Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
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 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 or 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 to seize temporarily sound-enhancing equipment.
During a September altercation between foreign workers, mostly Indian construction workers, and local security at a major construction site in Astana, which resulted in dozens of foreign workers being deported, citizens reported that access to social media, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and WhatsApp, was partially or fully blocked in multiple instances. The government denied responsibility and said that technical difficulties were to blame.
Freedom of 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, and penalizes “intentionally spreading false information” with fines of up to 12.96 million tenge ($40,000) and imprisonment for up to 10 years.
On January 24, the Astana city court found the chief editor of Central Asia Monitor newspaper and Radiotochka.kz web portal Bigeldy Gabdullin guilty of extortion in return for nonpublication of negative information about wrongdoing. According to several media outlets, including Zakon.kz, Kazinform, Tengrinews.kz, and Ratel.kz, Gabdullin admitted his guilt in full, repented, and restituted the injured parties’ material losses. The court sentenced Gabdullin to five years of probation.
On February 17, police stopped the Aktau reporter of Radio Azattyk, Sania Toiken, under the pretext she did not have a seat belt fastened. Police took her to a station for interrogation in regards to the oil workers’ hunger strike she witnessed in her reporting work. Police held her in the station for two hours, causing her to miss the regional governor’s press conference.
The Independent Tribuna newspaper’s chief editor, Zhanbolat Mamay, was arrested on February 10 and charged with money laundering. The Tribuna newspaper has been a target of investigation and litigation since its founding in 2012. The newspaper closed in June after Mamay’s arrest. On September 7, the Medeu district court in Almaty found him guilty of money laundering and sentenced him to three years of restriction of freedom, confiscation of property, and a three-year ban on journalistic activity.
Press and Media Freedom: 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 Information and Communication 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 October authorities prevented reporters from carrying out their duties in 30 instances. Adil Soz found that authorities denied or significantly restricted journalists’ access to public information 138 times.
Journalists working in opposition media and covering stories related to corruption reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors. According to media watchdog organization Adil Soz, the internet portal Zhumyrtka.kz News closed on January 24 as a result of threats of criminal persecution and prison sentences for their publications.
On March 2, the Kapshagay city court ruled that, pursuant to the amnesty law, the prison term for the president of the Kazakhstan Union of Journalists, Seitkazy Matayev, should be cut in half. On November 16, the Kapshagay city court ruled to release Matayev, and he was released from prison on December 4.
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. 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.”
By law internet resources, including social media, are classified as forms of mass media and governed by the same rules and regulations. Authorities continued to charge bloggers and social media users with inciting social discord through their online posts.
In July Uralsk police opened a criminal investigation against blogger Aibolat Bukenov for allegedly disseminating false information presenting a danger to the public order or the rights and legal interests of citizens or organizations. On Facebook, Bukenov posted his criticism of the Uralsk government spending 25 million tenge (approximately $77,000) for a pyramid of flowers. He opined that that money should have been spent on road repairs instead. On January 10, a court in Almaty found activist Zhanar Akhmet guilty of illegally organizing a rally. She posted a call to her followers to attend an appeal hearing on the case of movie director Talgad Zhanybekov to support him during his trial. Zhanar Akhmet was found guilty and punished by an administrative fine of 113,450 tenge ($350).
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 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 libel cases against journalists and media outlets remained a problem. Media freedom NGO Adil Soz reported 13 criminal libel charges and 73 civil libel lawsuits filed against journalists and media.
On April 4, a district court in Almaty ruled in favor of ex-minister Zeinulla Kakimzhanov’s lawsuit claims against Forbes Kazakhstanmagazine and news site Ratel.kz, assigning 50.2 million tenge ($155,000) in damages as compensation for a story “harming Kakimzhanov’s honor and dignity.” Media and civil society activists criticized the court proceedings for a number of procedural violations.
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.
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. 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.
NGO Adil Soz reported that during the first nine months of 2016, 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. On June 15, James Palmer, a reporter for Foreign Policymagazine, published an article critical of government expenditure for Expo 2017. Two days later, the magazine’s website was blocked in Kazakhstan and an Expo spokesperson made a statement asserting Palmer never visited the country and fabricated the story. The Minister of Information published a statement denying the government blocked the website.
Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to the Freedom on the Net 2017 report, “the government centralized internet infrastructure in a way that facilitated control of content and surveillance.” Authorities, both national and local, monitored the internet traffic and online communications. The Freedom on the Net report stated that “activists using social media were occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who had prior knowledge of their planned activities.”
