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Kazakhstan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government exercised comprehensive control over online content. Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers believed 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.

In January 2018 amendments to the media law entered into force. The amended law prohibits citizens from leaving anonymous comments on media outlet websites, which must register all online commenters and make the registration information available to law enforcement agencies on request. As a result most online media outlets chose to shut down public comment platforms.

The Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry 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 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.

The law allows the prosecutor general to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. The prosecutor general may suspend communication services in cases where communication networks are 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.”

According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2019 report, where the country is listed as “not free,” “internet freedom in Kazakhstan deteriorated markedly” in the period from June 2018 to May 31, 2019, primarily in connection with unrest triggered by the presidential transition. The report noted that the government disrupted mobile internet connections, throttled access to social media, and temporarily blocked independent news websites.

During demonstrations in May and on election day, June 9, some users reported that access to the internet was intermittently, and at times completely, blocked, including access to VPN services. These outages coincided with protests in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Shymkent, and elsewhere, eliminating the potential to livestream and share live updates from protest scenes on social media and internet news platforms. International cybersecurity NGO NetBlocks reported that these outages were consistent with in-country internet providers blocking the internet. International NGO Reporters Without Borders expressed concerns about censorship related to coverage of peaceful demonstrations. The government denied responsibility.

Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to Freedom House’s report, “the government centralizes internet infrastructure in a way that facilitates control of content and surveillance.” Authorities, both national and local, monitored internet traffic and online communications. The report stated that “activists using social media were occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who had prior knowledge of their planned activities.”

On February 13, the Almaty City Court rejected the appeal of Aset Abishev, who was sentenced in November 2018 to four years’ imprisonment for supporting an extremist organization on the basis of Facebook posts he wrote or shared in support of the banned DCK opposition movement. Media reported that Abishev told the court he did not believe it was a crime to express opinions critical of the government. “If the desire for teachers to receive a decent salary or for children to study and be fed for free in schools is extremism, then I am guilty. But I have not committed any illegal or violent actions,” he said.

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. In 2018 the president signed into law a set of amendments to the criminal legislation mitigating punishment for a variety of acts of corruption by officials, including decriminalizing official inaction, hindrance to business activities, and falsification of documents; significantly reducing the amounts of fines for taking bribes; and reinstituting a statute of limitation for corruption crimes.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Agency on Combatting Corruption, the KNB, and the Disciplinary State Service Commission are responsible for combating corruption. The KNB investigates corruption crimes committed by officers of the special agencies, anticorruption bureau, and military. According to official statistics, 1,682 corruption-related offenses were registered during the first seven months of the year. The most frequent crimes were bribery (50 percent) and abuse of power (30 percent). The government charged 374 civil servants with corruption, and 873 cases were submitted to courts.

On August 22, the Mangystau Criminal Court convicted former deputy governor of Mangystau region Serik Amangaliyev of taking a bribe on a large scale and sentenced him to 10 years of imprisonment and a lifetime ban on government service. According to the court, in November 2018 Amangaliyev was detained at the Aktau airport with 115,000 euros, part of a 400,000 euros bribe from a representative of a Czech construction company who had asked Amangaliyev to select his company for a project.

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 issues and practiced harassment, including police visits to and surveillance of NGO offices, personnel, and family members. Government officials often were uncooperative or nonresponsive to 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. In February the government fined Serikzhan Bilash 252,000 tenge ($654) for leading an unregistered organization. In September, Atajurt filed a claim in the Medeu district court of Almaty against the Ministry of Justice for its refusal to register the group. On September 25, the Ministry approved Atajurt’s registration under different leadership. As reported above, Bilash signed a plea agreement in connection with his criminal case for incitement of discord that banned him from political activism.

Feminita, an LGBTI initiative, submitted three applications to the Ministry of Justice to register as a legal entity after its establishment in 2017. Each application was refused, most recently in January, on the basis that the organization’s charter does not comply with the law on noncommercial organizations. After the third refusal, Feminita’s founders filed suit against the ministry, arguing that its failure to allow them registration violated their right to freedom of association and was discriminatory. On May 27, Medeu District Court in Almaty upheld the ministry’s refusals, concluding that the objectives in Feminita’s charter do not strengthen “spiritual and moral values” and “the role of the family” in society. On September 3, an Almaty appeals court affirmed this decision.

