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Demonstrators attend a rally in memory of victims of the January 2022 country-wide unrest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 13, 2022. © 2022 ALEXANDR BOGDANOV/AFP via Getty Images

(Berlin) – Kazakhstan has failed to properly investigate the deaths of over 200 people in protests and riots in January 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces detained several injured protesters who were receiving hospital treatment and are accused of torturing them.

Few members of the security forces have faced charges for unlawful deaths, arbitrary detentions, or torture. Kazakhstan should urgently establish an independent hybrid investigation, including both national and international experts, into the January events.

“Despite many announcements by Kazakhstan in the last four months that they are investigating the January events, survivors and their families tell a different story,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Criminal investigations into killings have not been transparent and timely while investigations into torture and other ill-treatment allegations have been delayed with complaints passed from one state body to another and no suspects identified.”

Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed 17 people, including relatives of those killed, lawyers representing victims of torture and other abuses, and local human rights defenders who collected information about mistreatment in detention and the names of those killed. Human Rights Watch also wrote to the General Prosecutor’s Office and the anti-corruption agency, which is responsible for investigating allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, requesting information on the progress. The responses are reflected in this report.

The General Prosecutor’s Office responded that 232 people died as a result of the January events. The office had previously said that 149 of those who died were “engaged in attacks on government buildings” while 20 “accidentally” came under fire. The authorities have not published the official list of those who died, except the 19 security officials. Several civil society initiatives have been established to identify victims, and local human rights defenders say that numbers of those killed are higher than the official figures.

Human Rights Watch has 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. At least 10 people were shot dead during these four incidents.

Daniyar Kanafin, a lawyer who coordinates legal work funded by the Public Fund Qantar, a foundation established by Kazakh businesspeople to aid the victims of January events, told Human Rights Watch that one of the main problems regarding the 55 cases they are working on is slow and ineffective investigation of these cases. Lawyers only receive generic, inaccurate, or incomplete answers in response to their requests.

Family members interviewed said they are not being given adequate information, not even the names of the investigators working on the cases. The wife of a man killed in Almaty on January 5 said: “I don't know anything about my husband's death, no one tells me anything. There was an investigator, then there was another one, I don't remember them all anymore. They change them … Now I don't know where to go, whom to ask.”

President Kasym-Jomart Tokaev said in a speech on March 16 that based on preliminary results of his government’s investigation, 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. Tokaev said that “terrorists” had killed civilians, without providing substantive evidence.

Human Rights Watch has 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, eight 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 with only nine law enforcement officers detained in these cases. No information is available on the charges against them. In many torture cases that Human Rights Watch reviewed, even if the victim had identified the person who tortured them, the authorities often failed to designate them as suspects.

Human Rights Watch believes that the actual number of detainees who experienced torture and ill-treatment is much higher. Human Rights Watch research indicates that some of the victims have not complained about their treatment, either because they fear retaliation, or because those who beat them were wearing masks so the victims could not identify them. In other cases, victims were denied legal assistance when they were first detained and by the time they secured legal assistance, visible torture signs were gone, and they believed their cases would not be taken seriously without corroborating medical documentation.

Human Rights Watch has documented four cases in which security forces forcibly removed injured protesters from a hospital for interrogation and subsequently beat them. One man interviewed, Dilshat Abdusatarov, said that three security officers dragged him out of a hospital ward and beat him to force him to tell them what he was doing on January 6. He was then taken to a van, where the beating continued, and then to a pretrial detention center.  

Kazakhstan should investigate the deaths of over 200 people and the reported torture of hundreds of people and bring those responsible to justice. Considering Kazakhstan’s poor track record of impartially investigating reports of human rights violations by security forces and its failure to bring those responsible to account, Kazakh authorities should establish an independent hybrid body involving national and international experts to conduct those investigations and to demonstrate commitment to their international human rights obligations.

An appropriate fact-finding investigation needs to be well resourced, genuinely independent and transparent, and have access to government information. Its findings should be made public, and Kazakhstan should commit to acting on the investigation’s conclusions by providing victims with a remedy for violations and holding those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.

