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Kazakhstan

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture; nevertheless, police and prison officials allegedly 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 (NPM) against Torture came into force in 2014 when the prime minister signed rules permitting the monitoring of institutions. Some observers commented that NPM staff lacked sufficient knowledge and training to recognize instances of torture. The NPM is part of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and thus is not independent of the government. The human rights ombudsman reported during the year receiving 96 complaints alleging torture, violence, and other cruel and degrading treatment and punishment. In its March report covering activities in 2015, the NPM reported that the risk of human rights violations was high at temporary detention centers, especially in the first few hours. The Public Monitoring Commission (PMC) corroborated that report and elaborated that torture typically occurred during the initial period of detention. Suspects often were beaten during transit or in police stations.

The NGO Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) recorded 115 complaints of torture in the first six months of the year. The prosecutor general indicated its office registered 600 torture complaints on average per year. Not all cases led to prosecution or conviction. The NGO Penal Reform International (PRI) indicated four of the 350 officially registered criminal investigations of torture went to court trial during the first 10 months of the year.

In June an inmate of prison LA-155/18 in the Almaty region, Natalya Slekishina, submitted a complaint to the Almaty police department that she had been raped by several prison officers. She subsequently gave birth to a child on April 25. DNA tests conducted by the Center of Forensic Examination under the Justice Ministry indicated a DNA match for Ruslan Hakimov, one of the four prison officers mentioned in Slekishina’s complaint, as the child’s biological father. Slekishina’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova, a well-known human rights attorney, insisted the three other officers should be charged with rape as well. Umarova argued that other officers who were aware of the crime should also be held liable and that charges for torture should be added to the case, since they failed to stop the rape. Slekishina, who faced pressure and threats while under continued incarceration, chose not to press charges in the case further. On September 30, Hakimov was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were generally harsh and sometimes life threatening, and facilities did not meet international health standards. Health problems among prisoners went untreated in many cases, or prison conditions exacerbated them.

Physical Conditions: According to PRI, although men and women were held separately and pretrial detainees were held separately from convicted prisoners, during transitions between temporary detention centers, pretrial detention, and prisons, youths often were held with adults of the same sex.

Abuse occurred in police cells, pretrial detention facilities, and prisons. Observers cited the primary cause of mistreatment as the lack of professional training programs for administrators.

The NPM reported infrastructure problems in prisons, such as unsatisfactory sanitary and hygiene conditions, including poor plumbing and sewerage systems and unsanitary bedding. It also reported shortages of medical staff and insufficient medicine, as well as problems of mobility for prisoners with disabilities. In many places NPM noted restricted connectivity with the outside world and limited access to information about prisoners’ rights. PRI reported there was a widespread lack of heating and adequate ventilation in prisons, noting that in some cases extreme temperatures threatened the health of the inmates.

The government did not publish statistics on the number of suicides or attempted suicides in pretrial detention centers or prisons during the year.

According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, 54 cases of civil disobedience by prisoners were registered in 2016.

Administration: The law does not allow unapproved religious services, rites, ceremonies, meetings, or missionary activity in prisons. By law a prisoner in need of “religious rituals” or his relatives may ask to invite a representative of a registered religious organization to carry out religious rites, ceremonies, and/or meetings, provided they do not obstruct prison activity or violate the rights and legal interests of other individuals.

Independent Monitoring: There were no independent international monitors of prisons. The local independent monitoring group PMC visited approximately 340340 facilities during the first six months of the year.

Improvements: The 2015 criminal code introduced alternative sentences, including fines and public service, but human rights activists noted they were not implemented effectively.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on media through a variety of means, including laws, harassment, licensing regulations, internet restrictions, and criminal and administrative charges. Judicial actions against journalists and media outlets, including civil and criminal libel suits filed by government officials, led to the suspension of several media outlets and encouraged self-censorship. The law provides for additional measures and restrictions during “social emergencies,” defined as “an emergency on a certain territory caused by contradictions and conflicts in social relations that may cause or have caused loss of life, personal injury, significant property damage, or violation of conditions of the population.” In these situations the government may censor media sources by requiring them to provide their print, audio, and video information to authorities 24 hours before issuance/broadcasting for approval. Political parties and public associations may be suspended or closed should they obstruct the efforts of security forces. Regulations also allow the government to restrict or ban copying equipment, broadcasting equipment, and audio and video recording devices and temporarily seize sound-enhancing equipment.

