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Police Reform in Kazakhstan: Serving the Authoritarian Regime

The reform of the law enforcement system is discussed in Kazakhstan for a long time, but the process is not moving ahead. Experts say the changes should start not with the Interior Ministry, but with the political system as a whole.

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The facts of violation of laws by the law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan are quite common. Especially when it comes to peaceful meetings and protests, which all citizens have the right to according to the country’s constitution. Many people believe that the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ system has long needed to be reformed. However, changing the system is not easy.

In 2018, a famous Kazakh figure skater Denis Ten died from a knife wound in Almaty. He tried to stop two men from stealing his car’s mirrors at the daytime. The Kazakhs were grieving and angry, «A crime in the city center in the middle of the day? Where was the police?»

Soon, an initiative group appeared that demanded to reform the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ work. They demanded to respect the rule of law.

«The police must always guard the fundamental human rights and freedoms, including the right to life, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, physical integrity, to protect the property of citizens and legal entities from unlawful encroachments,» the concept stated.

Irina Mednikova. Photo: voxpopuli.kz

Irina Mednikova, one of the founders of the Facebook group «We Demand the Reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs», which gathered 15 thousand participants in a short time, says that the start of work in this direction was quite optimistic.

«We called it a series of quick victories: under the pressure of the public criticism, they began removing the barriers around the police departments, the police also presented and began implementing the concept of front offices. Moreover, about 20% of the promoted concepts, messages and new terms were voiced in the Nazarbayev’s September speech. For example, the statement that the police authority should be based on public trust, the police should switch to a service model, and that the number of police officers should be reduced and their salaries should be optimized,» Mednikova says.

The Anti-Corruption Agency became interested in the movement, and together, they developed a trilateral work plan. Later, a pilot project for Almaty police development was created.

«This plan’s concept was very different from our document. Speaking shortly, I still have the feeling that we wanted to create the police of a democratic state, but the authorities did not want to change the system fundamentally, but to take a number of modern and, somewhere, trending steps,» Mednikova notes.

«You Will Not Go Anywhere»

On September 25, 2020, the social and political movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan created by former banker Mukhtar Ablyazov was going to hold rallies in several cities of Kazakhstan. Representatives of the country’s authorities considered such actions «illegal» referring to the fact that there was no permission for holding it, and detained people who came to the protests.

In 2018, the movement was declared extremist by a court decision. Despite the fact that the European Parliament called the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan a «peaceful opposition movement» in 2019, the Kazakh government is not going to change its decision.

Semey, a city in East Kazakhstan region, was among the cities to host planned rallies. On the day of a rally, a journalist with identification signs was detained there: she was wearing a vest with the «Press» sign.

The police surrounded the place of the rally (the square) in advance, and was aggressive. There was not a single protester on the scene yet, but there were already quite a few police officers. Several men without uniform were standing with them. After a couple of minutes, they noticed a guy filming the square, a public place where you are allowed to film to a phone camera. A man in civilian clothes immediately ran up to him. A short dialogue in a raised voice took place, the man demanded to stop filming and delete the video, since «he is an ordinary person and cannot be filmed». The police were waiting.

Photo: RFE/RL

The journalist who filmed the dialogue received similar demands. After her refusal, a man without the police uniform forcibly took the journalist’s phone. The police, instead of stopping the theft, grabbed the journalist and rudely took her to the police van. A man in civilian clothes, who had previously introduced himself as «an ordinary person», entered the van with the police and took away the phone. Why the provocateur was among the police is unclear.

The report was not filed in the police department. The journalist was told that she was not detained, but that they were simply trying to figure out what the man was doing in the square. The arguments that the correspondent was carrying out the media’s task remained unheard. The required lawyer was not provided, as the journalist «was not detained». However, they demanded an explanatory note from her, to explain why she was at the site of the alleged protest.

She did not write an explanatory note and was released after a call from ‘upstairs’: the «upstairs» realized that the police had violated the law by violating the journalist’s right to cover socially important events.

The head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law Yevgeny Zhovtis calls this a legal nihilism.

«Sometimes, the police do not even bother to read what they are entitled to. This legal nihilism comes from another problem – impunity. He [the police officer] knows for sure that he will not be punished if he violated your rights. It does not matter to him what rights you have, if you are journalists and, according to the law, you cannot be detained for events coverage. […] It is so, because he acts not in a legal mode, but in an order mode. The whole system works in this mode, it is a classic legal nihilism,» Zhovtis notes.

Reforms Without Authoritarianism

Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis says that serious political reforms are needed prior to reform of the law enforcement system. This implies a separation of powers: a representative, executive and independent judiciary that ensures impartial law compliance in disputes, and, in addition, a system of checks and balances.

Yevgeny Zhovtis Photo: Informburo.kz

«The most important thing is that this whole structure knows well that the source of power is the people and everything is created so that rights and legitimate interests of the people, who have entitled the relevant structures with powers, are respected,» Zhovtis notes.

He emphasizes that changes cannot be made in an authoritarian state without solving key problems in the political system.

«If they are not resolved, you can restructure as much as you like, train personnel, create the best programs in the academy, but you will not be able to achieve the goals. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, which exists in an authoritarian political system, is very difficult to reconstruct in a normal sense, because it inevitably serves an authoritarian regime,» says Zhovtis.

Irina Mednikova, speaking about the program they created hoping to get a response from the authorities, confirms this.

«The police reform, especially in an old authoritarian state, is primarily a matter of political will. In the form we described it – a democratic manifesto – it may have frightened the authorities. It was clear that some of our messages were included into some kind of speeches, programs and plans, but only those that would not radically change the police system,» she says.

Kazakh people face human rights violations not only at protests. The European Parliament declares that in Kazakhstan, «impunity for torture against prisoners and suspects remains the norm». According to the National Center for Human Rights, the number of complaints is increasing. The news of torture in prisons are not rare. Meanwhile, despite the clearly crisis situation in prisons, no reforms were carried out.

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

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