer later. It’s just a pro forma questioning.”
Maryam said that the police questioning lasted for several hours. An Almaty court sentenced her to 15 days’ detention for violating art. 488 of the administrative code.
Dastan, the activist from Almaty, said:
I had no access to a lawyer, [and] no access to the prosecutor’s office [to file a complaint]. For one week I was groundlessly held [by police]. My family suspected that I was in detention, but I could not contact them.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kazakhstan is a party, guarantees anyone charged with an offense access to a lawyer of their own choosing at all stages of criminal proceedings, including the investigation, pretrial proceedings, and the trial itself. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers affirm that “All persons are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer of their choice to protect and establish their rights and to defend them in all stages of criminal proceedings.”
Interference in the Work of Lawyers
Five lawyers from various parts of Kazakhstan Human Rights Watch interviewed between January 12 and 25 expressed grave concerns and frustrations over the authorities’ interference in their work and violations of their clients’ rights. They said that they have been experiencing difficulties carrying out their professional duties, including getting access to their clients in cases related to January events.
“Starting January 4, [I had] no access to the law enforcement institutions, no access to any information [about the detainees], police departments are guarded by military personnel,” said Balgabayeva, the lawyer from Almaty on January 13. “Without investigator’s notice it’s impossible to get access to [any] police department, military won’t let us in.”
“I was looking for my client since January 4, and only yesterday [January 12] I found out that he is being held in the Almaty temporary detention facility. His family had no information about him, was looking for him in city hospitals and morgues.”
The Republican Bar Association issued a January 10 statement echoing the concerns of the lawyers Human Rights Watch interviewed. The Bar reported that “According to information [the Bar] is receiving from lawyers across the country, in some regions they [lawyers] are being denied access to their clients held in temporary detention facilities due to the enforcement of the state of emergency.”
On January 20, Balgabayeva, who got access to one client, Erken, only nine days after he was detained, said that she was not provided timely, accurate information about Erken’s whereabouts, which she considered an interference in lawyers’ professional work:
I filed a request to see Erken at the detention facility, where he was allegedly held a few days in advance, and on January 19 when I arrived at the pretrial detention facility as per my scheduled date, I discovered that he was not there. After I started asking why I was provided inaccurate information and why they [law enforcement officials] are hiding Erken from us, we [Balgabayeva and Erken’s wife] discovered that he is in a different detention facility of Almaty police department.
Any deliberate efforts to conceal the whereabouts or fate of a person deprived of liberty, and thereby denying them legal protection, would amount to an enforced disappearance, a very serious violation of international law.
On January 12, Nurpeisov, the lawyer who represented several clients, said that in Almaty due to the special police operation, access to police stations was a task of “increased complexity,” police departments were heavily guarded by military personnel, and entrance into the buildings was only permitted with an investigator’s escort.
On January 24, Nurpeisov said that access to all police departments in Almaty, as well as the office of the city prosecutor, was still only allowed with an escort and that at some police stations military personnel were still present.
One lawyer from Eastern Kazakhstan told Human Rights Watch on January 19 that lawyers are only permitted to enter the police departments where their clients are being held if “accompanied by the investigator.” “There is no free access to the detainees,” she said.
On January 13, another lawyer in Almaty told Human Rights Watch that although he ultimately got access to his client, he had to go through three military checkpoints and show his identification card at every checkpoint before he was able to enter the pretrial detention facility where his client was being held. “Accessing clients is not easy,” he said.
The Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that lawyers should be protected from unlawful interference:
“Governments shall ensure that lawyers … are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.”