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 2017 constitutional amendments 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, the 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–established then president Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly and of the Security Council for life, granted 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, the 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.
Recent Elections: President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down on March 20 and, under the constitution, the presidency immediately passed to the chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Thereafter, the government conducted presidential elections on June 9. Out of seven presidential candidates, Tokayev won with 70.96 percent of the vote. Amirzhan Kossanov, an opposition candidate, got 16.23 percent. According to ODIHR’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.” ODIHR noted in its report a number of violations, such as ballot-box stuffing and problems with vote counting, including cases of deliberate falsification. Other issues included lack of transparency, such as by not releasing election results by polling station, and violations of the rights of assembly, expression, and association. Another issue ODIHR raised was the widespread detentions of peaceful protesters on election day in major cities. Overall, the conduct of the election showed “scant respect for democratic standards.”
ODIHR 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 is significantly restricted by the Law on Political Parties. Moreover, the legal framework for candidate eligibility was highly restrictive. ODIHR 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. Ruling Nur Otan party won 84 seats, Ak Zhol won seven seats, and the Communist People’s Party won seven seats. ODIHR noted irregularities and limitations on civil and political rights.
Of the 47 members of the Senate, 16 were selected by members of maslikhats–local representative bodies–acting as electors to represent each administrative region and the cities of national significance, Astana (now Nur-Sultan) and Almaty. Four incumbent senators were re-elected, and the majority of the newly elected senators were affiliated with the ruling Nur Otan Party.
In June 2018 the government amended the election law. One change reduced the independence of local representative bodies (maslikhats). Previously, citizens could nominate and vote for candidates running in elections for the maslikhats. Under the amended law, citizens vote for parties and parties choose who sits on the maslikhats.
Another change affected public opinion surveys. According to the amendments, only legal entities can conduct public opinion surveys about elections after notifying Central Election Commission (CEC). Such entities must be 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 also prohibits publishing election forecasts and other research related to elections and support for particular candidates or political parties online from five days before through the day of elections.
On June 7, the deputy prosecutor general reported that three individuals and four organizations had been fined for conducting unauthorized public opinion surveys on the internet and social media during the election campaign period. On May 30, the publishing house “Exclusive” was fined 75,750 tenge ($197) after conducting a poll on its YouTube channel and publishing the results on its Exclusive.kz website.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The government required political parties to have 40,000 signatures for registration, with a minimum of 600 from each region. 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.
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 Nur-Sultan, Shymkent, and Almaty. Parties must obtain 40,000 signatures, with at least 600 signatures from each region and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Shymkent, and Almaty, registration from the CEC, and registration from each regional election commission. 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). The parties generally did not oppose Nur Otan policies.
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 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 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape as a medium-gravity crime. The punishment for conviction of rape, including spousal rape, ranges from three to 15 years’ imprisonment. There were reports of police and judicial reluctance to act on reports of rape, particularly in spousal rape cases.
On July 26, a Kostanay city court sentenced two train conductors, Zhates Umbetaliyev and Kolkanat Kurmaniyazov, to 2.5 years in jail for raping a female passenger in September 2018. The victim had been travelling alone in a high-speed rail train compartment. The incident and light penalty sparked outrage among citizens on social networks and prompted a #MeTooTalgo movement among other victims. As a result, the railway company leadership sent a letter to the prosecutor general condemning the actions of the train conductors and requesting punishment appropriate to the gravity of the crime, and members of parliament called for amendments to harshen the penalties for sexual violence.
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.
NGOs estimated that on average 12 women each day were subjected to domestic violence and more than 400 women died annually as a result of violence sustained from their spouses. Due in part to social stigma, research conducted by the Ministry of National Economy indicated that a majority of victims of partner abuse never told anyone of their abuse. Police intervened in family disputes only when they believed the abuse was life-threatening. Police often encouraged the two parties to reconcile. NGOs also noted that the lenient penalty for domestic violence–an administrative offense with a maximum penalty of 15 days imprisonment–does not deter even convicted offenders.
