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Statement to the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament (26 October 2022)

Human rights situation in Kazakhstan

Thanks for organizing this debriefing and inviting Kazakh and international civil society to join this discussion.

I echo concerns on the absence of any credible investigation into violations committed during the January events. Human Rights Watch’s own work confirmed that on at least four occasions, Kazakh security forces used excessive force, including lethal force, against protesters and rioters who posed no immediate threat. At least 10 people were shot dead in the four incidents we were able to document in detail based on dozens of authenticated videos and interviews with witnesses. But according to official figures, at least 232 people, including 19 security force members, died as a result of the January events.

To date, however, Kazakh authorities have failed to independently investigate human rights violations that occurred during and in response to the January events, despite repeated assertions that they are doing so. They have not provided information on any ongoing criminal investigation into excessive use of force by law enforcement officers that led to civilian deaths. There has been no independent investigative mechanism established to look into the patterns of human rights violations, to identify those responsible, or to make recommendations to combat impunity. There has been no public report on the human rights violations committed. A list of fatal victims released by the authorities in August shows inconsistencies with information gathered by independent groups and fails to provide information on the circumstances in which those victims have died.

Also, in relation to the January events, hundreds of people detained have alleged ill-treatment or torture and at least six people have died in pretrial detention centers, according to official figures. Out of the 234 criminal cases on allegations of torture the authorities say they have initiated, only nine law enforcement officers have been detained. Family members have not been given adequate information and victims have been pressured to state that they were not subjected to torture. In some cases, detainees are under pressure to admit guilt and withdraw their complaints about torture in exchange for not being sentenced to imprisonment or facing lesser punishment. In contrast, reports show that criminal cases have been opened against some of those who died or were victims of torture, under article 272 of the Criminal Code, for their alleged participation in ‘mass riots.’

The government’s efforts to investigate the January events, including the thousands of criminal cases launched by the General Prosecutor’s Office, as well as monitoring by the human rights Ombudsperson and the National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) on torture, can in no way replace a much-needed independent and impartial investigation into the events, given the gravity of the violations committed in and since January.

The government of Kazakhstan has a duty to show transparency and to investigate. The victims have a right to justice and to accountability.

We welcome the repeated calls from the European Union for a full and independent investigation that should cover human rights violations. This European Parliament has also made its voice heard in this regard – including during the DROI members visit in August.

We believe EU institutions should support setting-up a fully independent and hybrid investigation with recognized independent international experts – with the mandate to examine the circumstances around the deaths and alleged torture and other ill-treatment of civilians in January 2022; it should be composed of national and international experts with a demonstrated track‐record of independence, and its composition should be public; it should have access to available information, to victims and witness protected from reprisals, and be able to carry on site visits; its findings should be made public.

As a first step, the European Union should urgently convene a space for a high-level assessment with experts from the UN Human Rights Office and from the OSCE or ODIHR to consider what has been done to confront impunity, and what should still be done to ensure a genuine inquiry into the January events with a view to ensuring accountability.

To conclude, we are also seriously concerned by the lack of genuine progress in the reforms promised by the authorities. The right to peaceful assembly remains severely curtailed in law and practice; Media workers continue to face harassment, arrest, physical attack, and prosecution; Authorities continue to target with criminal charges outspoken government critics for alleged membership in banned “extremist” organizations. Independent trade unions continue to be unable to register and operate.

We urge the authorities to drop the charges and release the head of the unregistered Democratic Party, Zhanbolat Mamay, who is facing 10 years in prison on charges of organizing mass riots and disseminating knowingly false information. We also call on the authorities to release labor activist Erzhan Elshibaev, in line with a decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

We finally call on Kazakhstan not to extradite four Karakalpak diaspora activists to Uzbekistan, where they would face a serious risk of politically motivated prosecution and torture.

The European Union is well placed to help Kazakhstan authorities to become more rights-respecting. But it will only do so by publicly holding its leadership to account on transforming pledges for reform into genuine changes, and by putting authorities to the test of ensuring full transparency and genuine human rights accountability for the dramatic January events.

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