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.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but there were significant restrictions on this right. 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 at least 10 days in advance for a permit to hold a demonstration or public meeting. 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 2016, none of which were sanctioned by the government.
On July 30, a group of civil society activists in Almaty gathered in Gandhi Park and marched to the central post office to send letters to Western leaders to draw attention to political prisoners in the country. The next day, an Almaty court sentenced two organizers of the march to three and five days’ administrative arrest for violation of the law on organization of peaceful rallies, gatherings, and demonstrations.
On February 23, the leader of the Young Professionals Society NGO, Olesya Halabuzar, was charged for disseminating leaflets criticizing proposed constitutional amendments during the public discussion period on the amendments, specifically an amendment that could potentially allow land sales to foreign investors. Halabuzar cooperated with the investigators, and at their order she publicly acknowledged guilt and announced she would cease public activity. On August 1, the Almaty court found her guilty of incitement of interethnic discord and sentenced her to two years of probation. Human rights defenders noted numerous procedural violations in her case, but Halabuzar decided not to appeal the ruling.
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 one-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 Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur who visited Kazakhstan in 2015, 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.
Under the 2015 NGO financing 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.
The law establishes broad reporting requirements concerning the receipt and expenditure of foreign funds or assets; it also requires labeling all publications produced with support from foreign funds. The law also sets out administrative and criminal penalties for noncompliance with these requirements and potential restrictions on the conduct of meetings, protests, and similar activities organized with foreign funds.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Despite some regulatory restrictions, the government generally respected these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Human rights activists noted numerous violations of labor migrants’ rights, particularly those of unregulated migrants. The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) noted a growing number of migrants who were banned re-entry to Russia and chose to stay in Kazakhstan. The government does not have a mechanism for integration of migrants, with the exception of ethnic Kazakh repatriates (oralmans). Labor migrants from neighboring Central Asian countries are often low skilled and seek manual labor. They were exposed to dangerous work and often faced abusive practices. The migrants are in vulnerable positions because of their unregulated legal status; the laborers do not know their rights, national labor and migration legislation, local culture, or the language. Among major violations of these migrants’ rights, activists mentioned the lack of employment contracts, poor working conditions, long working hours, low salaries, nonpayment or delayed payment of salaries, and lack of decent housing. Migrant workers faced the risk of falling victim to human trafficking and forced labor, and the International Labor Organization indicated migrants had very limited or no access to the justice system, social support, or basic health services.
In-country Movement: The government required foreigners who remained in the country for more than five days to register with migration police. Foreigners entering the country had to register at certain border posts or airports where they entered. Some foreigners experienced problems traveling in regions outside their registration area. The government’s Concept on Improving Migration Policycovers internal migration, repatriation of ethnic Kazakh returnees (oralmans), and external labor migration. In April the government amended the rules for migrants entering the country so that migrants from Eurasian Economic Union countries may stay up to 90 days. There is a registration exemption for families of legal migrant workers for a 30-day period after the worker starts employment. The government has broad authority to deport those who violate the regulations.
Since 2011 the government has not reported the number of foreigners deported for gross violation of visitor rules. Individuals facing deportation may request asylum if they fear persecution in their home country. The government required persons who were suspects in criminal investigations to sign statements they would not leave their city of residence.
Authorities required foreigners to obtain prior permission to travel to certain border areas adjoining China and cities in close proximity to military installations. The government continued to declare particular areas closed to foreigners due to their proximity to military bases and the space launch center at Baikonur.
Foreign Travel: The government did not require exit visas for temporary travel of citizens, yet there were certain instances in which the government could deny exit from the country, including in the case of travelers subject to pending criminal or civil proceedings or having unfulfilled prison sentences, unpaid taxes, fines, alimony or utility bills, or compulsory military duty. Travelers who present false documentation during the exit process could be denied the right to exit, and authorities controlled travel by active-duty military personnel. The law requires persons who had access to state secrets to obtain permission from their employing government agency for temporary exit from the country.
Exile: The law does not prohibit forced exile if authorized by an appropriate government agency or through a court ruling.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees from countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The government recognized 18 persons as refugees during the first six months of the year.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR legally may appeal to the government and intervene on behalf of individuals facing deportation. The law and several implementing regulations and bylaws regulate the granting of asylum and refugee status.
The Refugee Status Determination outlines procedures and access to government services, including the right to be legally registered and issued official documents. The Department of Migration Police in the Ministry of Internal Affairs conducts status determination procedures. Any individual seeking asylum in the country has access to the asylum procedure. According to UNHCR, the staff assigned for asylum processing lacked knowledge and qualifications, and decisions often contradicted existing national legislation and provisions of the 1951 convention or applicable international standards. UNHCR also noted the application of refugee criteria was not consistent throughout the country, and the recognition rate remained low. Reports indicated that regional authorities also discouraged some asylum seekers from applying for asylum.
