Amid the coronavirus pandemic, civil activists are being detained in Kazakhstan for peaceful actions and posts on Facebook, and doctors who tell about the problems with supplies in hospitals are intimidated and fired from job.
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The Almaty-based human rights activist Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, the head of Ar.Rukh.Khak NGO, believes Kazakhstan has the repressive system against activists during the global pandemic and restriction of human rights.
“The humanity has fallen into a situation when human rights are restricted for safety reasons. This coronavirus gives us an opportunity to compare how the government works in other countries, how the issue of civil rights restrictions is being solved. Kazakhstan, once again, has proved it is a country that is not free, has major issues with the freedom of speech, access to information, compliance with and exercise of human rights,” Toregozhina said.
Arrests of health workers and continuation of courts against activists
This March, a video appeared in human rights groups on Facebook where a Kazakhstan-based doctor Duman Aitzhanov apologised to police officers. A criminal case was initiated against him “for distribution of misleading information”, and he was fired from job.
The reason of prosecution was the fact that in January 2020 he sent a video message to his friends on WhatsApp, where he said about 70 cases of Covid-19 and also warned about necessary precautionary measures. In response, the authorities made him write a video with refutation.
On the video film, handcuffed Aitzhanov said:
“I want to apologise to the republic, to all my people. I want to tell everyone that they should not post any videos like mine. I am asking you to forgive me. I’ll be very cautious in future.”
This June, an Almaty-based civil activist Alnur Ilyashev was sentenced to three years of personal restraint, 100 hours of compulsory community service, and five years of ban on public activity. This sentence was awarded by the Almaty court on a charge of “distribution of misleading information”.
The reason of prosecution of the activist were his two posts on Facebook. He criticised Nur Otan party and also urged Nursultan Nazarbayev and President Kassym Zhomart-Tokayev to leave politics. The court found these posts threatening the “public security”.
The court over Alnur Ilyashev took place amid the new wave of prosecutions of activists in Kazakhstan, and the authorities used the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to some extent. Human rights groups call it as the use of the emergency by the authorities as a reason for the prosecution of critics and opponents.
Health workers who reported grievous shortage of protective equipment were also prosecuted. Despite the authorities concealing the problem, they had to recognise the mass contamination of doctors officially soon.
On April 8, a doctor based in Zhambyl region, Tolkynai Ordabaeva, who had coronavirus, posted a message on social media. In her message, she said the public health office of the region concealed the fact of contamination of two health workers that resulted from the shortage of protective equipment and overtime of doctors in hospitals:
“The administration of Merke central district hospital exerted pressure and forced health workers to sew masks for themselves, did not provide masks and personal protective equipment to them. They forced them to overwork. It resulted in immunity decline.”
Her post on Facebook got almost 5 thousand reactions, over 4.5 thousand people shared it. The health minister reacted to the post and told responsible persons to deal with the issue.
The Uralsk-based activist Aslan Sagutdinov was sentenced to 60 hours of community works for the statement the police department found offensive. On April 7, in the midst of epidemic in Kazakhstan, Sagutdinov was detained near his house. According to the police, his statement “pigs are the shame of Kazakhstan” undermined the authority of regulatory bodies.
However, according to human rights defender Evgeny Zhovtis, the word ‘pigs’ are quite often used in social media when people are displeased with police officers. Moreover, not all citizens who use such words, but civil activists who are public and active have been prosecuted.
“This is the revenge of the police to a specific person. This is not rectification of an injustice, not a struggle for public peace. This is just the police’s revenge against a person who has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the existing system. This is a classic political prosecution,” human rights activist Evgeny Zhovtis said to Azattyk.
New law won’t solve problems
Another reason for the punishment of the protesters in Kazakhstan was the existing law on peaceful assemblies. The activists and human rights activists, as well as international organisations, made suggestions to the authorities and hoped for the democratisation of the law.
However, the new law on peaceful assemblies was adopted when the country was on lockdown.
“They did not care about current problems such as treatment of people, supply of medications. They adopted this law restricting our right to peaceful assemblies behind the scene. They did it so demonstratively despite letters, applications of activists within the country, and even ignored the applications of international experts of OSCE, UN, and others,” human rights activist Bakhytzhan Toregozhina said.
At first sight, the new law seems more democratic: there is no need to get permit for peaceful protests from local akimats, they should be notified only, the time of notice is reduced, permitted locations are amended. However, in fact, the document contains disputable moments and provisions – there should be a response to the notice, and the refusal may be based on many reasons.