Freedom of Speech and Expression: The government limited individual ability to criticize the country’s leadership, and regional leaders attempted to limit criticism of their actions in local media. The law prohibits insulting the president or the president’s family.

The 2015 criminal code penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.96 million tenge ($40,000) and imprisonment for up to 10 years. For example, Kazkommertsbank, one of the largest banks in the country, sued the web portal nakanune.kz for publishing a reader’s letter. The bank claimed the website published false information implicating the bank in corruption. On May 23, Baydalinova was sentenced to 18 months’ incarceration. On July 12, the court suspended her sentence.

The criminal code penalizes “inciting social, national, tribal, racial, or religious discord” with imprisonment of up to 20 years. Civil society activist Zhanat Yesentayev was arrested in Uralsk on May 17, amid land reform protests. He was charged with incitement of interethnic discord in social media. In July he agreed to a plea bargain and was sentenced to two years and six months of restriction of freedom and a ban on participation in public protests, public performances, and posting any messages in social media on public, political, social, or environmental issues.

On January 21, a court in Astana sentenced civil society activist Bolatbek Blyalov to three years of restriction of freedom, meaning he was restricted to his city of residence and required legal supervision in the manner of parole, for instigation of ethnic and social discord. Blyalov had posted videos against the use of heptyl fuel, a highly toxic Russian Proton rocket fuel, at Baikonur cosmodrome.

On January 23, a court in Almaty convicted Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev, finding that their October 2015 social media postings incited social discord and insulted the honor and dignity of the country. The court sentenced Narymbayev to three years in jail and Mambetalin to two years in jail. On January 29, Mambetalin was released from prison after he publicly repented his actions. His prison term was replaced with a one-year restriction of freedom and a three-year ban on public activity. On March 30, a court replaced Narymbayev’s prison term with three years’ restriction of freedom and prohibited him from participating in public activities for five years. On July 14, he reportedly fled the country.

Press and Media Freedoms: Many privately owned newspapers and television stations received government subsidies. The lack of transparency in media ownership and the dependence of many outlets on government contracts for media coverage are significant problems. Companies allegedly controlled by members of the president’s family or associates owned many of the broadcast media outlets that the government did not control outright. According to media observers, the government wholly or partly owned most of the nationwide television broadcasters. Regional governments owned several frequencies, and the Ministry of Investment and Development distributed those frequencies to independent broadcasters via a tender system.

All media are required to register with the Ministry of Information and Communication, although websites are exempt from this requirement. The law limits the simultaneous broadcast of foreign-produced programming to 20 percent of a locally based station’s weekly broadcast time. This provision burdened smaller, less-developed regional television stations that lacked resources to create programs, although the government did not sanction any media outlet under this provision. Foreign media broadcasting does not have to meet this requirement.

Violence and Harassment: According to the NGO Adil Soz, through August authorities prevented reporters from carrying out their duties in 86 instances; 57 of them occurred during the May 21 land protests. Adil Soz found that authorities denied or significantly restricted journalists’ access to public information 114 times.

Journalists working in opposition media and covering stories related to corruption reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors.

The president of the Kazakhstan Union of Journalists and former spokesman for President Nazarbayev, Seitkazy Matayev, was arrested in Almaty on February 22 on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement of state funds related to his news agency KazTAG’s government contracts. (Like many other media outlets in the country, KazTAG maintained contracts with the government for media coverage.) On October 3, a judge in Astana sentenced Matayev to six years in prison and his son, Aset, the director of the news agency, to five years and confiscation of business-related real estate property and assets.

On April 19, Tamara Kaleyeva from the NGO Adil Soz was elected to replace Matayev as the new head of the Union of Journalists. Since her appointment, however, she and the organization have been subjected to three on-site tax audits.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law enables the government to restrict media content through amendments that prohibit undermining state security or advocating class, social, race, national, or religious discord. Owners, editors, distributors, and journalists may be held civilly and criminally responsible for content unless it came from an official source. The government used this provision to restrict media freedom.

The law allows the prosecutor general to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. In cases where communication networks were used “for criminal purposes to harm the interests of an individual, society, or the state, or to disseminate information violating the Election Law… or containing calls for extremist or terrorist activities, riots, or participation in large-scale (public) activities carried out in violation of the established order,” the prosecutor general may suspend communication services.

