Authorities in Kazakhstan did not meaningfully address persistent human rights violations in 2023 or ensure accountability for past abuses. Two years after large-scale anti-government protests rocked Kazakhstan in January 2022, few officials have been held accountable for their part in disproportionate use of force against protesters, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees.
Violent attacks on journalists increased in early 2023 and authorities persisted in using overbroad criminal charges against government critics and activists. Heavy restrictions in law and practice on the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech and religion continued. New legislation strengthening protections for women fell short of criminalizing domestic violence as a stand-alone offense.
In February 2023, Kazakhstan signed the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
On March 19, Kazakhstan held parliamentary elections that fell short of democratic standards. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election monitoring mission noted that Kazakhstan had adopted legal amendments leading to increased competition, but “significant procedural irregularities were observed.” Opposition groups continued to face serious obstacles to registration.
Accountability and Justice
Kazakhstan’s investigations into the January 2022 events have been one-sided, leading to over 1,200 convictions of protesters and others, with only a few dozen law enforcement officers “brought to criminal responsibility,” according to the Prosecutor General’s office. Authorities in Taraz, Kyzylorda, and Shymkent closed investigations into the deaths of dozens of people killed in those cities during the events on the grounds that the officers’ actions did not constitute a crime. Authorities have also posthumously prosecuted at least 15 people, in violation of their right to a fair trial.
Torture and Ill-Treatment
A serious lack of accountability for torture and ill-treatment persists. In January 2023, human rights groups documented how authorities tortured and ill-treated detainees in the aftermath of the January 2022 events, including by beating and burning them, administering electric shocks, and using sexual violence, including rape and threats of rape, against both male and female detainees. The groups registered 13 cases of torture and ill-treatment of children. At least 23 police officers had been convicted for torture in trials connected to the January 2022 events at time of writing, but dozens of other torture investigations have been closed on the grounds that the allegations were “unsubstantiated.”
In September, a video emerged of prison guards beating Timur Danebaev, an activist who was sentenced to three years in prison in June on overbroad criminal charges of “inciting ethnic discord.”
In its June concluding observations, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) was concerned about the “many consistent reports” of torture and urged Kazakhstan to ensure accountability for “all acts of torture and ill-treatment, including excessive use of force.”
Government Opponents and Other Critics
On April 10, an Almaty court convicted Zhanbolat Mamay, the head of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, on charges of organizing mass riots, insulting law enforcement officers, and disseminating knowingly false information. He was sentenced to a suspended six-year prison term. In June, his conviction was upheld on appeal.
On July 11, an Almaty court sentenced Aigerim Tleuzhanova, an activist and journalist who was tried along with four others, to four years in prison for allegedly attempting to seize Almaty airport during the January 2022 events. Tleuzhanova admitted she was at the airport but denied any wrongdoing.
Kazakh authorities continue to target peaceful political opposition activists with criminal charges of membership in banned “extremist” groups (article 405 of the Criminal Code). In May, police arrested Marat Zhylanbaev, the head of the unregistered political opposition group “Alga, Kazakhstan,” on this charge and for allegedly financing “extremist” activities, immediately after Zhylanbaev finished serving 20 days’ administrative arrest for staging an unsanctioned protest in Astana.
Freedom of Assembly
The right to peaceful assembly remains heavily restricted and policed. People who try to peacefully protest are detained, fined, or given short-term custodial sentences. On August 1, police detained relatives of people killed during the January 2022 events who were protesting outside the Shymkent city administration. A Shymkent court sentenced one protester to 5 days and another to 10 days of administrative arrest. Ethnic Kazakhs in Almaty who intermittently protest the Chinese government’s abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang also face arrest.
Freedom of Expression
There was a notable increase in harassment, threats, and assaults on journalists in Kazakhstan in early 2023. In January and February, media offices were vandalized and journalists’ cars and apartments were attacked or set on fire. On January 20, the European Union, United States, and British embassies in Astana expressed concern and called for accountability. Authorities opened an investigation.
On July 3, a Turkestan regional court sentenced journalist Amangeldy Batyrbaev to 20 days’ administrative detention on charges of defamation for a Facebook post about a deputy in parliament. On February 3, an Astana court sentenced Makhambet Abzhan, a blogger, to nine years in prison on charges of “distributing deliberately false information” and “extortion,” after a closed trial.
