Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but there were significant restrictions on this right. On May 25, President Tokayev signed the law on peaceful assembly in the country. The government praised it as a step forward in the liberalization of the country’s legislation. Opponents criticized it as restrictive and falling short of international standards for the freedom of peaceful assembly. Serious restrictions remained. Organizers must submit advance notification to the local government and wait for its response. The law states all gatherings except single-person pickets may only be held in areas designated by authorities, spontaneous gatherings are banned, and foreigners and stateless persons are denied the right to peaceful assembly.
Two opposition groups–the Democratic Party and the DCK–made separate calls to their supporters to rally on June 6. Despite authorities’ warnings against mass gatherings during the pandemic and police blocking roads that led to the venues of rallies, protesters in several cities demanded release of political prisoners, debt forgiveness, a ban on the sale of land to foreigners, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Police stated that 53 protesters were detained, seven of whom were punished by administrative fines, one protester was given a reprimand, and the rest were released after receiving an explanation of the law. Activists claimed that hundreds of protesters were detained by police, with some placed in jail and fined the day of the protest and others arrested afterwards.
On September 13, large peaceful protests were held in six cities after Democratic Party leaders prenotified local authorities in 12 cities of the planned protests. Protesters were allowed to gather and were only observed by police in most cities. Party leaders said that small groups of supporters were reportedly held in administrative detention before and then released just after the protests in some cities.
On September 25, the DCK organized small protests that were met by an energetic law enforcement response. Video on social media showed peaceful DCK protesters being arrested and carried away physically by large units of security forces. Social media posts and news sources indicated at least 43 persons were detained temporarily in connection with the September 25 event.
Freedom of Association
The law provides for limited freedom of association, but there were significant restrictions on this right. Any public organization set up by citizens, including religious groups, must be registered with the Ministry of Justice, as well as with the local departments of justice in every region in which the organization conducts activities. The law requires public or religious associations to define their specific activities, and any association that acts outside the scope of its charter may be warned, fined, suspended, or ultimately banned. Participation in unregistered public organizations may result in administrative or criminal penalties, such as fines, imprisonment, the closure of an organization, or suspension of its activities.
NGOs reported some difficulty in registering public associations. According to government information, these difficulties were due to discrepancies in the submitted documents (see section 5, Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights).
Membership organizations other than religious groups, which are covered under separate legislation, must have at least 10 members to register at the local level and must have branches in more than one-half the country’s regions for national registration (see sections 3, Political Parties and Political Participation, and 7.a., Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining).
By law all “nongovernment organizations, subsidiaries, and representative offices of foreign and international noncommercial organizations” are required to provide information on “their activities, including information regarding the founders, assets, sources of their funds and what they are spent on….” An “authorized body” may initiate a “verification” of the information submitted based on information received in mass media reports, complaints from individuals and entities, or other subjective sources. Untimely or inaccurate information contained in the report, discovered during verification, is an administrative offense and may carry fines up to 63,125 tenge ($164) or suspension for three months if the violation is not rectified or is repeated within one year. In extreme cases criminal penalties are possible, which may lead to a large fine, suspension, or closure of the organization.
The law prohibits illegal interference by members of public associations in the activities of the government, with a fine of up to 404,000 tenge ($1,050) or imprisonment for up to 40 days. If committed by the leader of the organization, the fine may be up to 505,000 tenge ($1,310) or imprisonment for no more than 50 days. The law did not clearly define “illegal interference.”
By law a public association, along with its leaders and members, may face fines for performing activities outside its charter. The law was not clear regarding the delineation between actions an NGO member may take in his or her private capacity versus as part of an organization.
The law establishes broad reporting requirements concerning the receipt and expenditure of foreign funds or assets; it also requires labeling all publications produced with support from foreign funds. The law also sets out administrative and criminal penalties for noncompliance with these requirements and potential restrictions on the conduct of meetings, protests, and similar activities organized with foreign funds.
In November a group of 13 NGOs that receive foreign funds reported heightened scrutiny by tax authorities, which some of the NGOs stated was likely motivated by the NGOs’ planned activities around parliamentary elections on January 10, 2021. The NGOs reportedly received notifications from tax authorities about discrepancies in their 2017-18 foreign grants reports, which the NGOs claimed were typographical errors and minor technical inaccuracies. The penalties the tax authorities proposed, administrative fines of 555,600 tenge ($1,300) and suspension of activities, were not commensurate with the alleged errors. None of the NGOs was accused of evading taxes, inappropriate spending of funds, or other unlawful tax-related actions.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Despite some regulatory restrictions, the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The government required foreigners who remained in the country for more than five days to register with migration police. Foreigners entering the country had to register at certain border posts or airports where they entered. Some foreigners experienced problems traveling in regions outside their registration area. The government’s Concept on Improving Migration Policy report covers internal migration, repatriation of ethnic Kazakh returnees, and external labor migration. In 2017 the government amended the rules for migrants entering the country so that migrants from Eurasian Economic Union countries may stay up to 90 days. There is a registration exemption for families of legal migrant workers for a 30-day period after the worker starts employment. The government has broad authority to deport those who violate the regulations.