By law internet resources, including social media, are classified as forms of mass media and governed by the same rules and regulations. Several bloggers and social media users were charged with inciting social discord through their posts and sentenced to imprisonment. Civic activists and bloggers Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev were sentenced to two and three years in jail respectively on January 22 on charges of “inciting interethnic hatred discord” by posting excerpts of an unpublished book about Kazakhstan’s dependence on Russia. Their sentences were later reduced to house arrest.

Pavlodar resident Ruslan Ginatullin was detained July 5 after posting social media page links to two YouTube videos, one discussing “Russian Nazis” and the other on the conflict in Ukraine. Ministry of Justice “experts” determined content in the two videos incited interethnic discord. Ginatullin’s lawyer said the charges were baseless, and his client was a staunch pacifist who posted the videos to warn individuals against war and extremism. A blogger in Aktobe, Sanat Dosov, went on trial November 29, also charged with inciting social discord for allegedly posting articles critical of Russian President Putin.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides enhanced penalties for libel against senior government officials. Private parties may initiate criminal libel suits without independent action by the government, and an individual filing such a suit may also file a civil suit based on the same allegations. Officials used the law’s libel and defamation provisions to restrict media outlets from publishing unflattering information. Both the criminal and civil codes contain articles establishing broad liability for libel, with no statute of limitation or maximum amount of compensation. The requirement that owners, editors, distributors, publishing houses, and journalists prove the veracity of published information, regardless of its source, encouraged self-censorship at each level.

The law includes penalties for defamatory remarks made in the mass media or “information-communication networks,” including heavy fines and prison terms. Journalists and human rights activists feared these provisions would strengthen the government’s ability to restrict investigative journalism.

NGOs reported that libel cases against journalists and media outlets remained a problem. Media freedom NGO Adil Soz reported 47 criminal libel charges, with four ending in conviction, and 55 civil libel lawsuits filed against journalists and media. Only 17 cases were ruled in favor of journalists. Adil Soz indicated the numbers represented a nearly fourfold increase in criminal cases against media outlets and individual journalists over the last two years. On July 12, an Almaty court ruled an article in the independent Tribunanewspaper harmed the dignity and honor of Sultanbek Syzdykov, the former director for organizing the Asian Winter Games “Asiada-2011,” and imposed an administrative fine of five million tenge ($15,000) on the author of the publication and the newspaper. The newspaper filed an appeal that the courts rejected in October.

National Security: The law criminalizes the release of information regarding the health, finances, or private life of the president, as well as economic information, such as data about mineral reserves or government debts to foreign creditors. To avoid possible legal problems, media outlets often practiced self-censorship regarding the president and his family.

The law prohibits “influencing public and individual consciousness to the detriment of national security through deliberate distortion and spreading of unreliable information.” Legal experts noted the term “unreliable information” is overly broad. The law also requires owners of communication networks and service providers to obey the orders of authorities in case of terrorist attacks or to suppress mass riots.

The law prohibits publication of any statement that promotes or glorifies “extremism” or “incites social discord,” terms that international legal experts noted the government did not clearly define. The government subjected to intimidation media outlets that criticized the president; such intimidation included law enforcement actions and civil suits. Although these actions continued to have a chilling effect on media outlets, some criticism of government policies continued. Incidents of local government pressure on media continued.

INTERNET FREEDOM

Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers believe the government added progovernment postings and opinions in internet chat rooms. The government regulated the country’s internet providers, including majority state-owned Kazakhtelecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government. Official statistics reported more than 70 percent of the population had internet access in 2016.

The Ministry of Information and Communication controlled the registration of “.kz” internet domains. Authorities may suspend or revoke registration for locating servers outside the country. Observers criticized the registration process as unduly restrictive and vulnerable to abuse.

The government implemented regulations on internet access that mandated surveillance cameras in all internet cafes, required visitors to present identification to use the internet, demanded internet cafes keep a log of visited websites, and authorized law enforcement officials to access the names and internet histories of users. In 2014 the president signed a law further restricting freedoms of communication (see section 2.a.).

NGO Adil Soz reported that during the first nine months, courts blocked 55 websites for propaganda of religious extremism and terrorism.

In several cases the government denied it was behind the blocking of websites. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, as did the publishers of independent news sites ratel.kzzonakz.net, and uralskweek.kz, as well as the website of the banned newspaper Respublika. Radio Azattyk reported that some of its news reports were not accessible in the country. During the May 21 protest rallies, there were multiple reports that access to social media, including YouTube, was partially or fully blocked.

Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to the 2016 Freedom on the Net report, Facebook users who planned to take part in protests reported several times they received police visits to their residences to “discuss their Facebook posts” and warn them against going to an unsanctioned gathering. The report noted internet users reported difficulties in accessing social media and communication apps during the land reform protests. In January activists utilizing social media announced and coordinated an unauthorized peaceful rally in support of the ADAMbol magazine, but authorities detained key participants–including journalists and human rights activists–near their residences as they were heading to the gathering. Civil society activists who discussed on social media their plans to take part in the May 21 land protests reported police visits to their residences to warn them against going to an unsanctioned gathering. On December 9, the Almaty specialized administrative court convicted civil society activist Almat Zhumagulov for re-posting another activist’s Facebook statement calling people to rally on the Independence Day and sentenced him to a 15-day administrative arrest.

Freedom on the Net reported during the year that the country maintained a system of operative investigative measures that allowed the government to use surveillance methods called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). While Kazakhtelecom maintained that it used its DPI system for traffic management, there were reports that Check Point Software Technologies installed the system on its backbone infrastructure in 2010. The report added that a regulator adopted a new internet monitoring technology, the Automated System of Monitoring the National Information Space.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government generally did not restrict academic freedom, although general restrictions, such as the prohibition on infringing on the dignity and honor of the president and his family, also applied to academics. Many academics practiced self-censorship.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but there were significant restrictions on this right, and police used force to disrupt peaceful demonstrations. The law defines unsanctioned gatherings, public meetings, demonstrations, marches, picketing, and strikes that upset social and political stability as national security threats.

The law includes penalties for organizing or participating in illegal gatherings and for providing organizational support in the form of property, means of communication, equipment, and transportation, if the enumerated actions cause significant damage to the rights and legal interests of citizens, entities, or legally protected interests of the society or the government.

By law organizations must apply to local authorities for a permit to hold a demonstration or public meeting at least 10 days in advance. Opposition figures and human rights monitors complained that complicated and vague procedures and the 10-day notification period made it difficult for groups to organize public meetings and demonstrations and noted local authorities turned down many applications for demonstrations or only allowed them to take place outside the city center.

Authorities often briefly detained and fined organizers of unsanctioned gatherings. The NGO KIBHR, which monitored demonstrations in nine cities, recorded 19 peaceful demonstrations during the year, none of which were sanctioned by the government.

In April and May, a series of unsanctioned peaceful protests took place in a number of cities. Participants protested a law extending the period during which agricultural land could be leased to foreigners. On April 24, the first rally was held in Atyrau, despite local authorities’ denying permission, followed by more protests three days later in Aktobe and Semey. Government authorities for the most part did not use force against the protesters, trying instead to dissuade them from the gatherings.

Activists of the protest movement used social media to announce plans to hold nationwide protests May 21. While more than 1,700 activists and 50 reporters were detained in different cities on May 21, most were released the same day. According to official statistics, 51 individuals were brought to court, four were sentenced to administrative arrests, 13 were fined, and 34 were given warnings.

Law enforcement officials also detained a number of activists throughout the country in the lead-up to the May 21 protests.

Two activists in Atyrau, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, were arrested May 17 and charged with organizing unsanctioned protests, inciting social discord, and intentionally spreading false information. Their court trial began on October 12, following repeated extensions of pretrial detention that amounted to nearly five months. During detention Bokayev reportedly suffered from health problems, but the court denied his release to house arrest, citing a risk of flight.

Authorities repeatedly denied applications by civil society activists to hold peaceful protest actions in support of Bokayev and Ayan, with the justification protest actions would exert pressure on the court proceedings. On October 23, a group of activists gathered in Almaty to demonstrate their support for the two. Police arrested five protesters, with three sentenced to 10-day administrative arrests. Other activists supporting Bokayev and Ayan reported harassment by authorities or being prevented from traveling to observe the trial.

Maina Kiai, UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, provided a legal analysis of the Bokayev and Ayan case, expressing concern over the implications for freedom of assembly and highlighting the danger of vague laws being applied selectively in ways that criminalize peaceful dissent. KIBHR director and leading human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis criticized the charges as a threat to freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, as well as to political dialogue in the country.

On November 28, Bokayev and Ayan were sentenced to five years in prison, as well as fines and three years’ deprivation of public activity. Supporters in the courtroom who chanted and sang to register their disagreement were urged to disperse as they had not been authorized in advance to protest.

