(Berlin, December 20, 2022) – The failure of the Kazakh authorities to effectively investigate the serious loss of life and other grave human rights violations during and immediately after protests in early January 2022 is a damaging legacy for the year, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has taken no good faith steps to identify the law enforcement officers responsible and hold them to account.
The authorities’ investigation into the events has been one-sided, leading to over 1,000 convictions of protesters and others in recent months, including on charges of “participating in mass riots.” In contrast, only one military officer has been prosecuted in connection with a man’s death. He was convicted for abuse of power. One other case related to three deaths is pending, while, of the hundreds of allegations of ill-treatment and torture, only a handful have resulted in any criminal prosecutions with no convictions.
“Nearly a year after the January events, families of those who were killed and the hundreds of people wounded or tortured are still waiting for justice,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakhstan’s partners should urgently renew their calls for an independent and effective investigation into the January events.”
According to official figures, 238 people were killed in the protests. Human Rights Watch documented that security forces used excessive force on at least four occasions, including lethal force such as shooting at protesters and rioters, during the protest and subsequent civil unrest, with at least 10 people killed. The authorities have acknowledged that six people died in custody from torture in the aftermath of the protests.
In mid-August, the Prosecutor General’s Office published a list of the people who died and announced that law enforcement bodies had opened over 200 criminal investigations into the deaths. In early November, a spokesperson for the Prosecutor General’s Office said about the ongoing investigations that “the main volume of work is carried out on [charges of] mass riots and terrorism.” He stated in the briefing that courts had convicted 1,113 people, with 423 convicted on charges of “participating in mass riots.”
On November 16, a military court found Mark Zlunyaev, an army officer, guilty of “abuse of power” resulting in the death of Ernazar Krykbaev, a 24-year-old shepherd who was shot to death near an army facility the day after protests in Taldykorgan, and sentenced Zlunyaev to six years in prison. Another army officer in Taldykorgan has been indicted for the deaths of three people who were shot and killed, but his trial has not yet begun.
On November 29, a Kyzylorda court sentenced 34-year-old Kazybek Kudaibergenov, to 17 years in prison for “participating in mass riots,” “encroachment on the life of an army officer,” and “violent actions against a representative of the authorities,” resulting in the death of Madiyar Kaisarov, an army officer. However, in multiple Facebook posts and in comments to the media, Kudaibergenov’s wife has raised concern about the integrity of the trial and reported that her husband said he had been beaten, suffocated, and threatened into confessing.
Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, a human rights defender in Almaty who is closely monitoring investigations and trials related to the January events, informed Human Rights Watch that authorities in the cities of Taraz, Kyzylorda, and Shymkent, have closed investigations into the deaths of people killed in those cities during the January events, on grounds that the actions of law enforcement officers did not constitute a crime.
In Kyzylorda, authorities on March 10 closed the investigation into the deaths of 24 people on grounds that there was no criminal conduct in the use of lethal force by law enforcement. On April 11, authorities in Shymkent issued a similar decision in the deaths of 20 people. Toregozhina said that they briefly reconsidered their decision after relatives complained, but in September again closed the investigation. In Taraz, where 15 people were killed in January, the Prosecutor’s Office on June 5 closed the investigation on grounds that in the actions of law enforcement officers, “there was no criminal violation.” Human Rights Watch has copies of the decisions on file.
Prosecutors in Taraz and Kyzylorda are persisting in prosecuting some of the deceased on charges of “participating in mass riots,” Toregozhina said.
In Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and where the largest protests took place, local independent human rights monitors have gathered information from lawyers and relatives of the deceased, suggesting that the authorities have closed at least 32 cases into the deaths of 139 people.
The Kazakh authorities’ decisions to close these investigations show their disregard and contempt for justice, Human Rights Watch said. It also heightens concerns about the effectiveness and impartiality of other ongoing investigations.
When it comes to accountability for torture, Kazakh authorities have similarly failed to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
Hundreds of people in multiple cities in Kazakhstan alleged ill-treatment and torture in the aftermath of the protests, including allegations that police in the town of Taldykorgan used irons to burn detainees. Yet, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office, as of November 7, only two torture cases, involving a total of eight police officers, were in court. No one has yet been prosecuted for the deaths of the six people who died in custody.
This is not the first time Kazakh authorities have sought to punish protesters and whitewash the actions of law enforcement, including for torture, Human Rights Watch said. This abusive response fits a pattern observed following the Zhanaozen oil workers’ strike in December 2011 and nationwide protests in May 2016.
As the one-year anniversary of the January events approaches, Kazakhstan’s partners should renew efforts to press the Kazakh government to commit to a fully independent, transparent investigation. They should urge the Kazakh government to invite accountability experts from the United Nations Human Rights Office and from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to assess whether the steps taken by the Kazakh authorities correspond to an independent human rights investigation in line with international standards.
“Kazakh authorities are responsible for bringing to justice those responsible for the deaths and serious injuries of protesters, and crimes of torture in connection with the January events, but a year on, it’s clear that has not been their focus,” Rittmann said. “Kazakhstan should not try to whitewash the actions of law enforcement but ensure that justice is served.”