Kazakhstan: Free activists and allow peaceful protests to take place

At the protest rally against "sale of land" 
in Atyrau, 24 August 2016. 
Photo by azattyq.org/
Authorities in Kazakhstan must immediately release all peaceful activists arrested ahead of planned protests on May 21, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Adil Soz, International Legal Initiative and Association for Human Rights in Central Asia said in a statement today.

This week Kazakhstani authorities have arrested several leading activists ahead of planned country-wide protests against a new land reform, the groups said. Activists and social media users have been arrested in Astana, Almaty, Atyray, Shymkent, Uralsk and Semey. Authorities have pressed criminal charges against at least two activists, whereas numerous others have been sentenced to up to 15 days of administrative detention.

“Arresting activists and social media users for expressing their intention to participate in peaceful protests is a clear violation of Kazakhstan’s international obligations. The authorities must immediately release all arrested activists and ensure every citizen the right to freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly,” said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Public demonstrations initially started in western Kazakhstan, in the city of Atyrau on April 24 as a protest against amendments to the land law. The new legislation would allow foreigners to lease farm land for up to 25 years, which protesters fear will effectuate that Kazakhstani land will permanently befall foreigners. From Atyrau the protests quickly spread to other cities in western Kazakhstan, such as Aktobe, Aktau and Uralsk. Within a short time similar rallies were manifested in numerous cities across Kazakhstan including Astana, Almaty, Zhanaosen, Kizilorda and Semey. The demonstrations have so far drawn a considerable number of protesters, which is highly uncommon in Kazakhstan where broad public participation in public protests is a rare occurrence.

“The wave of arrests shows the Kazakhstani authorities’ disregard for freedom of assembly. We call on the authorities to allow the planned peaceful protests to take place in line with international human rights standards,” said Aina Shormanbaeva, President of the International Legal Initiative.

President Nazarbaev responded to the protests on May 5 by announcing a moratorium on the new legislation. Dissatisfied with the moratorium activists in several cities applied to local authorities seeking permission to hold protest rallies on May 21. Following the subsequent denial from the authorities to hold protest, numerous activists and social media users across Kazakhstan nonetheless expressed their intention to participate in protest rallies across Kazakhstan on May 21.

In response to the calls for public protests on May 21 the authorities launched a wave of arrests on May 17 that still continued when this statement was published. Activists and outspoken social media users were arrested in several cities, including Astana, Almaty, Semey and Uralsk. At least 24 people have been arrested or detained after expressing their intention to take part in the planned May 21 protests, or after applying to local authorities for permission to hold protests.

“The authorities are using administrative detention as a tool to silence activists and outspoken voices”, said Tamara Kaleva, President of the Adil Soz foundation. “This sends a chilling message to every citizen of Kazakhstan – that openly expressing your views in social media can land you behind bars. Kazakhstan must stop the current crackdown on freedom of expression”, she added.

Whereas most of the arrested activists are held in administrative detention, several activists face criminal charges as well. In Uralsk, local activist and musician Zhanat Esentaev is currently under arrest on suspicions of “incitement of social, national, clan, race, class or religious discord”. Esentaev had prior to his arrest applied to local authorities for permission to hold protests in the public square of Uralsk on May 21. In connection with Esentaev’s case, other local activists have the status as witnesses, but may potentially risk criminal charges themselves. In Astana authorities have raised criminal charges against activist Makhsat Ilyashev, although the details of the charges remain unknown, according to Radio Azzatyk. Furthermore, authorities have interrogated several other activists on charges of organizing mass-disorder.

Although the Constitution of Kazakhstan guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, the legal framework regulating such activities poses numerous obstacles to public protest. According to Kazakhstani law, would-be protesters must apply for a permit from local authorities no less than ten days in advance of the planned protests. Furthermore, the application can only be submitted by registered groups, not individuals, and the organizer carries responsibility for security during the event. The law also restricts where a meeting may be held: Public protests are not permitted where it may disturb transport, pedestrians or general infrastructure. Furthermore, it is forbidden to hold meetings outside the offices of public services, such as those providing water, gas or electricity, or outside offices of health or educational administrations, and close to buildings important to state defense or security. Also, meetings may not take place near railroads, ports or airports. Naturally, any spot in any city center will be in proximity of at least one of the above mentioned.

Internationally, Kazakhstan has received criticism for its restrictive approach to freedom of assembly and association. After a visit to Kazakhstan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Maina Kiai, last year expressed criticism of Kazakhstan’s practice and legal framework related to public protests. In his statement Kiai said that “in Kazakhstan today the freedom of assembly is treated as a privilege, or a favor, rather than a right”. Furthermore, the United Nations Human Rights Committee also ruled last year that Kazakhstan must review its legislation “in particular the Law on the Order of Organization and Conduct of Peaceful Assemblies, Meetings, Processions, Pickets and Demonstrations”.