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, there were discrepancies in the submitted documents. The special rapporteur encouraged authorities to facilitate the formation of public associations proactively, since they could play a crucial role in advancing human rights and development.

Membership organizations other than religious groups, covered under separate legislation, must have at least 10 members to register at the local level and must have branches in more than half the country’s regions for national registration. The government considered political parties and labor unions to be membership organizations but required political parties to have 40,000 signatures for registration. 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 trade unions or political parties.

According to Special Rapporteur Kiai, the law regulating the establishment of political parties is problematic as it imposes onerous obligations prior to registration, including high initial membership requirements that prevent small parties from forming and extensive documentation that requires time and significant expense to collect. He also expressed concern regarding the broad discretion granted to officials in charge of registering proposed parties, noting that the process lacked transparency and the law allows for perpetual extensions of time for the government to review a party’s application.

In 2015 parliament passed amendments to NGO financing laws that include new provisions governing registration and recordkeeping. Under the new law, all “nongovernment organizations, subsidiaries, and representative offices of foreign and international noncommercial organizations” are required to provide information on “their activities, including information about 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 53,025 tenge ($159) or suspension for three months in case 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 636,300 tenge ($1,910) or imprisonment for up to 75 days. If committed by the leader of the organization, the fine may be up to 1.06 million tenge ($3,180) or imprisonment for no more than 90 days. The law does not clearly define “illegal interference.”

Under the law a public association, along with its leaders and members, may face fines for performing activities outside its charter. The delineation between actions an NGO member takes in his or her private capacity versus as part of an organization is not clear in the law.

An NGO observer estimated that 20 of the almost 27,000 formally registered NGOs in the country remain independent of the government. In February the NGO International Legal Initiative (ILI) filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Sports and Culture, claiming that the rules for compilation of ILI’s database did not comply with legislation. In On July 1, the Astana economic court, and on September 7 its appellate panel, both rejected the NGO’s lawsuit.

At least one NGO, Caspi Tabigaty in Atyrau, ceased operations, citing the redundancy and burden of the new requirements.

On July 26, the president of the country signed legislation affecting civil society organizations. The law includes reporting requirements concerning the receipt and expenditure of foreign funds or assets, and a requirement to label all publications produced with support from foreign funds as such. The Law on Payments also introduces administrative and criminal penalties for noncompliance with these new requirements and potential restrictions on the conduct of meetings, protests, and similar activities organized with foreign funds.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

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 the 2007 constitutional amendments increased legislative authority in some spheres, the constitution continues to concentrate power in the presidency. 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. The Mazhilis 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. Constitutional amendments exempt President Nazarbayev from the two-term presidential term limit and protect him from prosecution.

Two laws, termed “Leader-of-the-Nation laws,” establish President Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly, grant him lifetime membership on the Constitutional and Security Councils, allow him “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time,” and stipulate that all “initiatives on the country’s development” must be coordinated through him.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: An early presidential election in April 2015 gave President Nazarbayev 97.5 percent of the vote. According to the New York Times, his two opponents, who supported the Nazarbayev government, were seen as playing a perfunctory role as opposition candidates. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the election process generally was managed effectively, although the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation mission stated that voters were not given a choice of political alternatives and noted both “opposition” candidates had openly praised Nazarbayev’s achievements and some voters reportedly had been pressured to vote for the incumbent.

As a result of early Mazhilis elections on March 20, the ruling Nur Otan Party won 84 seats, Ak Zhol won seven seats, and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan won seven seats. The official statistic for turnout was 77.2 percent, yet ODIHR reported widespread ballot stuffing and inflated vote totals. ODIHR criticized the election for falling short of the country’s democratic commitments. The legal framework imposed substantial restrictions on fundamental civil and political rights. On election day serious procedural errors and irregularities were noted during voting, counting, and tabulation.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties must register members’ personal information, including date and place of birth, address, and place of employment. This requirement discouraged many citizens from joining political parties.

There were seven political parties registered, including Ak Zhol, Birlik, and the People’s Patriotic Party “Auyl” (merged from the Party of Patriots of Kazakhstan and the Kazakhstan Social Democratic Party). A court order in August 2015 closed the Communist Party of Kazakhstan for not having the minimum number of members. One party remained registered although it was defunct, leaving six functioning parties. The parties generally did not oppose President Nazarbayev’s policies.