If the government fails to establish an independent hybrid investigation that meets international standards, other bodies such as the United Nations Human Rights Council should consider taking steps to do so. Kazakhstan’s partners, particularly the European Union, its member states, and the United States, should support the establishment of a hybrid independent investigation.

“It has been four months, and almost all victims are still left without justice for abuses during the January protests,” Williamson said. “Kazak authorities should listen to the demands for answers about the January events and establish the independent hybrid mechanism to investigate and help bring all those responsible for human rights abuses to account.”

For detailed findings and accounts, please see below.

Protests began on January 2 in western Kazakhstan over increased energy prices, and spread quickly across the country, with the focus widening to broader concerns about 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 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 re-establish security.

Human Rights Watch informed each interviewee of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature, and the ways the information would be used. While some individuals agreed to speak on the record, using their full names, others requested confidentiality. Some family members of those who were killed during the January events had been made to sign nondisclosure agreements by investigators. Some of the lawyers’ clients are named, based on permission from their lawyers.

Lack of Transparent, Effective Investigations into Killings

According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, 232 people died as a result of the January events, of whom 213 were civilians, including those who did not obey the military personnel’s order during what the authorities call the “counterterrorism operation” to deal with the protests. In its April 21 response to Human Rights Watch, the General Prosecutor’s Office did not provide any information on ongoing criminal investigations of the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers that led to civilian deaths, referring to the “prohibition of disclosure of pre-trial investigation data” under article 201 of Kazakhstan’s Code of Criminal Procedure.

On March 16, President Tokaev delivered a speech entitled, “New Kazakhstan: The Path of Renewal and Modernization” in which he talked about an Interdepartmental Investigative Task Force and its ongoing investigation into the January events. 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. Family members of those killed who were interviewed expressed concerns about the independence of investigation.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the lack of an effective independent investigation into the killings during the January events. In most cases the victims’ bodies were provided to the relatives a few days later, but despite the authorities’ promises, relatives still have no information about investigations or if anyone has been held accountable for their relatives’ deaths.

In some cases, the authorities have exhumed the victims’ bodies. Many families protested, but the authorities maintain that the bodies needed to be exhumed to investigate the killings and hold those responsible to account. Exhumations, even without consent, are a legitimate part of an investigation as long as they are carried out in accordance with the law. However, in line with the requirements of an effective investigation under international human rights law, the families should have access to the exhumation process, but this is not necessarily happening. Reportedly in one case, a body of a 12-year-old boy killed during the protests was exhumed for a second time in March, yet his relatives still have no information on the progress of investigation.

The wife of a 48-year-old locksmith who was killed on January 5, said that her husband’s body was exhumed 13 days after the burial and that a bullet was found in his buttock. She said he was shot both in the chest and the buttock. “They found the second bullet, but there is no result from this bullet,” she said. “We still don’t know who fired. They [investigators] don't reply to me now. I call and write them. They told me that the result would be in two months, but there is nothing, silence. There is no help, nothing. As if a stray dog was killed and that's it.”

In another case, a man in his 60s, went to work on January 5 in the center of Almaty. His wife said the family was not aware of the protests in the city. The last time she spoke to her husband was when she called him at 4 p.m. to check on him, she said. She and other family members tried to call his cellphone numerous times after that, but he didn’t answer.

When she tried to call at 10 p.m., a woman answered and said that she was at the Almaty Emergency Hospital, and they should come in the morning to collect his belongings. When she and her daughter went to the hospital that night, she saw injured people being carried in. It took them hours and several visits to a morgue to find out what happened to her husband and to find his body. She found her husband’s jacket covered with blood in a room full of people’s belongings all covered in blood. She returned the next morning to identify her husband and to collect his body.  

She said:

I don't know anything about my husband's death, no one tells me anything. There was an investigator, then there was another one, I don't remember them all anymore. They change them. I called the last investigator. He said, “I handed this case over to the prosecutor's office.” And no one replies to me now. No one has contacted me in March. The body of my husband was exhumed in mid-January, then I was told that they would contact me in a month with the results, but nothing.

