Anti-government protests rocked Kazakhstan in January, setting off a cascade of human rights violations by authorities, including disproportionate use of force against protesters, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and ill-treatment and torture of detainees. Kazakhstan has rejected calls for an independent investigation with external experts into the events. Following the protests, President Kasym-Jomart Tokayev secured his hold on power, and on November 20 was re-elected to a new seven-year term in snap presidential elections.
Meanwhile, longstanding rights abuses persisted. Authorities cracked down on government critics and continued to impose heavy restrictions on the rights to peaceful protest, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Domestic violence and torture continued with impunity. Kazakhstan voted on constitutional amendments on June 5 in a national referendum. Changes included strengthening the status of the human rights commissioner and establishing a constitutional court.
Kazakhstan held early presidential elections on November 20 after President Tokayev in mid-September signed off on an additional amendment to the constitution introducing a one-time seven-year term limit on presidential office. The OSCE/ODHIR election monitoring mission concluded that the elections were “lacking competitiveness…and underlined the need for further reforms.” No election in Kazakhstan has ever been deemed free and fair by independent international election monitors.
Excessive Use of Force
Authorities used lethal force in responding to protests and violence in January. At least 232 people, including 19 security force members, died in the violence. Human Rights Watch documented how Kazakh security forces used excessive force on at least four occasions between January 4 and 6, resulting in 10 people being shot dead, as well as lethal force against protesters and rioters who posed no immediate threat. To date, only one law enforcement officer involved in the lethal response to the January violence has been prosecuted.
Accountability and Justice
In response to the January events, President Tokayev replaced his government, declared a state of emergency, and requested military help from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a six-country regional military alliance including Russia. On January 7, he ordered troops to “shoot to kill without warning.” On January 11, nine top United Nations human rights experts called on Kazakhstan to ensure “independent and human rights-based investigations of State use of force against protesters.”
In mid-August, the Prosecutor General’s Office said there were over 5,300 criminal investigations into the violence. Kazakh authorities have rejected calls by international human rights bodies and others to carry out an independent investigation involving international experts.
Hundreds of people detained in connection with the January events have alleged ill-treatment or torture, and at least six people have died in pretrial detention centers, according to official figures. Azamat Batyrbaev, a protester from Taldykorgan, claimed police beat him and burned him with a hot iron after he was detained. While authorities have initiated 234 criminal cases on allegations of torture, as of this writing, only eight police officers have been put on trial on charges of torture.
Authorities arrested the unregistered Democratic Party head Zhanbolat Mamay in February in connection with the January events, and later brought criminal charges of insulting a law enforcement officer and disseminating knowingly false information. In June, he was additionally charged with disseminating false information and organizing mass riots during the January protests. On November 2, Mamay was transferred to house arrest one week after the latter two charges were requalified and dropped respectively. Several other activists have been targeted with politically motivated charges in connection with the January events, including Aidar Baisagatov in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Moldabai Sadibekov in Shymkent, and Darkhan Ualiyev in Almaty.
Police arrested Artyom Sochnev, an environmental activist from Stepnogorsk on January 4 on charges of “inciting social discord” for recording a live video blog about the protests. In July, authorities dropped the charges.
Ermek Narymbaev, an activist who fled Kazakhstan in 2016 after he was convicted of “inciting national discord” was arrested on February 6 while reentering Kazakhstan. He was then transferred to a prison colony to serve out his 2016 sentence.
At least 10 political opposition activists were criminally charged or convicted in 2022 for alleged membership in banned so-called “extremist” groups, a violation of their right to freedom of expression and association.
Freedom of Assembly
The right to peaceful assembly continues to be heavily restricted and policed. People who try to peacefully protest are detained, fined, or sentenced to short-term custodial sentences.
On January 2, hundreds of people in Zhanaozen, western Kazakhstan, began to protest increased energy prices. The protests spread quickly across the country, with the focus widening to broader economic and political issues. On January 4, law enforcement forcibly dispersed peaceful protests in Almaty, and then rioters and some protesters attacked security forces and public buildings and looted shops.
Ethnic Kazakhs whose loved ones are detained or disappeared in China continued to intermittently protest outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty in 2022. Several faced intimidation and short-term detention before Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan in September.