Since 2011 the government has not reported the number of foreigners deported for gross violation of visitor rules. Individuals facing deportation may request asylum if they fear persecution in their home country. The government required persons who were suspects in criminal investigations to sign statements they would not leave their city of residence.
Authorities required foreigners to obtain prior permission to travel to certain border areas adjoining China and cities in close proximity to military installations. The government continued to declare particular areas closed to foreigners due to their proximity to military bases and the space launch center at Baikonur.
A state of emergency was declared by the president from March 16 to May 11 in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The government set stringent restrictions on the freedom of movement. Movement within cities and towns was restricted, and checkpoints were established to control the flow of traffic into and out of cities, where most of the early virus cases occurred. Special permission was granted to essential workers to pass the checkpoints. Many measures were implemented with short notice. All flights were stopped initially, and then were gradually allowed to resume, as the state of emergency ended and restrictions were gradually eased. Citizens’ mobility within cities was also restricted and required advance permission, but information about who had been granted permission was often incomplete, which initially limited mobility even for those with permission.
During the most stringent lockdown period, individuals were allowed to leave home only to go to grocery stores or pharmacies within 1.2 miles of their homes. All playgrounds were shut down. Children could not be outdoors without parents, and parks were closed. In localized cases authorities locked down whole apartment buildings if one tenant tested positive for COVID-19. In several extreme cases, local authorities welded shut entrance doors to the buildings. Police cordons surrounded the buildings. Residents were required to remain in their homes, often without sufficient food and other essential supplies. Human Rights Commissioner Elvira Azimova spoke up against locks put on apartment buildings. She stated that she believed it was enough to put fences and police cordons around buildings. Subsequent government responses to COVID-19 outbreaks in specific regions were less severe, but the government continued to employ time-limited travel restrictions and roadblocks to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic also had severe impacts on labor migrants. During the state of emergency period, many lost jobs or were forced to take unpaid leave. As a result, many could not afford housing, health services, or food. Migrants remained ineligible to seek government support, and they could not return to their home countries because air flights and railways stopped and borders were closed. Human rights activists reported that courts continued to issue rulings on deportation of migrants who did not have the relevant work permissions.
In May the government adopted a resolution to allow through January 5, 2021, the exit, without administrative penalties, of foreign citizens with expired or expiring identification documents or permits (visas, registration cards, work or residence permits). The government, with the assistance of local NGOs, negotiated with neighboring governments for the return of migrant laborers to their home countries. Migration Service Centers in all regions provided services for migrant laborers at one-stop express windows. As of November, according to government statistics, 149,217 foreign citizens had returned home from the country (including 30,801 Russian citizens), and the government had legalized the status of 146,970 foreign citizens (of whom 94,405 received temporary work permits, 1,966 received authorization for family reunion, 872 to study, 148 to receive medical care, and 6,501 for visa extensions).
Foreign Travel: The government did not require exit visas for temporary travel of citizens, yet there were certain instances in which the government could deny exit from the country, including in the case of travelers subject to pending criminal or civil proceedings or having unfulfilled prison sentences or unpaid taxes, fines, alimony, or utility bills, or compulsory military duty. Travelers who presented false documentation during the exit process could be denied the right to exit, and authorities controlled travel by active-duty military personnel. The law requires persons who had access to state secrets to obtain permission from their employing government agency for temporary exit from the country.
Exile: The law does not prohibit forced exile if authorized by an appropriate government agency or through a court ruling.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government severely limited exercise of this right.
Although constitutional amendments in 2017 increased legislative and executive branch authority in some spheres, the constitution concentrates power in the presidency itself. The president appoints and dismisses most high-level government officials, including the prime minister, cabinet, prosecutor general, KNB chief, Supreme Court and lower-level judges, and regional governors. A presidential decree signed October 9 requires most of these appointments to be made in consultation with the chairman of the Security Council, a position that was granted in 2018 to then president Nazarbayev for his lifetime.
The 2018 law on the first president–the “Leader of the Nation” law–establishes then president Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly and of the Security Council for life, grants him lifetime membership on the Constitutional Council, allows him “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time,” and stipulates that all “initiatives on the country’s development” must be coordinated through him.