At the beginning they interrogated us, and then everything went quiet. Now I don't know where to go, whom to ask. They don't want to deal with us anymore. We are already dead. You try to forget every day, but you never forget it. I never thought that I would go to morgues in search for my husband. I used to be afraid of the dead, now I’m afraid of the living.

A man in his mid-twenties went to a protest on January 5 in a city in eastern Kazakhstan. His mother called his mobile phone later that evening and was informed that her son had been shot and taken to a hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, she was informed that her son had died. She said:

To be honest, I don't even know whom to trust. It’s their bullet, and they are the ones investigating it. The first investigator said the bullet belonged to the police. A month later, I was told that it could be their bullet, or it could be someone else's. In February they sent a bullet for forensic examination. I haven’t received an answer yet … As a mother, I want my son to rest in peace. I want justice and I want those responsible to be held accountable.

Families interviewed all expressed frustration at having no information about the progress of ongoing investigations into the deaths of their relatives. Even those families with legal representation struggle to get information, as the lawyers said that they receive only generic, inaccurate, or incomplete answers in response to their requests. The wife of a 50-year-old man who died from two gunshot wound in his leg and stomach on January 5 in Almaty said: “There is no investigation, no one is looking for the killer of my husband. I still can’t forgive myself that I let him go there [peaceful protest]. The lawyer sends requests and receives meaningless replies.”

Delays in Investigating Torture, Other Ill-Treatment Allegations

In the days following the events, reports began to emerge of security forces engaging in widespread torture and ill-treatment of those detained during or following the events to force them to confess to participation in mass riots, an offense under article 272 of the criminal code.

The Anti-Corruption Agency said in its April 21 response to Human Rights Watch that the agency has investigated 309 criminal cases based on citizens' complaints about the actions of law enforcement officers. Of these 279 are for torture under article 146 of the criminal code, and 30 are for abuse of power, under articles 361 and 362. The agency said that investigations are ongoing with 450 forensic examinations currently being conducted.

The General Prosecutor’s Office, said that 10 additional cases are being investigated by special prosecutors, who form a distinct prosecutorial division within the Prosecutor General’s Office with authority to investigate allegations of torture. Forty criminal cases have been terminated for the lack of evidence, the General Prosecutor’s Office said.

As of March 30, Coalition Against Torture, a Kazakh nongovernmental group, had received 142 reports of torture and other ill-treatment. Based on its monitoring, the coalition stated that the judicial authorities are only conducting superficial inquiries into torture cases and that the necessary measures are not being carried out, or at least the victims or their lawyers have no information about them. The coalition received information of several cases of rape, threats of rape, and other violent acts of a sexual nature by the security officers. They also received allegations of torture and ill-treatment of minors.

As a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Kazakhstan has an obligation to establish “prompt and impartial investigation” into allegations of torture. However, investigations conducted so far have been neither prompt nor impartial, Human Rights Watch said. The Coalition Against Torture documented a case in which torture allegations were investigated by the same person who the victim said had tortured him.

Galym Nurpeisov, a lawyer with four clients pursuing complaints stemming from the January events, including allegations of torture, said that even though some of his clients are able to identify their alleged abusers, none of them have been designated as suspects. Nurpeisov said: “The authorities have not learned the lessons from this whole situation. They shelter perpetrators from criminal liability.”

The police has recognized a 58-year-old civil activist, Muratbek Esengazy, as a torture victim in a criminal case of torture under article 146 of the criminal code. As part of the investigation, Esengazy identified two National Security Committee officers as his alleged abusers. But the Anti-Corruption Agency denied his lawyer’s motion to recognize those officers as suspects. The motion was dismissed despite witness statements, including from police officers and cellmates, and a forensic examination that documented bruising and hematomas on Esengazy’s body.

