The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government system and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. The presidential administration controls the government, the legislature, and judiciary as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. The 2015 presidential election, in which President Nazarbayev received 98 percent of the vote, was marked by irregularities and lacked genuine political competition. The president’s Nur Otan Party won 82 percent of the vote in the 2016 election for the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observation mission judged the country continued to require considerable progress to meet its OSCE commitments for democratic elections. In June 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.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included torture; political prisoners; censorship; site blocking; criminalization of libel; restrictions on religion; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; and restrictions on independent trade unions.
The government selectively prosecuted officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases; 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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture; nevertheless, police and prison officials allegedly tortured and abused detainees. Human rights activists asserted the domestic legal definition of torture was noncompliant with the definition of torture in the UN Convention against Torture.
The National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) against Torture came into force in 2014 when the prime minister signed rules permitting the monitoring of institutions. The NPM is part of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and thus is not independent of the government. The Human Rights Ombudsman reported receiving 135 complaints alleging torture, violence, and other cruel and degrading treatment and punishment in 2017. In its April report covering activities in 2017, the NPM reported that despite some progress, problems with human rights abuses in prisons and temporary detention centers remained serious. Concerns included poor health and sanitary conditions; high risk of torture during search, investigation, and transit to other facilities; lack of feedback from prosecutors on investigation of torture complaints; lack of communication with families; discrimination against prisoners in vulnerable groups, including prisoners with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) prisoners, prisoners with HIV/AIDS, and other persons from vulnerable groups; and a lack of secure channels for submission of complaints. The report disclosed the problem of so-called voluntary assistants who are used to control other prisoners. Some observers commented that NPM staff lacked sufficient knowledge and training to recognize instances of torture.
In its official report, the prosecutor general indicated 103 cases of torture in the first seven months of the year, of which 16 cases were investigated and forwarded to courts.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were generally harsh and sometimes life-threatening, and facilities did not meet international health standards. Health problems among prisoners went untreated in many cases, or prison conditions exacerbated them. Prisons faced serious shortage of medical staff.
Physical Conditions: According to Prison Reform International (PRI), although men and women were held separately and pretrial detainees were held separately from convicted prisoners, during transitions from temporary detention centers, pretrial detention, and prisons, youth often were held with adults.
Abuse occurred in police cells, pretrial detention facilities, and prisons. Observers cited the lack of professional training programs for administrators as the primary cause of mistreatment.
To address infrastructural problems in prisons, authorities closed the eight prisons with the worst conditions. The NPM reported continuing infrastructure problems in prisons, such as unsatisfactory sanitary and hygiene conditions, including poor plumbing and sewerage systems and unsanitary bedding. It also reported shortages of medical staff and insufficient medicine, as well as problems of mobility for prisoners with disabilities. In many places the NPM noted restricted connectivity with the outside world and limited access to information regarding prisoners’ rights. PRI reported that there is widespread concern concerning food and nutrition quality in prisons. Prisoners and former prisoners have complained about their provisions and reported that they were served food past its shelf life.
The government did not publish statistics on the number of deaths, suicides, or attempted suicides in pretrial detention centers or prisons during the year.
Administration: Authorities typically did not conduct proper investigations into allegations of mistreatment. Human rights observers noted that in many cases authorities did not investigate prisoners’ allegations of torture or did not hold prison administrators or staff accountable. The law does not allow unapproved religious services, rites, ceremonies, meetings, or missionary activity in prisons. By law a prisoner in need of “religious rituals” or his relatives may ask to invite a representative of a registered religious organization to carry out religious rites, ceremonies, or meetings, provided they do not obstruct prison activity or violate the rights and legal interests of other individuals. PRI reported that some prisons prohibited Muslim prisoners from fasting during Ramadan.
Independent Monitoring: There were no independent international monitors of prisons. Public Monitoring Commissions (PMCs), quasi-independent bodies that respond to allegations of and attempt to deter torture and mistreatment in prisons, carry out monitoring. In the first 10 months of the year, the PMCs conducted 340 monitoring visits to prisons facilities. Human rights advocates noted that some prisons created administrative barriers to prevent the PMCs from successfully carrying out their mandate, including creating bureaucratic delays, forcing the PMCs to wait for hours to gain access to the facilities, or allowing the PMCs to visit for only a short time.