The International Legal Initiative, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Kadyr Kassiyet, the Legal Media Center, and PRI 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, monitors fulfillment of international human rights conventions, and publishes reports on some human rights issues in close cooperation with several international organizations, such as UNHCR, the OSCE, the International Organization for Migration, and UNICEF. The commission does not have legal authority to remedy human rights violations or implement its recommendations in the reports.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs-led Consultative Advisory Body (CAB) for dialogue on democracy, human rights, rule of law, and legislative work continued to operate during the year. The CAB includes government ministries and prominent international and domestic NGOs, as well as international organization observers. The NGO community generally was positive regarding the work of the CAB, saying the platform enabled greater communication with the government regarding issues of concern, even if the CAB did not always produce results.

The Human Rights Ombudsman is nominated by the president and approved by the senate. He 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 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 ombudsman’s 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.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Kazakh is the official state language, although Russian has equal status as the language of interethnic communication. The law requires presidential candidates to be fluent in Kazakh. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on language, but all prospective civil servants are required to pass a Kazakh language exam.

Section 7. Worker Rights

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on gender, age, disability, race, ethnicity, language, place of residence, religion, political opinion, affiliation with tribe or class, public associations, or property, social, or official status. The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on sexual orientation, gender identity, HIV-positive status, or having other communicable diseases. The government effectively enforced the law and regulations. Discrimination is an administrative offense punishable by a fine that is not sufficient to deter violations. Some cases like illegal termination of labor contracts due to pregnancy, disability, or minority are considered a criminal offense and are punishable by penalties which are sufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination, however, occurred with respect to employment and occupation for persons with disabilities, orphans, and former convicts. Disability NGOs reported that despite government efforts, obtaining employment was difficult for persons with disabilities. The law does not require equal pay for equal work for women and men. NGOs reported no government body assumed responsibility for implementing antidiscrimination legislation and asserted the law’s definition of gender discrimination does not comply with international standards. More women than men were self-employed or underemployed relative to their education level.

In June a fight occurred at Chevron-operated Tengiz oilfield between local and foreign workers, resulting in 45 injuries. One reason for the trouble was discontent among local workers who had complained of a wage discrepancy between local and foreign workers with similar qualifications. The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection launched a series of inspections at companies employing foreign workers. The ministry reported the following violations: 1) foreign workers were paid 30-50 percent more than local workers; 2) local workers were paid in local currency, while foreign workers were paid in U.S. dollars; and 3) some foreign workers occupied positions that differed from that described on the work permits. These violations are punishable by fines, annulment of work permits, or deportation of a company’s foreign workforce.

In the first seven months of the year, the Labor and Social Protection Ministry fined companies with foreign ownership for over 300 violations in the cumulative amount of around 1 million tenge ($2,596).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

During the year the national monthly minimum wage was above the poverty line. As of August 2018, the government reported that 1.3 million citizens of a nine-million-person workforce were not registered as either employed or unemployed, meaning that they likely work in the informal economy. A Ministry of Finance spokesperson separately reported during the year that up to one third of workers were engaged in the informal economy, referencing 2015 government and international organization statistics. These workers were concentrated in the retail trade, transport services, agriculture, real estate, beauty and hair dressing salons, and laundry and dry cleaning businesses. Small entrepreneurs and their employees for the most part work without health, social, or pension benefits.

The law stipulates the normal workweek should not exceed 40 hours and limits heavy manual labor or hazardous work to no more than 36 hours per week. The law limits overtime to two hours per day, or one hour per day for heavy manual labor, and requires overtime to be paid at least at a 50-percent premium. The law prohibits compulsory overtime and overtime for work in hazardous conditions. The law provides that labor agreements may stipulate the length of working time, holidays, and paid annual leave for each worker.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law requires employers to suspend work that could endanger the life or health of workers and to warn workers about any harmful or dangerous work conditions or the possibility of any occupational disease. The law specifically grants workers the right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without suffering adverse employment action.