Esengazy was released from pretrial detention on January 27 and is facing charges of participation in mass riots under article 272 that could lead to eight years in prison, despite a lack of credible evidence supporting such charges.

Aidar Orazbekov, who is currently under investigation under article 272 on “mass riots,” went to the central square in Almaty for a peaceful rally on January 6. He photographed people with a poster that said, “we are not terrorists.” When the security forces began to attack the peaceful protesters, Orazbekov tried to hide from the attack and ran toward his car, but he was shot in the buttock. His car was also shot at. In this state, he drove to a hospital, where he received medical treatment.

On January 8, security forces took him from the hospital to a pretrial detention center. Orazbekov alleges that he was beaten and denied medical care in pretrial detention. Only when his condition worsened, was he admitted to a medical unit. As a result of the ill-treatment, he suffers from depression and has nightmares, he said. He was released at the beginning of February. At first, Orazbekov was hesitant to complain about torture as those who were beating him were wearing masks, but on April 7, his lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office in relation to allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.

Balgabaeva also represents Samat Nurmukhanov, who submitted a complaint of torture under article 146 of the criminal code. Nurmukhanov is currently under the investigation in a separate criminal case under article 272 and is in pretrial detention. Nurmukhanov wrote a letter to his wife in February, in which he said that he was tortured in January. Nurmukhanov said he suffers serious health complications because of the torture.

Balgabayeva represents four clients who allege that they were tortured and otherwise ill-treated. She told Human Rights Watch that the initial efforts to investigate these allegations slowed down considerably in March:

Despite all our efforts, I have little hope for a fair judicial and pretrial investigation into torture allegations, but also into cases [of participation in mass riots] under article 272. It will only take place with involvement of international experts and if clear instructions will be given to find and punish those who tortured.

Forcible Removal of Injured Protesters from a Hospital

At the end of January, a video surfaced online that showed security forces removing wounded men from a hospital in Almaty. Allegedly, those on the video had injures, including from gunshots during the protests and were suspected of participating in mass riots. Dilshat Abdusatarov was one of the men depicted on the video. Abdusatarov was shot in his leg on January 6 while sitting in a car. He was taken to the hospital and remained there receiving medical treatment.

On January 9, Abdusatarov said, three security officers entered his ward and dragged him out to the hallway and beat him. They wanted him to tell them what he was doing on January 6. He was then put in a van where the beating continued and officers knocked out three of his front teeth. When he was taken to pretrial detention, the beatings continued. Abdusaratov was released on February 18 but faces charges of participating in mass riots. An investigation into allegations of torture has been opened, but no suspects have been identified.

Bauyrzhan Esmurzaev, a 52-year-old hairdresser, went to work on January 5 in the center of Almaty. After he finished his shift, when he was on the way home, he was shot in his leg and went to a hospital where he was treated. After he arrived home, his wound started to bleed, and he was readmitted to a hospital. On January 9 security forces took him from the hospital and put him in a van. Esmurzaev told his lawyer that he was beaten in the van.

Nurpeisov, his lawyer, filed a complaint with the Almaty prosecutor based on the torture allegations, but the complaint has been passed from one state body to another and the authorities have taken no steps to effectively investigate the allegations. Esmurzaev was released from pretrial detention and is being investigated for participation in mass riots under article 272.

Thirty-year-old Nurtay Kazhigaliev was shot twice, in the buttock and the thigh, as he was on his way to an Almaty café on January 5 at around 5 p.m. After being shot he tried to run away but lost consciousness. Kazhigaliev woke up in a hospital after surgery. Security forces took him from the hospital on January 9. Kazhigaliev told his lawyer that he was beaten in a police van and in a pretrial detention center.

In March, the Anti-Corruption Agency recognized Kazhigaliev as a victim of torture in a criminal case initiated under article 146 of the criminal code. Nurpeisov, his lawyer, said that the investigation has been ongoing, but no suspects have been identified by the agency even though Kazhigaliev can identify an officer who beat him. Kazhigaliev was released from pretrial detention and is facing charges of participation in mass riots under article 272.

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