In order to register, a political party must hold a founding congress with a minimum attendance of 1,000 delegates, including representatives from two-thirds of the oblasts and the cities of Astana and Almaty. Parties must obtain at least 600 signatures from each oblast and the cities of Astana and Almaty, registration from the Central Election Commission (CEC), and registration from each oblast-level election commission.

Participation of Women and Minorities: 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 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape. The punishment for rape, including spousal rape, ranges from three to 15 years’ imprisonment. Under the law a prosecutor may not initiate a rape case absent aggravating circumstances, such as gang rape, unless the victim files a complaint. Once a complaint is filed, the criminal investigation may not be dismissed if the rape victim recants or refuses to cooperate further with the investigation. There were reports of police and judicial reluctance to act on reports of rape, particularly in spousal rape cases.

Legislation identifies various types of domestic violence, such as physical, psychological, sexual, and economic, and outlines the responsibilities of local and national governments and NGOs in providing support to domestic violence victims. The law also outlines mechanisms for the issuance of restraining orders and provides for the 24-hour administrative detention of abusers. The law sets the maximum sentence for spousal assault and battery at 10 years in prison, the same as for any assault. The law also permits prohibiting offenders from living with the victim if the perpetrator has somewhere else to live, allows victims of domestic violence to receive appropriate care regardless of the place of residence, and replaces financial penalties with administrative arrest if paying fines was hurting victims as well as perpetrators.

The government stated that domestic violence is a serious problem. NGOs estimated one in four families suffered some form of domestic violence.

Police intervened in family disputes only when they believed the abuse was life threatening. Every regional administrative police unit has a specialist on gender issues, and these specialists are primarily women. Local community police, however, are generally men, and they are the first responders to calls and the first to work with victims. Police often encouraged the two parties to reconcile. Even when a charge was filed, the victim often withdrew the charge later. NGOs reported women often withdrew their complaints because of economic insecurity.

In the aftermath of the 2014 changes to the law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, the government opened domestic violence shelters in each region that did not already have an established shelter. As a result approximately 3,500 women were referred to crisis centers in 2015 for legal and psychological support. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are 28 crisis centers. They received 20 percent of their funding from the government and 80 percent through international grants from NGOs.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Although prohibited by law, the practice of kidnapping women and girls for forced marriage continued in some remote areas. The law prescribes a prison sentence of eight to 10 years for kidnapping. A person who voluntarily releases an abductee is absolved of criminal responsibility if, in this action, he/she did not commit another offense. Because of this law, a typical bride kidnapper is not necessarily held criminally responsible for the act. Cases were typically not pursued, since families and victims usually did not file complaints or withdrew them and found ways to resolve the problem privately. Law enforcement agencies often advised abductees to sort out their situation themselves. According to civil society organizations, making a complaint to police could be a very bureaucratic process and often subjected families and victims to humiliation. If a complaint is filed, the government is obliged to take action on it but rarely did so. The growing number of news stories and publications about bride kidnapping generated strong public reaction.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a problem. The law prohibits some forms of sexual harassment, but legal and gender experts regarded the legislation as inadequate. There were reports of incidents of harassment, but in no instance was the law used to protect the victim, nor were there reports of any prosecutions. No law protects women from sexual harassment, and only force or taking advantage of a victim’s physical helplessness carries criminal liability in terms of sexual assault.

Anna Belousova, a cleaner at a primary school in Kostanay region, was harassed by the school director who tried to force her into a sexual relationship with him. She refused and lost her job. After police dismissed Belousova’s complaints, she filed a complaint with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which found that Kazakhstan failed to fulfill its obligations under the UN convention and that it should provide appropriate reparation to her for moral and material damages. On September 29, the Kostanay court of appeals rejected her appeal on restitution of damages.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and had the means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Women and men received equal treatment for sexually transmitted infections. According to a study published by the UN Fund for Population, in 2014 approximately 50 percent of women used some form of contraception.

According to the UN Population Division, an estimated 53 percent of women used a modern method of contraception during the year. According to the UN Population Fund, in 2015 skilled health personnel attended more than 99 percent of births.

Discrimination: The constitution and law provide for equal rights and freedoms for men and women. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender. According to observers, women in rural areas faced greater discrimination than women in urban areas and suffered from a greater incidence of domestic violence, limited education and employment opportunities, limited access to information, and discrimination in their land and other property rights.

Children

On February 10, the president issued a decree to establish the Office of the Commissioner for Child Rights (Children’s Ombudsman) to improve the national system of child rights protection. In March a member of the Mazhilis, Zagipa Baliyeva, was appointed commissioner for child rights.

