The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. The law grants former president Nursultan Nazarbayev broad, lifetime authority over a range of government functions. The executive branch controls the legislature and the judiciary, as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observation mission judged that the June 9 presidential election, in which President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev received 71 percent of the vote, was marked by election day violations, including ballot stuffing and falsification of vote counts; restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, expression, and association; and overall showed “scant respect for democratic standards.” In 2017 the country selected 16 of 47 senators and members of the parliament’s upper house in an indirect election tightly controlled by local governors working in concurrence with the presidential administration.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs supervises the national police force, which has primary responsibility for internal security. The Committee for National Security (KNB) oversees border security, internal and national security, antiterrorism efforts, and the investigation and interdiction of illegal or unregistered groups, such as extremist groups, military groups, political parties, religious groups, and trade unions. The KNB reports directly to the president, and its chairman sits on the Security Council, led by former president Nazarbayev. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government; torture by and on behalf of the government; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; significant acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; and the outlawing of independent trade unions.
The government selectively prosecuted officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases. Nonetheless, corruption remained widespread, and impunity existed for those in positions of authority as well as for those connected to government or law enforcement officials.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the 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 detention, imprisonment, criminal and administrative charges, laws, harassment, licensing regulations, and internet restrictions.
After her May visit to the country, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism Fionualla Ni Aolain expressed deep concern at the use of counterterrorism and extremism laws to target, marginalize, and criminalize the work of civil society. “Nonviolent criticism of State policies can effectively constitute a criminal offense,” she wrote, “as the provisions on extremism and terrorism have been applied to criminalize the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression and of thought, which is incompatible with a society governed by rule of law and abiding by human rights principles and obligations.”
Journalists and media outlets exercised self-censorship to avoid pressure by the government. 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.
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 12.63 million tenge ($32,793) and imprisonment for up to seven years.
In May the Almaty City Court rejected the appeal of Almat Zhumagulov and Kenzhebek Abishev, who were sentenced to eight and seven years’ imprisonment respectively in December 2018 on charges of advocating for terrorism. Supporters and human rights advocates called the case against them politically motivated and asserted that the video of masked figures calling for jihad that served as the primary evidence for their conviction was fabricated by the government. Zhumagulov was a supporter of the banned DCK opposition organization. Abishev, who denied any connection to DCK, was an advocate for land reform and other political issues.
On April 21, authorities arrested activists Asya Tulesova and Beibarys Tolymbekov for displaying a banner with slogans urging free and fair elections during the Almaty marathon. Both were convicted of violating the law on organizing a rally and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Amnesty International recognized the activists as prisoners of conscience.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media was severely limited. 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 former president Nazarbayev’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 Social Development distributed those frequencies to independent broadcasters via a tender system.
All media are required to register with the Ministry of Information and Social Development, 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: Independent journalists and those working in opposition media or covering stories related to corruption and rallies or demonstrations reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors. On July 22, a group of 20 women interfered with the work of and attacked journalists who were covering a news conference at the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Almaty. They entered the building before a press conference regarding three women arrested on charges of participation in the DCK banned opposition movement, including Oksana Shevchuk. Five of the women punched and attacked a journalist and others destroyed or attempted to destroy the journalists’ equipment. Police determined the incident was “arbitrary behavior” and did not press charges.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporters Saniya Toiken and Svetlana Glushkova were separately taken to court in cases that human rights defenders called politically motivated. Toiken had been covering protests by unemployed workers in Zhanaozen in February, and Glushkova had reported on unsanctioned rallies following the transition of presidential power in March. Glushkova was found guilty of assault for allegedly pushing a 17-year-old girl during a protest in what observers called a fabricated charge.
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.
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 criminal violations due to their online posts.
On October 15, Saryarka District Court No. 2 in Nur-Sultan sentenced civil activist Serik Zhakhin to one year of restricted movement and a two-year ban on using social media or participating in rallies for using social media to support DCK, which is banned as an extremist organization. Restricted movement is a probation-like penalty, with a curfew and other limitations. According to the court, Zhakhin posted information about DCK on his Facebook page. The court also ordered that he pay a fine of 20,250 tenge ($53) and perform community service. Zhakhin denied the allegations and said he was not an extremist. Zhakhin had been under pretrial detention from June 7 until his release on restricted movement.
In September 2018 Ablovas Jumayev received a three-year prison sentence on conviction of charges of inciting social discord because he posted messages critical of the government to a 10,000-member Telegram messenger group and allegedly distributed antigovernment leaflets. Jumayev denied the leafleting charges, stating that the leaflets were planted in his car. On Telegram, he had criticized the president’s appointment of a regional police chief. On July 29, a court ruled to change Jumayev’s sentence to restricted movement and a restriction on political activism, and released him.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides enhanced penalties for libel and slander 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 and slander, 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 conviction of 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.
On September 24, the Saryagash City Court sentenced journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov to two years and 10 months imprisonment on charges of libel. Batyrbekov published a post on his personal social media page with the title “Idiocy in Kelesi,” criticizing the head of the local department of education. The court determined that the Batyrbekov’s post insulted the honor of the official. Domestic NGO Adil Soz called Batyrbekov a “prisoner of freedom of speech,” and international NGO Reporters Without Borders included him on its 2019 list of imprisoned journalists.
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 on 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 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.
In March authorities brought charges against Serikzhan Bilash, who led the Chinese ethnic Kazakh advocacy organization Atajurt, for inciting interethnic hatred. The basis for the charge was a video clip in which Bilash called for “jihad” against the Chinese. Bilash and his supporters said that in the full speech he immediately clarified that he meant not a violent jihad, but an informational campaign–a “jihad of words.” Faced with the likelihood of a long prison sentence, Bilash pled guilty to the offense August 16 and agreed to cease his activism, in exchange for his freedom.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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.