Overtime pay for holiday and after-hours work is equal to 1.5 times regular salary. The decision on pay is made by the employer or in compliance with a collective agreement, and the amount of pay is based on so-called industry-specific wage multipliers, stipulated by the industrial agreements.

In July 2018 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of China National Petroleum Corporation-AktobeMunayGas, owned by China National Petroleum Corporation, which in 2017 reduced the environmental allowance for 403 workers who reside in the ecologically challenging Aral Sea area from 50 percent to 20 percent. The company, supported by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, argued that only workers who both reside and work in the Aral Sea area are entitled to a 50 percent allowance. Those who resided in the Aral Sea area, but worked elsewhere, may claim only the 20 percent allowance.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection enforces the minimum wage, work-hour restrictions, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards. Under the entrepreneur code, labor inspectors have the right to conduct announced and unannounced inspections of workplaces to detect violations. Both types of inspections take place only after written notification. The government did not effectively enforce the law.

Inspections based on risk assessment reports are announced in writing not less than 30 days prior the beginning of the inspection. There has been a presidential moratorium on announced inspections since 2014. Unplanned inspections are announced not less than one day prior the beginning of the inspection. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient. Ministry inspectors conducted random inspections of employers. In 2018 inspectors conducted 8,774 inspections and detected 11,976 violations of labor law. Wage arrears accounted for 20 percent of violations, unsafe work conditions 20 percent, and illegal employment or dismissal made up 14 percent of cases. In 2018 both the Ministry of Education and Science and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, each in cooperation with other agencies, carried out additional inspection operations (raids) in areas where children were likely to engage in child labor.

The Human Rights Commission reported that the number of inspectors was insufficient. Moreover, the 2015 labor code introduced so-called employer’s declarations. Under this system, labor inspectors may extend a certificate of trust to enterprises that complied with labor legislation requirements. Certified enterprises are exempt from labor inspections for the three-year period. In the opinion of labor rights activists, such a practice may worsen labor conditions and conceal problems. By law any enterprise or company may form a production council to address labor safety issues from representatives of an employer and employees. These councils are eligible to conduct their own inspections of the employees’ work conditions. As of January there were 12,855 production councils and 17,751 volunteer labor inspectors.

There were reports some employers ignored regulations concerning occupational health and safety. Occupational safety and health conditions in the construction, industrial, and agricultural sectors often were substandard. Workers in factories sometimes lacked quality protective clothing and sometimes worked in conditions of poor visibility and ventilation. In 2018 the government reported 1,568 workplace injuries, of which 216 resulted in death. The government attributed many labor-related deaths to antiquated equipment, insufficient detection and prevention of occupational diseases in workers engaged in harmful labor, and disregard for safety regulations. The most dangerous jobs were in mining, construction, and oil and gas, according to an expert analysis of occupations with the highest fatalities.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Protection reported that in 2018, 23 percent of workers labored in hazardous conditions. Approximately 39,000 work health and safety violations were reported in 2018. The government suspended operation of 827 facilities and three enterprises due to flagrant violations. Approximately 2,000 fines totaling over 147 million tenge (over $380,000) were imposed.

Some companies tried to avoid payments to injured workers. Critics reported that employers, the FTUK, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection were more concerned with bureaucracy and filling out reports on work-related accidents, than with taking measures to reduce their number. A minimal noncompliance with labor safety requirements may result in a company’s refusal to compensate workers for industrial injuries. In 30 percent of cases, workers themselves were blamed for violating occupational health and safety regulations.

In January the Ekibastuz city court awarded a former janitor of the Ekibastuz Combined Heat and Power Plant 3 million tenge (around $7,800) in damages after she developed bronchial asthma as a result of her work at the plant from 2000 to 2015. Bronchial asthma was recognized as an occupational disease in 2011 due to the high concentration of dust and gas in the air at the workplace.

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