(Berlin) – Kazakhstan’s president Kasym-Jomart Tokaev used a major policy speech on March 16, 2022 to promote a “New Kazakhstan” but fumbled on how the government will remedy the grave human rights violations during protests and violence in January, Human Rights Watch said today. The government needs to make a commitment to establish an independent hybrid body involving national and international experts, to investigate the deaths of 230 people and other abuses.
“The whole scope of human rights violations during the January events should be effectively, independently, and impartially investigated,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is deeply disappointing that President Tokaev did not use his speech to establish an independent investigation into what happened and to bring those responsible to justice. He should act quickly to rectify this.”
The president instead highlighted the Interdepartmental Investigative Task Force and its ongoing investigation. Its preliminary results claim that the January events were an attempted coup, with some officials taking part. Tokaev emphasized that all those responsible would be held accountable regardless of their official position.
But Tokaev neither acknowledged that the Task Force is not an independent body nor gave any indication that the killings and allegations of torture by security forces would be otherwise independently investigated.
Human Rights Watch has documented Kazakhstan’s failure on many occasions to carry out effective investigations into serious human rights violations or to bring those responsible to justice, including with respect to killings in Zhanaozen in 2011 and the subsequent trials and convictions. Given the authorities’ history of failure in this regard, the government should invite international experts to be part of the investigation. Such a hybrid national-international investigation may offer the best opportunity for these efforts to be successful.
According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, 230 people were killed in the January events, including 19 security officials. The office has said that 149 of those killed were “engaged in attacks on government buildings” while only 20 “accidentally” came under fire. Local human rights defenders say that numbers of those “accidently” killed are higher. In his speech, Tokaev blamed “terrorists” for killing civilians.
Tokaev announced several reform plans, including to remove the death penalty provision from the Constitution, and to revise procedures for political parties to register. The test of any reform of this kind will be whether opposition parties will be able to register.
In a positive step, the president also instructed the prosecutor general to study criminalizing violence against women and children, but what is needed is action, not more study, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has long urged Kazakhstan to criminalize domestic violence as a stand-alone offense.
In a troubling move, Tokaev rejected calls to reform the law on freedom of assembly, notwithstanding the government’s failure to protect this fundamental right in line with human rights standards.
Regarding the January events, the UN and several governments in March have reiterated their calls on Kazakhstan to establish an independent investigation. At the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, currently underway in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that an investigation should “be thoroughly and independently conducted, delivering accountability.”
The European Union expressed concern “about the violence in Kazakhstan last January and commend[ed] the commitment to investigate the situation.” Switzerland called for an “independent inquiry to be put in place to examine alleged violations of human rights,” and Luxemburg “strongly condemn[ed] the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters in Kazakhstan.”
Human Rights Watch documented that the Kazakh security forces used excessive force on at least four occasions between January 4 and 6, including lethal force such as shooting at protesters and rioters who posed no immediate threat. Security forces appear to have killed at least 10 people in this way, and the death toll in these incidents is probably much higher.
Human Rights Watch has also documented that Kazakh security forces arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters and others, and ill-treated and tortured some detainees, including with beatings with batons and electric shocks. According to official figures, 8 people detained in connection with the January events have died in pretrial detention centers and 234 criminal cases have been initiated on allegations of torture. Tokaev acknowledged the use of torture during the January events and condemned it as a barbaric practice.
An appropriate fact-finding investigation needs to be well-resourced, genuinely independent and transparent, and have access to government information. The scope of its mandate should allow it to examine the full circumstances around the deaths including the potential responsibility of all those in security forces or other government agents for these violations, as well as allegations of torture and other abuses of those detained in connection to the January events. Its findings should be made public.
Kazakhstan should commit to acting on the conclusions of the investigation by providing victims with a remedy for the violations and holding those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. Should the government of Kazakhstan fail again to conduct an effective investigation that meets international standards, other bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council should consider taking steps to do so.
“President Tokaev has made some concrete suggestions on the country’s future, but without an accounting for the grave abuses that occurred in January, these reform ideas appear hollow,” Williamson said. “The president should demonstrate that his commitment to the truth is more than lip service and establish a hybrid independent investigation into the January events.”