The Mazhilis (the lower house of parliament) must confirm the president’s choice of prime minister, and the Senate must confirm the president’s choices of prosecutor general, KNB chief, Supreme Court judges, and National Bank head. Parliament has never failed to confirm a presidential nomination. Modifying or amending the constitution effectively requires the president’s consent.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down in March 2019 and under the constitution the presidency immediately passed to the chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Thereafter, the government conducted presidential elections in June 2019. Out of seven presidential candidates, Tokayev won with 70.96 percent of the vote. According to an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission’s report, the election “offered an important moment for potential political reforms, but it was tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The report cited a number of violations, such as ballot-box stuffing and problems with vote counting, including cases of deliberate falsification. Other problems included lack of transparency, such as by not releasing election results by polling station, and violations of the rights of assembly, expression, and association. The report also noted the widespread detention of peaceful protesters on election day in major cities. Overall, the conduct of the election showed “scant respect for democratic standards.”
The OSCE report further observed that the problems went beyond election day itself. According to the final report, in recent years some opposition parties have either been banned or marginalized through restrictive legislation or criminal prosecution, and the ability of new political parties to register was significantly restricted by the Law on Political Parties. Moreover, the legal framework for candidate eligibility was highly restrictive. The OSCE report also noted that 2017 constitutional and legislative amendments abolished self-nomination and introduced further eligibility requirements that significantly reduced the candidate pool, with requirements for education, residency, and experience in the civil service or elected government office.
The most recent elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, took place in 2016. The ruling Nur Otan Party won 84 seats, Ak Zhol won seven seats, and the Communist People’s Party won seven seats. An observer mission from the OSCE noted irregularities and limitations on civil and political rights.
The country held Senate elections on August 12, following the legal requirement that 17 of 49 senators rotate every three years. Senators were selected by members of maslikhats (local representative bodies) acting as electors to represent each administrative region and the cities of national significance. Four incumbent senators were re-elected, and the majority of the newly elected senators were affiliated with the local authorities.
In June 2018 the government amended the election law. One change reduced the independence of members of maslikhats. Previously, citizens could self-nominate and vote for individual candidates running in elections for the maslikhats. Under the amended law, only parties may select candidates for party lists, citizens vote for parties, and the parties then choose whom from their list would join the maslikhat.
Another election law change affected public opinion surveys ahead of elections. According to the amendments, only legal entities may conduct public opinion surveys about elections after notifying the Central Election Commission (CEC). Such entities must be legally registered and have at least five years’ experience in conducting public opinion surveys. Violation of the law leads to a fine of 37,875 tenge ($98) for an individual and 75,750 tenge ($197) for an organization. The law prohibits publishing, within five days of elections, election forecasts and other research related to elections or support for particular candidates or political parties.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As part of the set of amendments in the political parties law signed by President Tokayev on May 25, the registration threshold was reduced from 40,000 to 20,000 members, with a minimum of 600 members from each region.
By law if authorities challenge the application by alleging irregular signatures, the registration process may continue only if the total number of eligible signatures exceeds the minimum number required. The law prohibits parties established on an ethnic, gender, or religious basis. The law also prohibits members of the armed forces, employees of law enforcement and other national security organizations, and judges from participating in political parties.
There were six registered political parties: Adal (formerly Birlik), Ak Zhol, Kazakhstan People’s Party (formerly the Communist People’s Party), National Social Democratic Party, Nur Otan Party, and People’s Patriotic Party “Auyl.” All parties generally did not oppose Nur Otan policies.
In 2018 the Yesil district court in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) banned, as an extremist organization, the DCK movement, which was organized by the fugitive banker and opposition figure, Mukhtar Ablyazov. The movement’s declared goal was the peaceful change of the country’s authoritarian regime into a parliamentary republic. The court ruled that the DCK incited social discord, created a negative image of state authorities, and provoked protest.
On February 8, a group of activists announced that they were founding the Koshe Party (“Street Party”), with the stated goal to change the country into a parliamentary republic, release all political prisoners, and combat corruption. On May 19, the Yesil district court in Nur-Sultan banned the Koshe Party as a successor organization of the DCK. The party was not represented at the court hearing. Human rights observers criticized the lack of fair court proceedings as a violation of the freedom of association.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: On May 25, President Tokayev signed into law amendments on national elections and political parties that mandate a combined 30 percent quota for women and youth in the lists of candidates of political parties running in elections. Youth are defined as those between the ages of 14 and 29. The amendments do not, however, specify the same ratio among the actually elected members of parliament and the maslikhats.
Traditional attitudes sometimes hindered women from holding high office or playing active roles in political life, although there were no legal restrictions on the participation of women or minorities in politics.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Although the government took some steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, impunity existed, especially where corruption was involved or personal relationships with government officials were established.