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived both by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. The government registers all births upon receipt of the proper paperwork, which can come from the parents, other interested persons, or the medical facility where the birth occurred.

Child Abuse: School violence was a problem, and experts estimated two out of three schoolchildren suffered or witnessed violence. The majority of crimes remained unreported and thus not included in official statistics. An estimated 17,000-18,000 children suffered from either psychological or physical abuse by their parents.

According to UNICEF, 65 percent of respondents applied psychological pressure and 40 percent used corporal punishment to discipline their children. Sixty-two percent of children were subjected to abuse in families. Abuse was more common in rural areas. Minors age 16 or older have the right to file petitions related to their interests directly with a court. According to official statistics, 156 criminal beatings and intentional infliction of bodily harm to children were registered in 2016. The Children’s Rights Protection Committee of the Education and Science Ministry reported that nearly 700 parents were deprived of their parental rights in 2015.

The president of the NGO Union of Crisis Centers stated the number of psychological abuse cases exceeded the number of physical abuse cases. In 2016, the union’s hotline received 272,953 calls, including 7,707 reported violation of the rights of children. The union’s call center received 325 calls on suicide issues, including 164 from children.

There were reported incidents of child selling. In 2015 Shymkent police arrested two doctors of a perinatal center on suspicion of selling newborn babies. On June 20, the Shymkent interdistrict specialized court convicted the two doctors for selling at least 21 babies. The doctors were sentenced to 10 to 11 years in prison. In July a specialized interdistrict court in Almaty convicted 15 doctors and staff of the Almaty clinical hospital who sold babies to childless couples. Sentences varied from two to nine years in prison, depending on the defendant’s role in the crimes.

In November an employee of the Mangistau perinatal hospital was sentenced to eight years in prison for sale of newborn babies. A lawyer who helped to fix the paperwork was sentenced to 7.5 years, and one of the mothers was sentenced to five years of imprisonment.

Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, but it may be reduced to 16 in the case of pregnancy or mutual agreement. NGOs noted several cases of marriage under 18, especially in the south. According to the NGO League of Women of Creative Initiative, 2,000-3,000 early and forced marriages occur annually. According to the NGO, there were approximately 2,200 such marriages in 2014. The majority of these were due to cultural traditions. Many couples first married in mosques and then registered officially when the bride reached the legal age. The government did not take any action to address the issue. In September 2015 the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan issued an order forbidding mosques to conduct religious marriage rites (nikah) without an official marriage certificate, but the practice continued.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law does not specify the minimum age for consensual sex, but it provides for eight to 15 years in prison as punishment for individuals who force boys or girls under age 18 to have sexual intercourse. According to official statistics, there were 364 incidents of forced sexual intercourse with minors, and 158 incidents of corruption and seduction of minors were registered in 2016. The Children’s Ombudsman noted that the number of sexual violence incidents reported increased 38.2 percent in the country compared with the previous year.

The law criminalizes the production and distribution of child pornography and provides administrative penalties to cover the sale of pornographic materials to minors. The country retains administrative penalties for child pornography. Perpetrators convicted of sexual offenses against minors receive a lifetime ban on working with children.

Displaced Children: According to the Children’s Rights Protection Committee, more than 5,000 street children were referred to temporary housing centers for delinquent minors, and from there, 4,993 were sent back to families, 432 to orphanages, and 79 to foster and adoptive families in 2015.

Institutionalized Children: Under the 2015-20 National Plan for Strengthening Family, Moral, Spiritual, and Ethical Values, the country was working to reduce the number of orphanages and referring children to smaller, family-type orphanages and to foster and patronage families. According to the Children’s Rights Protection Committee, approximately 8,000 of the country’s 30,000 orphaned children lived in 146 orphanages. The rest of the children were in foster or other home care. Incidents of child abuse in state-run institutions, such as orphanages, boarding schools, and detention facilities for delinquent children, were “not rare,” according to government sources. NGOs alleged half the children in orphanages or closed institutions suffered from abuse by teachers or other children.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.

Anti-Semitism

Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 Jews lived in the country. Leaders of the Jewish community reported no incidents of anti-Semitism by the government or in society.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development was the primary government agency responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, and access to health care, and in the provision of other government services, but significant discrimination existed in the areas of employment, education, and access to government services.