Authorities began investigating the chair of the Public Monitoring Commission in Pavlodar, Elena Semyonova, on charges of dissemination of false information after she raised the issue of the torture and mistreatment of prisoners to EU parliamentarians in early July. The investigation was ongoing.
According to media reports, Aron Atabek, a poet who has been in prison for 12 years, complained to Semyonova regarding the conditions in his prison. He mentioned his cold, damp cell, his worn clothes, and the information vacuum he was held in without access to letters or television.
Improvements: The 2015 criminal code introduced alternative sentences, including fines and public service, but human rights activists noted they were not implemented effectively.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on media through a variety of means, including laws, harassment, licensing regulations, internet restrictions, and criminal and administrative charges. 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.
On May 28, a court suspended the license of independent online newspaper Ratel.kz and banned its chief editor, Marat Asipov, from the publishing world. On March 30, Almaty police opened a criminal investigation against the newspaper, which had reported on the alleged corruption of a former minister. Local and international human rights observers criticized the shutdown of Ratel.kz as an infringement on media freedom.
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 March 15, police in Shymkent launched a criminal investigation against popular blogger Ardak Ashim, known for her critical posts concerning social issues. Police charged her with incitement of social discord. On March 27, the court held a meeting in the absence of Ashim, her lawyer, or any of her representatives and issued a ruling that she should be placed in a mental hospital for coercive treatment. Local and international human rights defenders demanded immediate release of the blogger, condemned her repression, and named her a prisoner of conscience and victim of punitive psychiatry. On May 5, she was released.
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. On January 25, the Legal Media Center nongovernmental organization (NGO) lost a lawsuit against the Ministry of Information and Communication challenging the ministry’s refusal to publicize information regarding media outlets that receive government subsidies. The court supported the ministry, determining that such information should be protected as a commercial secret.
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.
Under amendments to the media law, which entered into force in January, all foreign television and radio channels had to register as legal entities or register a branch office in the country by July 9. The Ministry of Information and Communication cancelled 88 registration certificates because they did not meet registration requirements.
Violence and Harassment: Independent journalists and those working in opposition media or covering stories related to corruption reported harassment and intimidation by government officials and private actors. On June 19, the chief editor and several journalists of independent newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya were summoned by police for interrogation concerning a comment on the newspaper’s YouTube page. An unidentified commenter called on readers to join a protest rally planned for June 23 by the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement. The office of the newspaper and the chief editor’s house were searched. At the end of the interrogation, police warned the journalists against participation in the illegal rally.
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.
On September 20, 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. The trial of his wife Aigul Akberdi on similar charges was ongoing.
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.
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 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.
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. Official statistics reported that 73 percent of the population had internet access in 2018.
In January, 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 Defense 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.
On March 13, a court in Astana banned the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement led by fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov. The same day Minister of Information and Communication Dauren Abayev announced that access to Ablyazov’s social media posts would be restricted. Internet users reported that access to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube were occasionally blocked in the evening at a time coinciding with Ablyazov’s livestream broadcasts. The government denied responsibility and stated that technical difficulties were to blame.
In July the Ministry of Defense and Aerospace Industry reported that it notified the Center of Network Information of violation of the law by 288 websites that hosted harmful software. There were 124 websites blocked for failure to rectify registration data.
Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2018 report, where the country is listed as “not free,” “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.”
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 an 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. In January a group of scientists cosigned a letter appealing to the president to resolve corruption in the distribution of grants for scientific work. The scientists criticized the National Science Grants Council for unfair distribution of grants. In response the Science Committee of the Ministry of Education and society filed a complaint with police, which opened a case against a scholar of the Almaty Astrophysics Institute for allegedly fabricating signatures in the letter to the president. No further action was reported.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
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. On July 12, 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 Civil Service Affairs and 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, 1,024 corruption-related offenses were registered during the first seven months of the year. The most frequent crimes were bribery (52 percent), embezzlement (21 percent), and abuse of power (17 percent). The government charged 663 officials with corruption, and 1,370 cases were submitted to courts.
On July 12, a court in Astana sentenced the former chairman of the Geology and Subsoil Committee of the Ministry of Investment and Development, Bazarbay Nurabayev, to seven-and-a-half years of imprisonment, confiscation of property, and a lifetime ban on government service. According to the court, Nurabayev systematically schemed to take bribes from businessmen in exchange for subsoil contracts in various regions of the country. He was caught accepting a bribe of $20,000 in March 2017.
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.