Corruption: Corruption was widespread in the executive branch, law enforcement agencies, local government administrations, the education system, and the judiciary, according to human rights NGOs. According to the Anticorruption Agency, the largest number of officials held liable for corruption in the first six months were in police, finance and agriculture areas. They also reported a three-fold increase in the number of corruption cases among military officers.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Agency on Combatting Corruption, KNB, and economic investigations service of the Finance Ministry are responsible for combating corruption. The KNB investigates corruption crimes committed by officers of the special agencies, anticorruption bureau, and military. During the first nine months of the year, the government recorded 2,140 corruption crimes across all agencies. In addition to administrative and disciplinary penalties, 195 officials had cases submitted to the courts and were held criminally liable. The most frequent crimes were bribery, abuse of power, and embezzlement of property. The government charged 442 civil servants with corruption crimes.
On May 27, a court found the governor of Pavlodar province, Bulat Bakauov, guilty of abuse of power. As a result of a plea bargain reached by the defendant and prosecutors, the court sentenced Bakauov to 3.5 years of restricted freedom of movement (probation) and to a life ban on government service. The court did not rule on confiscation of any property because it did not find any property obtained by unlawful means.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials, applicants for government positions, and those released from government service to declare their income and assets in the country and abroad to tax authorities annually. The same requirement applies to their spouses, dependents, and adult children. Similar regulations exist for members of parliament and judges. Tax declarations are not available to the public. The law imposes administrative penalties for noncompliance with the requirements.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated with some freedom to investigate and publish their findings on human rights cases, although some restrictions on human rights NGO activities remained. International and local human rights groups reported the government monitored NGO activities on sensitive topics and practiced harassment, including police visits to and surveillance of NGO offices, personnel, and family members. Government officials often were uncooperative or nonresponsive to questions about their views.
In recent years the government refused three applications from Atajurt, an advocacy organization for the rights of ethnic Kazakhs in China, to register. Each time, the stated basis for refusal was errors in Atajurt’s paperwork. The government continued to pressure Atajurt leader Serikzhan Bilash, and on August 18, the court in Almaty found him guilty of participation in an unregistered organization and punished him with an administrative fine of 138,900 tenge ($330). Bilash denied the charges and called them unreasonable and unlawful. Bilash previously had signed a plea agreement in 2019 that banned him from political activism in connection with his criminal case for incitement of discord. In December international media reported that Bilash fled the country in September and was living in Turkey.
The International Legal Initiative, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Kadyr Kassiyet, the Legal Media Center, and Foundation on Parliamentary Development were among the most visibly active human rights NGOs. Some NGOs faced occasional difficulties in acquiring office space and technical facilities. Government leaders participated–and regularly included NGOs–in roundtables and other public events on democracy and human rights.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government invited UN special rapporteurs to visit the country and meet with NGOs dealing with human rights. The government generally did not prevent other international NGOs and multilateral institutions dealing with human rights from visiting the country and meeting with local human rights groups and government officials. National security laws prohibit foreigners, international organizations, NGOs, and other nonprofit organizations from engaging in political activities. The government prohibited international organizations from funding unregistered entities.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Presidential Commission on Human Rights is a consultative and advisory body that includes top officials and members of the public appointed by the president. The commission reviews and investigates complaints, issues recommendations, and monitors fulfillment of international human rights conventions. The commission does not have legal authority to remedy human rights violations or implement its recommendations.
The Commissioner on Human Rights (Ombudsman) is elected by the Senate upon the president’s recommendation for a five-year term. The ombudsman reviews and investigates complaints about violations of human rights by officials and organizations. The ombudsman issues recommendations and publishes reports on human rights, and also serves as the chair of the Coordinating Council of the National Preventive Mechanism against Torture.
The ombudsman did not have the authority to investigate complaints concerning decisions of the president, heads of government agencies, parliament, cabinet, Constitutional Council, Prosecutor General’s Office, CEC, or courts, although s/he may investigate complaints against individuals. The Ombudsman’s Office has the authority to appeal to the president, cabinet, or parliament to resolve citizens’ complaints; cooperate with international human rights organizations and NGOs; meet with government officials concerning human rights abuses; visit certain facilities, such as military units and prisons; and publicize in media the results of investigations. The Ombudsman’s Office also published an annual human rights report. During the year the office occasionally briefed media and issued reports on complaints it had investigated.
Domestic human rights observers indicated that the Ombudsman’s Office and the human rights commission were unable to stop human rights abuses or punish perpetrators. The commission and ombudsman avoided addressing underlying structural problems that led to human rights abuses, although they advanced human rights by publicizing statistics and individual cases and aided citizens with less controversial social problems and issues involving lower-level elements of the bureaucracy.