On August 2, the Almaty City Court placed Baurzhan Ashigaliyev under pretrial arrest for two months on charges of deprivation of freedom and assault against his wife, well known singer Kseniya Ashigaliyeva. According to Ashigaliyeva, her husband of seven years regularly beat her, but previous reports to police had resulted in no change in his behavior and no penalty to him. On July 28, he abducted Ashigaliyeva off the street, tied her up in the basement of a building, and beat her severely. Ashigaliyeva turned to police and also the “NeMolchi” (“Speak Out”) movement for help, asking the organization to raise awareness of her case and share photographs of her injuries on the internet in order to reduce stigma against speaking out about domestic violence. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
The government opened domestic violence shelters in each region. According to the NGO Union of Crisis Centers, there are 31 crisis centers throughout the country providing reliable services to women and children who are victims of domestic violence, including 10 government-funded shelters.
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 conviction of kidnapping. A person who voluntarily releases an abductee is absolved of criminal responsibility; because of this law, a typical bride kidnapper is not necessarily held criminally responsible. 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.
In October the Dzhetysu District Court of Almaty convicted three men of kidnapping an underage girl and sentenced each to seven years of restricted movement. According to the court, in August, a young man with the help of two friends organized the girl’s kidnapping. Earlier, the girl rejected his advances. He decided to track her down, kidnap her, and marry her. The three men grabbed her near her home as she was walking with her niece and forced her into their car. The victim managed to escape while they were driving on a busy road. All three defendants pleaded guilty. The victim told the court she forgave the culprits and asked that they not be put in prison.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a problem. 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. In no instance was the law used to protect the victim, nor were there reports of any prosecutions. Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace were hesitant to lodge complaints out of shame or fear of job loss.
In March 2018 a group of NGOs and media activists set up Korgau123, an organization to support victims of harassment, and launched a hotline.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: The constitution and law provide for equal rights and freedoms for men and women. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender. Significant salary gaps between men and women remained a serious problem. 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.
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 may come from the parents, other interested persons, or the medical facility where the birth occurred. Children born to undocumented mothers were denied birth certificates.
Child Abuse: School violence was a problem, and experts estimated two of three schoolchildren suffered or witnessed violence. Violence and abuse were particularly serious in boarding schools, foster homes and orphanages, and detention centers. An estimated 17,000 to 18,000 children suffered from either psychological or physical abuse by their parents. According to UNICEF, more than 75 percent of the public supported the use of corporal punishment for disciplining children, and children faced violence at home, schools, children’s group homes, and on the street. Children who were victims of such violence did not have easy access to adequate complaint mechanisms.
There were reports of selling newborn babies.
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, including by parents or legal guardians. According to the United Nations Population Fund, about 3,000 early and forced marriages occurred annually. Many couples first married in mosques and then registered officially when the bride reached the legal age. The government did not take action to address the issue.
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 for individuals convicted of forcing boys or girls younger than age 18 to have sexual intercourse. UNICEF reported that data on sexual abuse of children, child prostitution, child pornography, child trafficking, and bride kidnapping and forced marriage of girls remains scarce, making it difficult to assess the scale of rights violations.
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: Human rights observers noted that the number of street children, mainly in large cities, was high. According to the Children’s Ombudsman, the number of street children was increasing. The Children’s Rights Protection Committee reports that 1,805 street children, 219 orphans, 45 delinquent children and 19 children from problematic families were referred to Centers for Delinquent Children in the first half of the year. Of the total, 1,810 were returned to their families. The remaining children were sent to orphanages (199), foster families (28), or correctional boarding schools (seven).
Institutionalized Children: 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 stated one-half the children in orphanages or closed institutions suffered from abuse by teachers or other children. According to the Children’s Rights Protection Committee, the number of orphans who lived in orphanages decreased from 6,223 in 2017 to 5,006 in 2019. The rest of the 19,867 orphan children were in foster or other home care. Since 2019, NPM members may conduct monitoring at all children’s institutions. NGOs and government representatives alike condemned the conditions in detention facilities for delinquent children and commented that the primary solution to problems like truancy and minor delinquency should not be removal of the child from the home.
In August media reported about gross neglect of orphans with disabilities at the Rudny Infant Home in Kostanay region. According to reports, the children were identified numerically rather than by name and held in poor sanitary conditions. The children had bedsores, in some cases had no clothes, and were rarely taken outside. After the reports the director of the Infant Home was removed from his post and the Kostanay region governor ordered that the children be moved to another orphanage.
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 https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
Leaders of the Jewish community estimated that the country’s Jewish population was approximately 10,000. They reported no incidents of anti-Semitism by the government or in society.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
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. The government took steps to remedy some barriers to persons with disabilities, including providing access to information. NGOs stated implementation of the law on disability was lacking.