A legislative framework does not exist to manage the movement of asylum seekers between the country’s borders and authorities in other areas. There are no reception facilities for asylum seekers. The government does not provide accommodation, allowances, or any social benefits to asylum seekers. The law does not provide for differentiated procedures for persons with specific needs, such as separated children and persons with disabilities. Asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs are not entitled to financial or medical assistance. There are no guidelines for handling sensitive cases, including LGBTI cases.
The law envisages refugees as individuals fleeing persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. It does not envisage providing protection to persons fleeing wars or situation of generalized violence. Authorities appeared to use this scenario in the asylum applications of persons fleeing Syria and Ukraine.
Employment: Refugees faced difficulties in gaining employment and social assistance from the government. By law refugees have the right to work, with the exception of engaging in individual entrepreneurship. Refugees faced difficulties in accessing the labor market due to local employers’ lack of awareness of refugee rights.
Access to Basic Services: All refugees recognized by the government receive a refugee certificate that allows them to stay in the country legally. The majority of refugees have been residing in the country for many years. Their status as “temporarily residing aliens” hinders their access to the full range of rights stipulated in the 1951 convention and the law. Refugee status lasts for one year and is subject to annual renewal. In view of their temporary status, refugees do not have the right to apply for nationality, including after permanently residing in the country for more than five years. Children of refugees born in the country are also not recognized as citizens and would be stateless or at risk of statelessness if their nationality in the country of origin of their parents may not be conferred. The law also lacks provisions on treatment of asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs. Refugees have no access to social benefits or allowances.
UNHCR reported cordial relations with the government in assisting refugees and asylum seekers. The government usually allowed UNHCR access to detained foreigners to ensure proper treatment and fair determination of status.
The government was generally tolerant in its treatment of local refugee populations.
Consistent with the Minsk Convention on Migration within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the government did not recognize Chechens as refugees. Chechens are eligible for temporary legal resident status for up to 180 days, as are any other CIS citizens. This temporary registration is renewable, but local migration officials have discretion over the renewal process.
The government has an agreement with China not to tolerate the presence of ethnic separatists from one country on the territory of the other. UNHCR reported no new cases of Uighur refugees during the year.
The constitution and law provide avenues to deal with those considered stateless, and the government generally took seriously its obligation to ease the burden of statelessness within the country. As of June 30, approximately 6,000 persons were officially registered by the government as stateless. The majority of individuals residing in the country with undetermined nationality, with de facto statelessness, or at heightened risk of statelessness are primarily those who have no identity documents, have invalid identity documents from a neighboring CIS country, or are holders of Soviet-era passports. These individuals typically resided in remote areas without obtaining official documentation.
On July 11, the president signed a law that allows the government to deprive individuals convicted for a range of grave terrorism and extremism-related crimes, including for “harming the interest of the state,” of Kazakhstani citizenship.
According to UNHCR the law provides a range of rights to persons recognized by the government as stateless. The legal status of officially registered stateless persons is documented and considered as having permanent residency, which is granted for 10 years in the form of a stateless person certificate. According to the law, after five years of residence in the country, stateless persons are eligible to apply for citizenship. Children born in the country to officially recognized stateless persons who have a permanent place of residence are recognized as nationals. A legal procedure exists for ethnic Kazakhs; those with immediate relatives in the country; and citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan, with which the country has agreements. The law gives the government six months to consider an application for citizenship. Some applicants complained that, due to the lengthy bureaucratic process, obtaining citizenship often took years. In summary the law does not provide a simplified naturalization procedure for stateless persons. Existing legislation prevents children of parents without identity documents from obtaining birth certificates, which hindered their access to education, free health care, and freedom of movement.
Persons rejected or whose status of stateless persons has been revoked may appeal the decision, but such appeals involved a lengthy process.
Officially recognized stateless persons have access to free medical assistance on the level provided to other foreigners, but it is limited to emergency medical care and to treatment of 21 contagious diseases on a list approved by the Ministry of Healthcare and Social Development. Officially recognized stateless persons have a right to employment, with the exception of government positions. They may face challenges when concluding labor contracts, since potential employers may not understand or be aware of this legal right.
UNHCR reported that stateless persons without identity documents may not legally work, which led to the growth of illegal labor migration, corruption, and abuse of authority among employers. Children accompanying stateless parents were also considered stateless.