The law provides for access to information for persons with disabilities. The government produced periodicals, scientific journals, reference literature, and fictional works that were recorded either on disc or in Braille. The law requires one national television channel to broadcast news programs with sign-language interpretation. NGOs stated implementation of the law on disability was lacking, and the Nur Otan Party’s Institute of Parliamentary Development concluded that access for persons with disabilities to information and communications was insufficient.

The law requires companies to set aside 3 percent of their jobs for persons with disabilities. International and local observers noted some improvement regarding the rights of persons with disabilities. During the year the government showed commitment to addressing the rights of persons with disabilities, including high-level enforcement of measures to enhance their economic opportunities. Nevertheless, there were reports persons with disabilities faced difficulty integrating into society and finding employment. The vice minister of Healthcare and Social Development identified the two biggest problems facing persons with disabilities as poor infrastructure and lack of access to education. Persons with disabilities had difficulty accessing public transportation. The government has enacted high-level enforcement of measures to enhance economic opportunities for citizens with disabilities, part of the president’s Strategy 2050.

Citizens with mental disabilities may be committed to state-run institutions without their consent or judicial review, and the government committed young persons under age 18 with the permission of their families. Institutions were poorly managed, understaffed, and inadequately funded.

There are no regulations regarding the rights of patients in mental hospitals. Human rights observers believed this led to widespread abuse of patients’ rights. NGOs reported that patients often experienced poor conditions and a complete lack of privacy. According to an NPM report, most of the hospitals required extensive maintenance. Other problems observed included shortage of personnel, unsatisfactory sanitary-hygienic conditions, poor food supply, overcrowding, and lack of light and air.

Members of the NPM may visit mental hospitals to monitor conditions and signs of possible torture of patients, but any institutions holding children, including orphanages, were not on the list of institutions NPM members may visit.

The government did not legally restrict the right of persons with disabilities to vote and arranged home voting for individuals who could not travel to polling places inaccessible to them.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Kazakh is the official state language, although Russian has equal status as the language of interethnic communication. The law does not require the ability to speak Kazakh for entry into the civil service and prohibits discrimination based on language. Nonetheless, Kazakh language ability is looked upon favorably, which non-Kazakh speakers protested as language discrimination. The law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in Kazakh.

The creation of Kazakh-language schools and the conversion of some Russian-language schools to Kazakh reduced the number of Russian-only language schools.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

According to the constitution, no one shall be subject to any discrimination for reasons of origin; occupational, social, or property status; sex; race; nationality; language; religion or belief; place of residence; or any other circumstances. The country does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity. During the year a law on “protecting the child,” which included a provision that would have prohibited “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” was discussed in parliament. The Senate chairman sent the law to the Constitutional Council, which declared it unconstitutional.

Although gender reassignment documentation exists, the law requires a transgender person to fulfill three steps before being able to receive identity documents that align with the person’s outward gender: (1) a month of inpatient psychiatric evaluation, (2) a course of hormone replacement therapy, and (3) approval and completion of gender reassignment surgery. Those who receive such surgery outside of the country fall outside this process. Many individuals lived with nonconforming documents for years and reported problems with securing employment, housing, and health care.

According to a 2015 survey, half of transgender persons indicated that they experienced physical abuse due to prejudice against transgender individuals or did not experience such abuse because their gender identity was unknown. NGOs reported court cases on discrimination against sexual minorities.

Although there were no government statistics on discrimination or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, there were reports of such actions. According to representatives of international and local organizations, negative social attitudes towards members of marginalized groups, including LGBTI persons, impeded the willingness of the latter to come forward, organize, or seek access to HIV/AIDS programs. Hate crime legislation or other legal mechanisms do not exist to aid prosecution of bias-motivated crimes against members of the LGBTI community. There were no prosecutions of anti-LGBTI violence.

NGOs reported members of the LGBTI community seldom turned to law enforcement agencies to report violence against them because they feared hostility, ridicule, and occasionally violence. They were reluctant to use mechanisms such as the national commissioner for human rights to seek remedies for harms inflicted, because they did not trust these mechanisms to safeguard their identities, especially with regard to employment.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS. Observers reported cultural stigma against drug users and other at-risk groups resulted in societal discrimination that continued to affect access to information, services, treatment, and care. The National Center for AIDS provides free diagnosis and treatment to all citizens. Several NGOs under the Association for Kazakhstan’s People Living with AIDS help solve social and economic problems related to diagnosing and living with AIDS. They work with sex workers, the LGBTI community, and injection drug users.

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