According to the consultant on international human rights law, Tatiana Chernobil, the new law on peaceful assemblies has not changed anything dramatically. After the notice is given, the situation can develop in three different ways:
- A location chosen by the organisers may not be permitted,
- The assembly may be held at another location suggested by them,
- They can refuse the notice based on a dozen of reasons.
“If earlier these issues were regulated locally – by akimats, maslikhats – now we have a law. It was possible to challenge the decisions made by maslikhats as they were bylaws. Now they may be challenged on the basis of the validity of the statute only. Our citizens must have a right to apply to the Constitutional Board, but they do not have this right,” Chernobil said.
On June 6, when amendments to the law came into legal force, the protest at Almaty was held and organised by activist Zhanbolat Mamai. Participants demanded to declare the loan amnesty of people, to stop selling lands to foreigners, and also to release political prisoners.
Despite the notification of the authorities, they were recommended not to hold protests due to disinfection at local place, and during the quarantine regime. Protests took place in a few cities of Kazakhstan, and the interior affairs ministry announced the detainment of 53 people.
“Out of them, eight were brought to administrative liability, including seven who were fined, and one received a notice. Pre-judicial investigation of two perpetrators who offended and committed violence against the public authority is being held. The remaining people were released after a preventive talk,” according to the press service message of MIA.
Repressive machine is still on…
Eco-activist Asya Tulesova, who took part at the session in Almaty and a skirmish with the police, was detained on June 8. The reason for the initiation of the case against her was her throwing the police cap off a police officer. A prejudicial inquiry was started against her on articles 379 “Insubordination to authorities” and 380 “Use of violence against the authorities” of the Criminal Code, which provide for punishment up to three years in prison. Despite the fact that these articles do not provide for arrest during the investigation, the activist was arrested.
According to her lawyer Dzhokhar Utebekov, the Criminal Procedure Code allows arrest of people for crimes that carry more than five-year sentence, whereas Tulesova’s maximum punishment under article 380 is three years. However, these arguments of the lawyer were not approved and on July 7 the Almaty court left the activist in custody.
Prosecution of the activist drew public attention to the problem of detention of peaceful protesters in Kazakhstan, as well as to the police violence. International human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to release Tulesova. She has become the face of the global campaign to release prisoners of conscience.
On July 6, activist Fariza Ospan held a solitary picket in Shymkent demanding to release Asya Tulesova. As soon as the unwrapped the handwritten placard, four unknown men in civilian clothes pushed her into a car and drove her away without explaining the reasons. The passers-by did not respond to her calls for help. The men took her to the Yenbekshi district police precinct and continued to maltreat her and shout at Ospan without giving the reason.
“They treated me as if I were a criminal, as if I stole anything or killed anyone. They didn’t let me speak a word. I was tired during the three hours of my detention, my stomach was aching, I was shocked and humiliated unfairly,” the activist said.
After her detention, they did not file a charge against her, but they took a photo of her and threatened to arrest her for up to three days. She still does not know whether a case was initiated against her or not.
During the time she spent at the police precinct, the mates of Ospan and other activists started to search for the girl and reported she was missing. Afterwards, she was released. Ospan wrote a petition on abuse of office by police officers and she expects fair treatment.
She believes that activists were and are still detained during the pandemic and nothing has changed.
Bakhytzhan Toregozhina also noted that coronavirus and the lockdown showed the inability of the whole state machine but the police and KNB [national security committee]. Security agencies worked both before and during the pandemic: they keep on prosecuting, forbidding, arresting and fining people.
“The machine they have been in all this time is still on. Other spheres have failed: public health, education, industry, economy. But the repression political machine is running against the activists. The four months of the lockdown have shown that only the repressive system is working in Kazakhstan and nothing else,” Toregozhina said.
She noted that the assurances of the leaders of Kazakhstan do not encourage optimism. President Kassym Zhomart-Tokayev have repeatedly said in the interviews to western journalists about the liberalisation of legislation, which did not happen in fact.
“We have been waiting for fundamental changes, and after all we are all disappointed. Some minor changes have been made, but nothing has changed drastically. Some things were made even worse, some existing things were amended. Mr. Tokayev announced liberalisation to western journalists, in fact we do not have anything,” Toregozhina said.
This article was prepared under the IWPR’s Giving Voice, Driving Change — from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.