(Berlin, February 5, 2023) – Kazakhstan authorities should guarantee that they are not targeting a well-known women’s rights advocate with criminal charges in retaliation for her work, Human Rights Watch said today. The due process rights of the advocate, Dinara Smailova, should be upheld in full in any investigation and the authorities should ensure that the criminal justice system is not being manipulated and weaponized to silence an outspoken activist and critic.
Smailova faces up to 10 years in prison on various criminal charges, including large-scale fraud. The pretrial investigation is ongoing.
“The authorities appear to be on a fishing expedition for evidence of wrongdoing by Smailova, raising serious concerns about the motivations in this case,” said Vika Kim, assistant Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities’ spirited efforts against Smailova look more like an attempt to discredit her organization’s legitimate work, than a move to root out criminal activity.”
Smailova, 55, is founder of the NeMolchiKz Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides assistance to and advocates on behalf of survivors of sexual and domestic violence across Kazakhstan. Domestic abuse remains pervasive in Kazakhstan, compounded by scant accountability for those responsible for sexual and domestic violence, including inadequate penalties. The foundation’s activities are primarily supported by voluntary donations from individuals.
An Internal Ministry public statement issued on December 27, 2023, says that the authorities in Almaty city, and East Kazakhstan and Almaty regions are pursuing criminal charges against Smailova of large-scale fraud, violations of privacy, and knowingly disseminating false information. If convicted, in addition to a prison sentence, she faces possible confiscation of her property and a lifelong ban on holding certain positions or engaging in certain activities.
Police have gone to significant lengths to investigate possible wrongdoing by Smailova. According to Smailova’s lawyers, between October and December, the police identified more than 7,000 people who had made voluntarily contributions to the NeMolchiKz Foundation between June 18 and August 14 and questioned at least 800 of them.
The authorities claim Smailova misappropriated millions of tenge in donations for her own purposes, but according to the criminal file documents provided to the defense team, the case is currently based on complaints by six out of seven donors, whom the prosecution claims have lost a total of 23,000 tenge (about US$50). The six complaints were filed only after the criminal case was registered, alleging embezzlement to a total of 16,000 tenge (about US$35). So far, the prosecution’s case lacks credible evidence of any alleged wrongdoing by Smailova, her lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
Smailova’s lawyers have also reported publicly on multiple procedural violations by the authorities during the investigation, including initially denying one of them access to case materials.
Smailova has lived outside of Kazakhstan since 2021. East Kazakhstan police put Smailova on a regional “wanted” list, claiming her whereabouts could not be determined. Smailova first heard about the criminal investigation in late October, after multiple donors reached out to her to say they had been questioned.
Smailova contacted the East Kazakhstan region investigation department for further details, but the officials declined to provide her with detailed information about the case, Smailova said.
After learning about the criminal investigation, Smailova sought political asylum in a European country. Her asylum application is under review.
In November, prosecutors ordered her foundation’s and the foundation’s director’s bank accounts frozen.
Smailova is widely known for criticizing the authorities’ failure to adequately protect women and children from sexual and domestic violence. NeMolchiKz Foundation has provided thousands of online consultations to women experiencing family abuse. Her organization’s work has also led to the conviction of dozens of men on criminal charges of sexual violence. Nearly a dozen police officers have also been held accountable for neglect and inaction, and more than 200 law enforcement officers faced disciplinary sanctions as a result of the foundation’s work.
The investigation into Smailova follows other targeted action against women’s rights activism in Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said.
For years, the authorities have denied women’s rights activists and feminists the right to peaceful assembly, refusing permission to hold peaceful International Women’s Day events on March 8 to protest gender-based violence. Almaty city authorities have already denied permission for a March 8 women’s rights march and rally in 2024.
In 2020, an Almaty court penalized women’s rights activists with administrative fines for peaceful acts of free expression during an International Women’s Day march.
The Kazakhstan government has also failed to take adequate measures to protect women and girls from violence, Human Rights Watch said. The law does not criminalize domestic violence as a stand-alone offense.
“The police often take no action against those accused of sexual and domestic violence, yet they have spared little expense chasing after the head of an organization dedicated to exposing that abuse and holding the abusers accountable,” Kim said. “The authorities should respect international human rights law, upholding their legal obligations to the full, and ensure that Smailova’s due process rights are safeguarded, and that she is not being targeted in retaliation for her women’s rights work.”