Freedom of Expression
Media workers continued to face harassment, arrest, physical attack, and prosecution. Media freedom watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders and Adilsoz, reported that security forces shot at some journalists and detained and arrested others while they were reporting on the January violence.
On January 6 media worker Diasken Baytibaev was wounded by live fire, and his driver, Muratkhan Bazarbayev, was fatally shot. Uralskaya Nedelya journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov, Daryn Nursapak of Altay News, Bakhyt Smyagul of the newspaper Bukpa, and Nurzhan Baimuldin of the media outlet Kokshetau-Asia all spent between 5 and 15 days in administrative detention after trying to report on the events.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro on January 12 called for “safe working conditions for journalists,” and “a restoration of internet access” after reports of government interference in journalists’ reporting efforts.
Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court on July 19 acquitted Seitkazy and Aset Mataev, journalists who in 2016 were sentenced to six and five years in prison, respectively, on spurious embezzlement charges.
In June, Kazakhstan underwent special review by the Committee on the Application of Standards for violations of the International Labour Organization’s Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention. The committee noted “the long-standing and persistent nature of the issues,” published an extensive list of conclusions and recommendations, and requested the government develop a time-bound action plan to implement the conclusions.
Authorities continued to ignore a May 2021 UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention decision calling for the immediate release of labor activist Erzhan Elshibaev, who remains in prison. On September 29, he was sentenced to an additional seven-year prison sentence on charges of disobeying and inciting others to disobey prison administration.
Violence against Women and Girls
Although authorities acknowledge domestic violence is a serious problem, impunity remains the norm. The Kazakh government failed to allocate sufficient resources to ensure that police and service providers can identify, prevent, and adequately respond to domestic violence. Law makers took no action to review a draft domestic violence law that was suspended in 2021.
Almaty city authorities allowed activists to gather at a March 8 Women’s Day rally but denied permission for a march.
Kazakhstan has repatriated over 670 women and children from detention camps for ISIS suspects and their families in northeast Syria. Human Rights Watch research found that many children are in school and reintegrating successfully, but that families are often unable to obtain birth certificates or death certificates for the fathers of children who were killed in Syria. Without death certificates, families are not eligible for certain social benefits, and without birth certificates, children may be denied educational services.
A new law, on “The Question of Improving the Quality of Life of Persons with Disabilities,” signed by the president on June 29, introduces some technical improvements for people with disabilities, including replacing the stigmatizing term “invalid” with “person with disabilities.” An obligatory medical exam and other barriers continue to obstruct children’s access to inclusive education. Authorities have not meaningfully addressed the isolation, violence, neglect, physical restraint, and overmedication that children with disabilities can face in segregated special schools or residential institutions.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Kazakhstan does not provide for legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The process for changing one’s legally recognized gender remains invasive and humiliating.
Freedom of Religion
The right to freedom of religion is curtailed, with mandatory registration requirements for religious groups and strict restrictions on religious literature. On July 19, a court in southern Kazakhstan sentenced Anatoli Zernichenko to seven years in prison for posting online Muslim texts that authorities claimed “promoted terrorism.” Pope Francis visited Kazakhstan in mid-September and commended the government for abolishing the death penalty.
Poverty and Inequality
The rigid eligibility criteria and means tests of Kazakhstan’s main social assistance program, Targeted Social Assistance, has excluded many people from accessing social security. Low-income families also face stigma and discrimination when trying to access state benefits.
Key International Actors
Kazakhstan began its three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council in January.
Multiple international actors expressed concern about the January violence and called on authorities to ensure an impartial and independent investigation into the events, including the European Union, the United States, and Switzerland. The European Parliament on January 19 issued a strongly worded resolution on the situation in Kazakhstan calling for a proper international investigation into the human rights violations committed in January.
In June, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed travelled to Astana where she met with President Tokayev and civil society organizations working to combat gender-based violence.
On August 22, a delegation of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights conducted a three-day fact-finding visit to Kazakhstan, where they highlighted the need for a “transparent, comprehensive and fair investigation into January 2022 events” and called on authorities to stop harassing political and civil society activists, and to release Zhanbolat Mamay.
EU President Charles Michel called Kazakhstan a “crucial partner” after his meeting with President Tokayev in Astana on October 27, and reiterated the EU’s call for a “full, fair and transparent investigation into the events of January.”