On August 11, Zhetysu police subjected journalist Sandugash Duysenova to a filmed strip search after detaining her on charges of violating privacy. Authorities later dropped the case. On August 18, KazTAG journalist Diana Saparkyzy was attacked by five unidentified men while trying to report on mining deaths outside Karaganda.
In late July, Kazakhstan adopted new media legislation that introduces penalties for “placing, disseminating false information,” an overbroad provision that poses a risk to free speech.
Authorities continue to obstruct workers’ efforts to organize and register independent trade unions. Between January and April 2023, there was industrial unrest in western Kazakhstan as oil workers variously demanded jobs, better pay, and improved working conditions. On August 11, the sectoral Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Industry Workers successfully registered a local-level trade union in Almaty, a step toward the sectoral union being able to reregister after a court suspended its activities in 2021.
Authorities continued to ignore a May 2021 UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention decision calling for the immediate release of imprisoned labor activist Erzhan Elshibaev.
Violence against Women and Girls
In April 2023, Kazakhstan strengthened legal protections for women, including by eliminating the possibility of reconciliation after repeated acts of family abuse (a provision that had empowered abusers), enabling police to impose administrative penalties on aggressors without a survivor’s complaint, and increasing administrative arrest to up to 10 days for breaching a protection order. Kazakhstan still has not criminalized domestic violence, a widespread and underreported problem, as a stand-alone offense. Almaty city authorities continued to interfere in activists’ efforts to protest on March 8, International Women’s Day.
An obligatory medical exam and other barriers continue to obstruct children’s access to inclusive education. Children with disabilities face isolation, violence, neglect, physical restraint, and overmedication in segregated special schools or residential institutions. In August, the media reported that 14 children in a state residential institution in Karaganda were hospitalized with poisoning and that one of the children died. Police opened an investigation.
In June, CAT expressed concern about the treatment of people with disabilities and laws that allow for “the forced hospitalization of persons with disabilities, including children, either for monitoring or treatment.”
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Kazakhstan does not provide legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In June, CAT called on Kazakhstan to “revoke the requirement of mandatory reassignment surgery,” part of the invasive, humiliating process for changing one’s legally recognized gender in the country.
Freedom of Religion
Religious groups face mandatory registration requirements and strict restrictions on the dissemination and sale of religious literature. International religious freedom watchdogs reported that from January to June 2023, 10 individuals and organizations had been prosecuted for “maintaining and using places to pray without state permission” and at least 9 Muslims were serving prison sentences related to their social media posts on Islam.
Poverty and Inequality
Poverty is on the rise in Kazakhstan, and marginalized populations are far from enjoying their economic, social, and cultural rights. Kazakhstan has committed to uphold the right to social security, but rigid eligibility criteria and means tests for Kazakhstan’s main social assistance program, Targeted Social Assistance, have excluded many people who need support. Low-income families also face stigma and discrimination when trying to access these benefits.
Asylum Seekers and Refugees
After holding five activists from Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan’s autonomous region, under extradition arrest for 12 months, Kazakh authorities released them between September and November 2023. Their applications for refugee status were denied.
Key International Actors
Several high-level European and US officials visited Kazakhstan in 2023, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in late February, United Kingdom Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in March, and German President Frank Steinmeier in June. Also in June, European Council President Charles Michel met with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on the sidelines of the EU’s second high-level meeting with Central Asia’s presidents in Kyrgyzstan.
At the EU-Kazakhstan Human Rights Dialogue and Subcommittee on Justice and Home Affairs meeting in March in Brussels and at the Cooperation Committee meeting in Astana in May, EU officials renewed their calls for an independent investigation into the January 2022 events.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, after his visit to Kazakhstan in March, called for an “after action” review of the January 2022 events and “justice, reparations, and truth” for all victims. He also called for the explicit criminalization of domestic violence in Kazakhstan’s criminal code and action by authorities on “protection of journalists” and “freedom of expression.”
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 19, President Tokayev met with President Joe Biden during the first US-Central Asia presidential summit; human rights concerns did not feature prominently in the discussions.