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Kazakhstan: New Law on Peaceful Assemblies with Old Taste of “Total Control”

The lower house of the parliament of Kazakhstan approved in two readings a new bill on the procedure for organizing and conducting peaceful assemblies in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

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In 2019, there was a record number of protests in Kazakhstan. In February, after the tragic death of five girls in a fire in the Nur-Sultan housing estate, mothers of large families went out to the streets of the city and demanded improvements in the social sphere. Afterwards, the other reason for protests became the renaming of capital city of the country, and by the presidential elections on June 10, the number of protests only grew . 

Strengthening civic activity was noted primarily in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. And on June 12, the newly elected president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, announced that a new law to be adopted will give people the opportunity to freely protest. Later, in December 2019, the head of the country called for a transition from a permissive to a notification nature of protests (quote from zakon.kz):

Protests are permissible if they do not violate the law, do not violate public order and do not interfere with the peace of citizens. This is my principled position and we will consolidate it legally.

The new bill was developed by the Ministry of Information and Public Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan and it provides for amendments and additions to 10 legislative acts, including two codes and eight laws.

Nurlan Abdirov. Photo: CABAR.asia

“The main goal of the bill is to realize the constitutional rights of citizens to peaceful and unarmed gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, pickets, processions, as well as the definition of specialized places in settlements. If the bill is adopted, this will have a positive impact on socio-political stability,” mentioned Nurlan Abdirov, Majlis deputy (MP).

What changes will the new law on rallies bring?

According to the report of the Minister of Information and Social Development Dauren Abaev at the meeting of the Majlis, the new bill provides a mixed model for holding peaceful meetings – a notification and regulated order. The first is intended for pickets, rallies, meetings with less than 250 people. If the number of participants is higher, then the regulated order comes into force. It is also forbidden to bring children to peaceful meetings. 

However, it will be possible to hold rallies only in designated areas. Local maslikhats will determine them. At the same time, some parliamentarians also propose to prescribe the so-called “prohibition zones” where pickets are forbidden – strategic, military facilities, life support facilities, and others.

A clear procedure will also be established for the consideration of notifications and permits, with the establishment of specific terms for consideration, as well as requirements for notifications or statements and the form of notification of the organizers of the decision made.

In addition, a list of grounds for refusing to hold peaceful assemblies will be established. For example, if the purpose of their conduct is to incite racial, national, social, religious intolerance, violent overthrow of the constitutional order, or their implementation threatens public order and the safety of citizens. Also, if martial law or a state of emergency is introduced at the venue of a peaceful assembly.

In case of refusal, the decision can be appealed. To do this, an article will be introduced into the legislation giving such an opportunity. 

The bill does not apply to public events held indoors, official, cultural, entertainment, cultural, recreational and sports events, meetings and gatherings of local communities, meetings of property owners, as well as services, religious rites, ceremonies and meetings.

Sanctions for violations of the law by the organizer or participant in peaceful assemblies will be stricter. Fines for individuals will increase from 20 to 50 monthly calculation index (MCI), that is, up to 325 US dollars, and arrest – from 10 to 15 days. 

From the new features – the participation of foreigners, foreign legal entities or stateless persons in peaceful assemblies is punishable by a warning or a fine of 50 MCI with administrative expulsion from the country for individuals. For legal entities, the fine is 100 MCI (650 US dollars).

In addition, the new bill stipulates that the coverage of rallies may become the reason for the closure of the mass media. 

Political parties that have suspended their activities are prohibited from speaking in the mass media, organizing and conducting peaceful meetings and other public performances.

Nurlan Nigmatulin. Photo by the press service of the Majlis of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan

According to the Chairman of the Majlis of the Parliament of Kazakhstan Nurlan Nigmatulin , the new document corresponds to the concept of a “hearing” state, which Tokayev proclaimed in a message to the people in September 2019.

“This draft law will fundamentally change the existing practice of organizing and conducting meetings and rallies. It will also provide an optimal combination of both the rights of citizens and their responsibility in holding meetings and rallies, ”Nigmatulin believes.

A rally in Almaty on June 30, 2019 Photo: Aigul Nurbolatova

Political Technologies and the Visibility of Changes

However, the new law on rallies is criticized by experts and civil society. Among other things – the fact that the document is accepted during a state of emergency due to coronavirus. 

“The law on rallies should not be adopted during quarantine, when people cannot go outside, and all organizations work remotely. All political parties, human rights defenders, public figures should have participated [in discussion]. Citizens are the most important ones to be considered. Even journalists cannot take and read the draft law, because it is not published anywhere. Everyone refers to the words of the minister,” mentioned journalist and activist Zhanbolat Mamay.

According to blogger Samat Nurtaza, questions are also caused by the limited number of participants in a peaceful assembly. 

“This is illogical. Organizers cannot predict the exact number of participants. A rally cannot become illegal if 254 people participate in it, admit it. Therefore, I think that this moment needs to be reviewed, ”Nurtaza believes.

Not everything is so smooth from a legal point of view as well. Candidate of Legal Sciences Mereke Gabdualiev notes that the new law on peaceful assembly is contrary to the country’s constitution. 

Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan

Article 32

Citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan shall have the right to assemble peacefully and without weapons, hold meetings, campaigns and demonstrations, street processions and pickets. The use of this right may be restricted by law in the interests of state security, public order, and protection of health, rights, and the freedom of other persons.

Article 39

  1. Rights and freedoms of an individual and citizen may be limited only by law and only to the extent necessary for the protection of the constitutional system, defense of public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population.
  2. Any acts capable of violating inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony shall be recognized as unconstitutional.
  3. Restriction of the rights and freedoms of citizens for political reasons shall not be allowed in any form. The rights and freedoms provided for by articles 11, 13–15, paragraph 1 of article 16, article 17, article 19, article 22, paragraph 2 of article 26 of the Constitution, are not subject to limitation in any case.
Mereke Gabdualiev. Photo taken from personal page on Facebook

According to Gabdualiyev, the document significantly limits the right of citizens to peaceful rallies and the rights of journalists covering these public events. A clear detail will facilitate the work of law enforcement officials to the detriment of citizens’ rights.

“It contains political risks of ignoring the provisions of the law by the participants and organizers of the rallies due to unnecessarily detailed grounds and procedures for the appointment, refusal or forced termination of public events,” Gabdualiev mentioned. 

In an interview with radio Azattyk, the head of the Kazakhstani human rights bureau Yevgeny Zhovtis also noted that the developers of the bill, instead of using the best international practices, allude to the experience of Russia and Singapore, which is criticized in the international community.

Additionally, it is no accident, belives political analyst Dosym Satpayev. According to him, the new law with old taste of “total control” only confirms that after the election a serious change of direction was made towards political technologies, which were supposed to imitate political changes without changing the core of the system. 

“Within the framework of this political technology there were beautiful political slogans, and the creation of new botofarms, and the formation of an army of “tokayevologists”, some of which were just as active “nazarbayevphiles” just recently. […] After all, any relaxation in at least one part of the existing political system will immediately create a domino effect. Therefore, it is more profitable for the authorities to change not the system, but to improve its individual elements,” Satpayev believes.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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