The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became president after June 2019 elections that were marked, according to an observation mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, by election day violations, including ballot stuffing and falsification of vote counts; restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, expression, and association; and “scant respect for democratic standards” overall. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoys broad, lifetime legal authority over a range of government functions. The executive branch controls the legislature and the judiciary, as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. On August 12, in the country’s only national election during the year, the legislatures of oblasts and cities of national significance chose 17 of 49 senators for parliament’s upper house in an indirect election tightly controlled by local governors working in coordination with the presidential administration.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs supervises the national police force, which has primary responsibility for internal security. The Committee for National Security also oversees internal and border security, as well as national security, antiterrorism efforts, and the investigation and interdiction of illegal or unregistered groups, such as extremist groups, military groups, political parties, religious groups, and trade unions. The committee reports directly to the president, and its chairman sits on the Security Council, chaired by former president Nazarbayev. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government; torture by and on behalf of the government; political prisoners; problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
The government selectively prosecuted officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases. Nonetheless, corruption remained widespread, and impunity existed for many in positions of authority as well as for those connected to law enforcement entities.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several well-publicized reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings or beatings that led to deaths. Activists noted that deadly abuse in prisons, particularly abuse carried out by so-called voluntary assistants–prisoners who receive special privileges in exchange for carrying out orders of prison staff, remained frequent.
On October 17, police detained local herdsman Azamat Orazaly and took him to the police station in Makanchi village on suspicion of cattle theft. Later that same day, Orazaly died, allegedly while police tried to beat out a confession of the theft. On October 19, police confirmed that Azamat died in the police office in Makanchi. The investigation led to charges of torture, and three police officers were arrested.
Some human rights organizations also considered the February 24 death of civil society activist Dulat Agadil, while in police custody, an unlawful killing. Police had arrested Agadil in his house near Nur-Sultan on February 24 and placed him in the capital’s pretrial detention facility following a contempt of court decision related to insults directed at a judge in a separate case. Early the next morning, police reported Agadil had died from a heart attack. After human rights activists demanded an impartial investigation, medical authorities examined Agadil’s body the following day with the participation of two independent doctors, who did not find evidence of forced death, although they did find signs of bruising. On February 29, President Tokayev stated that he had studied the case materials and was confident Agadil died of a heart attack. On May 28, the Nur-Sultan Prosecutor’s Office announced it had dropped its investigation into Agadil’s death after finding no signs of criminal acts, as Agadil’s arrest and detention were in full compliance with the law.
The legal process continued in the killing of a human rights defender from 2019. In May 2019 the body of activist Galy Baktybayev, who was shot with a rifle, was found in the Karaganda region’s Atasu village. Baktybayev was a civil activist who raised problems of corruption, embezzlement, and other violations by local government. A special investigation group created by the Minister of Internal Affairs detained four suspects, including one former police officer. The investigation was completed and submitted to court in May, and an ongoing jury trial began on August 17.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture; nevertheless, there were reports that police and prison officials tortured and abused detainees. Human rights activists asserted the domestic legal definition of torture was noncompliant with the definition of torture in the UN Convention against Torture.
The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture (NPM) was established by law as part of the government’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. According to public statements by Ombudsman Azimova in September, the number of prisoner complaints about torture and other abuse increased in comparison to 2019. During the first 10 months of the year, her office received 125 complaints about torture and cruel treatment, compared to 84 throughout 2019. The NPM reported that 121 criminal cases were registered from those complaints and 23 individuals were convicted of torture. In 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office reported 136 complaints of torture in the first six months of the year, of which five were forwarded to courts following investigation.
The ombudsman also criticized what she termed “the widely practiced GULAG-style treatment” of prisoners and suggested that the lack of education and monitoring were the reasons for that lingering problem. She called for regular training of the staff of penitentiary institutions and an update of the penitentiary system’s rules to provide for more effective interaction with the NPM to make it impossible for prison staff to conceal incidents of torture.
Cases of prison officers being brought to justice for torture were rare, and officers often received light punishment.
On February 3, the Kapshagay district court convicted seven officers of Zarechniy prison of torture. The court sentenced Deputy Director for Behavioral Correction Arman Shabdenov and Deputy Director for Operations Jexenov to seven years in jail, and the others received sentences ranging from five to six years in jail.
