Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan: Mass protests are stifled by violence and further suppression of fundamental rights

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What began as peaceful protests against socio-economic inequality swiftly turned into violence facilitated by Kazakhstan’s internal security forces and troops of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), amounting to violations of the right to life and liberty, as well as freedoms of expression and assembly. FIDH and its member organisations in Kazakhstan call on Kazakhstan’s authorities to revoke the order to “shoot to kill” protesters, halt violence on both sides, and facilitate an independent inquiry into the January 2022 unrest in order to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

In the aftermath of the violence that has shaken Kazakhstan since January 2, official sources have reported over 160 deaths (this information has since been rescinded by the government) including both protesters and law enforcement, and close to 10,000 arrests, although these numbers have not been independently verified.

FIDH member organisations in Kazakhstan, the Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights (KIBHR) and the International Legal Initiative (ILI), documented numerous instances of excessive use of force by law enforcement and/or members of the CSTO, armed with tear gas, stun grenades and firearms. Numerous social media outlets showed footage of indiscriminate firing into crowds of protesters with what appear to be lethal rounds. On January 7, President Tokaev ordered law enforcement to “shoot to kill” protesters.

«An order to use lethal force against unidentified protesters constitutes a violation of the duty of the authorities to respect the right to life and international standards governing the conduct of public assemblies», commented Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, FIDH member organization.

FIDH’s member organisations further reported widespread internet blockages during the early days of the protest, in violation of the right to freedom of information. The authorities also blocked access to certain online media and obstructed the work of journalists, including by arbitrarily detaining those covering protests and threatening independent media with criminal prosecutions, in violation of the rights to freedom of expression. Media report attacks on media workers and editorial offices. This caused an information vacuum making it impossible to reconstruct an objective picture of the suppression of the protests.

Tokayev also accused activists, foreign media and human rights defenders of abusing their rights to freedom of expression and assembly provided for in a 2020 law on peaceful assembly. The protest against political and economic inequality was later declared a "terrorist provocation" by the Kazakh authorities.

«The Kazakhstani authorities wish to discredit the protest, to present it not as a spontaneous popular outrage against poverty and inequelities, but as a planned terrorist operation or a Maidan shifting the responsibility for the victims to some external enemy, supported by human rights organisations», commented Aina Shormanbayeva, ILI Foundation, Kazakhstan.

The FIDH and its member organisations in Kazakhstan call on Kazakhstan’s authorities to revoke the order to “shoot to kill” protesters, carry out their obligations to protect and respect the right to life by halting violence on both sides, put an end to the inflammatory rhetoric targeting human rights defenders and the civil society more broadly, to cease internet restrictions and restrictions on the work and access of journalists, and to facilitate an independent inquiry into the January 2022 unrest, within the auspices of the OSCE or the UN, in order to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Background

On January 2, protests erupted in western Kazakhstan city of Zhanaozen due to an announced increase in the price of liquified gas. Protests promptly spread throughout the country, including to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. In addition to economic demands, protesters called for political reforms, including the direct election of regional governors, more civic freedoms and the departure of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has remained the main political force in the country despite his resignation in 2019.

As peaceful protests escalated, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev capped gas prices, dismissed the government of Kazakhstan, as well as Head of the Security Council - Nazarbayev, and introduced a state of emergency. However, peaceful protests continued and on January 5 violence sparked in Almaty and other cities: media shared footage of clashes between protesters and the police, arson and storming of administrative buildings, and mass looting.

The escalation led to a brutal response by the Kazakh law enforcement forces and foreign intervention by member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), including Russia and Belarus, invited to Kazakhstan on dubious legal grounds.