The law requires companies to set aside 3 percent of their jobs for persons with disabilities, and the government enacted high-level enforcement measures to enhance economic opportunities as part of the president’s strategy 2050; nevertheless, there were reports persons with disabilities faced difficulty integrating into society and finding employment. The government identified the two biggest barriers facing persons with disabilities as poor infrastructure and lack of access to education, while persons with disabilities expressed difficulty accessing public transportation.
In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch determined that a majority of children with disabilities were not receiving quality inclusive education as required by the country’s commitments under the Convention on Persons with Disabilities. According to the report, the education system segregates and isolates children with disabilities. Most children are taught in separate classrooms with other children with disabilities. Thousands are in special schools for children with disabilities, often far from their homes. Others are educated at home, with a teacher visiting for a few hours per week. Children in closed psychiatric institutions receive very little or no education. Local NGOs similarly reported a very low rate of children with special needs attending school.
Some children with Down syndrome were able to attend privately funded specialized education centers, but they had limited capacity, which resulted in long waiting periods of up to 1.5 years.
Human rights observers noted multiple types of discrimination against persons with disabilities; some airlines refused to sell tickets to persons with disabilities seeking to travel alone and insisted that they should be escorted by assistants; doctors discouraged women who use wheelchairs from having children; and treatment of prisoners with disabilities in detention facilities remained a serious problem.
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 accessible polling places. Election monitoring NGO Yerkindik Kannaty reported positive cooperation with the CEC on implementing requirements for access to polling stations for people with special needs. The NGO observed that more polling stations were accessible during the year compared with the 2016 elections.
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. Citizens with mental disabilities may be committed to state-run institutions without their consent or judicial review, and the government committed young persons under the age of 18 with the permission of their families.
According to an NPM report, most of the hospitals required extensive renovations. Other problems observed included shortage of personnel, unsatisfactory sanitary 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.
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.
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.
Although gender reassignment documentation exists, the law requires a transgender person to fulfill psychiatric and physical requirements before being able to receive identity documents that align with the person’s outward gender. Many individuals lived with nonconforming documents for years and reported problems with securing employment, housing, and health care.
There were no prosecutions of anti-LGBTI violence, although one investigation was ongoing in September. There were reports of anti-LGBTI violence, but there were no government statistics on discrimination or violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a 2017 NGO survey within the LGBTI community, 48 percent of respondents experienced violence or hate because of their sexual orientation, and 56 percent responded they knew someone who suffered from violence. The most frequent forms of abuse were verbal insults, harassment, interference in private life, and physical assaults.
NGOs reported members of the LGBTI community seldom turned to law enforcement agencies to report violence against them because they feared hostility, ridicule, and 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.
On September 25, the Nur-Sultan police reported that two men were under pretrial detention for the investigation of sexual assault, beating, and extortion of a 21-year-old gay man in July. A medical examination showed that the young man sustained a head injury, broken bones, and numerous wounds and bruises, including burns. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end. According to the media, in July, two men locked the young man in an apartment and raped and assaulted him. The perpetrators then called his parents and relatives extorting money for his life. He managed to escape from the apartment and called police. Activists told media that beating, extortion, and harassment of LGBTI individuals was not uncommon, although typically unreported.
On July 30, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a lesbian couple, finding an Almaty man guilty of violating their right to privacy. In January 2018 Eldar Mamedov posted on Facebook a video of two women kissing at a movie theater. The video soon went viral, with many negative remarks and threats to the women. Under local law, video cannot be publicized without the consent of the subjects. The women filed a case against Mamedov with the Almaty district court, which ruled in their favor. On appeal, however, the court overturned the decision, describing the behavior of the women as “immoral” and stating that local society “is not ready for open sexual relations between same-sex couples.” On further appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision and determined that the lower court violated the constitutional rights of the women.
In July, Victoria Berkkhodjayeva, a transgender woman serving a sentence in Zhaugashty, Almaty region, told authorities that in July she had been raped three times by a KNB officer. Berkkhodjayeva reported the incident to the Prosecutor General’s Office and to the Anti-Corruption Agency. Almaty region police launched an investigation into the case. In August media reported that a key witness in the case was engaged in a hunger strike to protest pressure put on her by prison authorities in connection with the case. In October media further reported that authorities had placed the KNB officer suspected of rape under arrest based on the results of forensic tests. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS, but stigma 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.