On April 1, Yerbolat Askarov, director of the operations unit of a prison in Shakhtinsk near Karaganda, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ probation for torturing prisoners in addition to a three-year ban on work in penitentiary institutions. On January 23, more than 200 prisoners in Uralsk prison RU-170/3 were severely beaten by National Guard soldiers brought in by prison administrators to search for contraband. A prisoner’s relative contacted human rights activists about the incident, and the next day NPM representatives led by a local human rights activist visited the prison and listened to prisoners describe their treatment. Prisoners stated that the soldiers beat prisoners, kept them outdoors in frigid temperatures for three hours with inadequate clothing, destroyed personal items, and verbally abused them. After the raid prison officials did not let prisoners visit the infirmary. NPM representatives collected 99 written complaints, and the Penitentiary Committee and prosecutors promised to investigate all allegations. A similar incident occurred in that same prison a year prior, but no one was held responsible for either incident.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The civil society alliance Tirek maintained a list of approximately 23 individuals it considered detained or imprisoned based on politically motivated charges. These included activist Aron Atabek, land law activist Maks Bokayev, and individuals connected to the banned political party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), which is led by fugitive banker and opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov. Additionally, more prisoners were connected to the Koshe Party, also banned and labeled by the government as the successor of the DCK, as well as others connected to Mukhtar Ablyazov. Convicted labor union leader Larisa Kharkova remained subject to restricted movement, unable to leave her home city without permission of authorities. Human rights organizations have access to prisoners through the NPM framework.
Bokayev was sentenced in 2016 to five years in prison for his role in organizing peaceful land reform protests. He was convicted of “instituting social discord,” “disseminating knowingly false information,” and “violating the procedure of organization and holding of meetings, rallies, pickets, street processions and demonstrations.” Although the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that his imprisonment was arbitrary, he remained in jail at year’s end.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
In March Rustam Ibragimov, the former managing director of BTA Bank, was extradited to the country from the United Arab Emirates. As an alleged associate of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a leading opposition figure residing in France, Ibragimov was allegedly suspected of helping Ablyazov illegally transfer money from BTA Bank to foreign financial institutions. His extradition occurred after joint efforts from Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Emirati authorities found a passport he had used to be illegal.
On September 29, France’s National Court of Asylum Issues granted political asylum to Mukhtar Ablyazov. In its ruling the court deplored direct pressure from the government of Kazakhstan and “the obvious attempts by outside agents to exert influence on the asylum authorities.”
On October 12, an Italian court sentenced six Italian law enforcement officers on abduction charges and one justice of the peace for forgery. According to the Italian authorities, Alma Shalabayeva, the wife of Kazakhstani opposition leader and political refugee Mukhtar Ablyazov, and her six-year-old daughter Alua were abducted by certain Italian officers and officials in the framework of interstate cooperation in criminal matters. After a meeting between Giuseppe Procaccini, then head of cabinet of the Ministry of the Interior, and Andrian Yelemesov, the Kazakhstani ambassador to Italy, Alma and Alua were detained by Italian police in 2013 during a raid on Ablyazov’s residence in Rome. While Ablyazov was not home, two days after the raid, Alma and Alua were forced onto a private plane provided by Kazakhstani authorities and flown to Kazakhstan after being charged with alleged passport fraud. Due to mounting international criticism, Alma and Alua were returned to Italy at the end of 2013. The court did not provide a full explanation of the verdict but announced that all the accused received higher sentences than those requested by prosecutors. The head of Rome’s Immigration Office, Maurizio Improta, and the head of the police flying squad, Renato Cortese, were convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and disqualification from holding any public office. Similarly, Francesco Stampacchia and Luca Armeni, the officers of Rome’s flying squad, were sentenced to five years in prison. Stefano Leoni and Vincenzo Tramma, the officers of Rome’s Immigration Office, were given three years and six months and four years, respectively.
Activists and media regularly noted the government targets political opponents, in particular those with business or family connections to Ablyazov, using INTERPOL red notices. On May 14, Ukraine’s Supreme Court revoked a lower court’s ruling in favor of Kazakhstani journalist and activist Zhanara Akhmet’s asylum request. The Supreme Court’s decision made possible the extradition to Kazakhstan of Akhmet, who was wanted there for fraud and was an active supporter of Ablyazov, because Ukraine had ratified an extradition agreement with Kazakhstan. The journalist’s supporters alleged that Ukraine’s Supreme Court decision was a result of cooperation between Ukrainian and Kazakhstani law enforcement agencies. The Open Dialogue Foundation, Freedom House, and Ukrainian and Kazakhstani human rights NGOs called on Ukraine’s authorities not to extradite Akhmet.