“The arrests of civil society activists as well as the total control over anyone expressing their intention to participate in the planned peaceful protests, is a manifestation of political repression”, said Nadejda Atayeva, President of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia. “We call on the Kazakhstani authorities to end its undue interference in fundamental freedoms as guaranteed by the Constitution of Kazakhstan, and to amend the legal framework  as ruled by the United Nations Human Rights Committee last year”, she added.


Uzbekistan: Continuing repression in the wake of Andijan

On the 11th anniversary of the tragic events in Andijan, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), Action of Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), Association for Human Rights in Central Asia (AHRCA), Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC), Uzbek-German Forum for human rights (UGF), and Cotton Campaign at International Labor Rights Forum commemorate the victims of the bloodiest repression of demonstrators in the last 25 years in Uzbekistan and express concern that the Uzbekistani authorities continue repressions against those who speak out about the tragic events in Andijan of 13 May 2005.

On 13 May, a growing number of people gathered in the central Babur Square in Andijan to voice grievances about repressive government policies and economic hardships. Their number grew to several thousands. Uzbek law enforcement and security forces encircled the crowd and repeatedly fired indiscriminately on the protesters, the vast majority of whom were unarmed. They did not give any warning or attempt to use other crowd control measures, such as water cannons or tear gas, and ignored cries from protesters to stop shooting. As a result of the shootings, hundreds of people died and many more were injured. Among the victims were many women, children and elderly. According to official figures, 187 people were killed, but unofficial estimates put the number between 500 and 1500.

In the months after the events of 13 May, hundreds of people were charged with crimes related to the violence and tried in closed and secret hearings, where they were given lengthy prison sentences. Many others were forced to flee Uzbekistan. None of the officials who were involved in the shootings have been brought to justice and held accountable.

The government of Uzbekistan refers to "the Andijan issue" as an internal matter and has dismissed international calls for carrying out an effective, independent and impartial investigation into the May 2005 events, in violation of its international human rights obligations.

"Today, eleven years have passed since the massacre in Andijan, and still, no one has been held responsible for the extra-judicial killings and executions that shook the international community. Uzbekistan must allow an impartial, international investigation into the gruesome events that left hundreds dead", said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

"In Uzbekistan, the practice of imprisoning people on the basis of confessions obtained through torture is pervasive"  said Julia Bourbon head of the Central Asia and Asia desk of ACAT,  "Prisoners’ sentences are frequently extended. Thousands of political prisoners have spent years in prison in conditions amounting to torture and ill-treatment."

Although eleven years have passed since the Andijan tragedy, many of the circumstances remain unclear. It remains necessary to establish the number of dead, wounded and missing and to cease harassing those witnesses and civil society activists who demand an investigation into the tragedy.

Those who fled Uzbekistan and settled in Russia and throughout the CIS face continued repression and harassment. The relatives of Andijan refugees living in Uzbekistan face constant pressure from state bodies. The Uzbekistani authorities misuse international mechanisms such as Interpol to pursue civil society activists who have fled abroad.

"Corruption is widespread in all echelons of power in Uzbekistan and this destroys the rule of law and undermines the principles of the Constitution," said Nadejda Atayeva, AHRCA president.  "The lack of freedom of speech and of judicial independence only serves to fuel practices of torture and contemporary forms of slavery. We must remember the Andijan tragedy and speak out about the situation in Uzbekistan."

"The climate of fear continues to enable the Uzbek government's use of forced labor, and officials increased the frequency and severity of attacks against citizens documenting the cotton harvest this past year," said Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign coordinator at the International Labor Rights Forum. "It is incumbent on the international community to press the Uzbekistani government to ensure citizens can raise labor and human rights concerns without fear of reprisals."

"We won't forget the tragic events of Andijan; despite the authorities’ attempts to silence those who strived to report on the tragedy of 13 May 2005. Journalists have a crucial role to play to remind the world about the repression imposed by the Uzbekistani authorities on the people — from cotton workers to media workers. Our thoughts go to the Uzbekistani journalists who continue to endure violence, prison, torture or exile in retribution for exercising their right to freedom of information", said, Johann Bihr, head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

The international community must not forget about the tragic events in Andijan, and must pay close attention to the ongoing human rights violations occurring in Uzbekistan. External pressure is imperative to achieve accountability for the Andijan events and progress on the respect of fundamental human rights and the development of civil society in Uzbekistan.

"Allowing the Andijan massacre to be forgotten means the Uzbekistani authorities will avoid assuming responsibility for the most serious of crimes,"  Rachel Bugler, IPHR consultant — "the international community must continue to demand accountability for this tragedy and the UN Human Rights Council should establish a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan."