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.
The government exercised comprehensive control over online content. Observers reported the government blocked or slowed access to opposition websites. Many observers believed the government added progovernment postings and opinions in internet chat rooms. The government regulated the country’s internet providers, including majority state-owned Kazakhtelecom. Nevertheless, websites carried a wide variety of views, including viewpoints critical of the government.
In January 2018 amendments to the media law entered into force. The amended law prohibits citizens from leaving anonymous comments on media outlet websites, which must register all online commenters and make the registration information available to law enforcement agencies on request. As a result most online media outlets chose to shut down public comment platforms.
The Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry controlled the registration of “.kz” internet domains. Authorities may suspend or revoke registration for locating servers outside the country. Observers criticized the registration process as unduly restrictive and vulnerable to abuse.
The government implemented regulations on internet access that mandated surveillance cameras in all internet cafes, required visitors to present identification to use the internet, demanded internet cafes keep a log of visited websites, and authorized law enforcement officials to access the names and internet histories of users.
In several cases the government denied it was behind the blocking of websites. Bloggers reported anecdotally their sites were periodically blocked, as did the publishers of independent news sites.
The law allows the prosecutor general to suspend access to the internet and other means of communication without a court order. The prosecutor general may suspend communication services in cases where communication networks are used “for criminal purposes to harm the interests of an individual, society, or the state, or to disseminate information violating the Election Law…or containing calls for extremist or terrorist activities, riots, or participation in large-scale (public) activities carried out in violation of the established order.”
According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2019 report, where the country is listed as “not free,” “internet freedom in Kazakhstan deteriorated markedly” in the period from June 2018 to May 31, 2019, primarily in connection with unrest triggered by the presidential transition. The report noted that the government disrupted mobile internet connections, throttled access to social media, and temporarily blocked independent news websites.
During demonstrations in May and on election day, June 9, some users reported that access to the internet was intermittently, and at times completely, blocked, including access to VPN services. These outages coincided with protests in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Shymkent, and elsewhere, eliminating the potential to livestream and share live updates from protest scenes on social media and internet news platforms. International cybersecurity NGO NetBlocks reported that these outages were consistent with in-country internet providers blocking the internet. International NGO Reporters Without Borders expressed concerns about censorship related to coverage of peaceful demonstrations. The government denied responsibility.
Government surveillance was also prevalent. According to Freedom House’s report, “the government centralizes internet infrastructure in a way that facilitates control of content and surveillance.” Authorities, both national and local, monitored internet traffic and online communications. The report stated that “activists using social media were occasionally intercepted or punished, sometimes preemptively, by authorities who had prior knowledge of their planned activities.”
On February 13, the Almaty City Court rejected the appeal of Aset Abishev, who was sentenced in November 2018 to four years’ imprisonment for supporting an extremist organization on the basis of Facebook posts he wrote or shared in support of the banned DCK opposition movement. Media reported that Abishev told the court he did not believe it was a crime to express opinions critical of the government. “If the desire for teachers to receive a decent salary or for children to study and be fed for free in schools is extremism, then I am guilty. But I have not committed any illegal or violent actions,” he said.
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 September the Anti-Corruption Agency started an investigation into Karaganda Buketov State University, where the head of the university was suspected of offering a $5,000 (almost two million tenge) bribe to the chairman of the Board of Scientific Fund of the Ministry of Science and Education to get support for the university’s scientific projects and other undefined favors. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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.
During and just after the presidential election from June 9-13, police detained thousands of citizens across the country, and in particular in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent, for taking part in peaceful, although unsanctioned opposition rallies and demonstrations critiquing the presidential election. The Interior Ministry reported detention of about 4,000 citizens, 3,000 of whom were released within three hours; 677 citizens were sentenced to short-term imprisonments (five to 15 days) and 305 were fined. According to human rights activists and media, police and special forces indiscriminately detained those in the protest areas, sometimes with bodily force, including passers-by, senior citizens, and journalists. An Interior Ministry official called the protesters “radically-minded elements trying to destabilize public order.”
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, these difficulties were due to discrepancies in the submitted documents. (See section 5 regarding government restrictions on the registration of human rights organizations.)
Membership organizations other than religious groups, which are 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. (See section 3 and section 7.a. for more information about political parties and labor unions, respectively.)
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 regarding 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 63,125 tenge ($164) or suspension for three months if 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 404,000 tenge ($1,049) or imprisonment for up to 40 days. If committed by the leader of the organization, the fine may be up to 505,000 tenge ($1,311) or imprisonment for no more than 50 days. The law does not clearly define “illegal interference.”
By law a public association, along with its leaders and members, may face fines for performing activities outside its charter. The law is not clear regarding the delineation between actions an NGO member may take in his or her private capacity versus as part of an organization.
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.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. Despite some regulatory restrictions, the government generally respected these rights.
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 Policy report covers internal migration, repatriation of ethnic Kazakh returnees, and external labor migration. In 2017 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.
e. Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
There were 561 recognized refugees in the country as of July, but there were no persons recognized as refugees during the first nine months of the year. Both the number of refugee applications and the approval rate by the government declined considerably during the last two years compared with prior years.
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 legal partners 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 Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs conducts status determination procedures. Any individual located within the country who seeks asylum in the country has access to the asylum procedure. According to UNHCR, the refugee system falls short of the international standard regarding access to asylum procedures and access to the territory of Kazakhstan. Authorities remain reluctant to accept asylum applications at the border from persons who lack valid identity documents, citing security concerns. A person, however, who crosses the border illegally may be prosecuted in criminal court, and subsequently may be viewed as a person with criminal potential, a negative factor in the asylum decision.
In October 2018 migration authorities rejected the asylum claim of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national, because she had not shown that she was persecuted while living in Xinjiang, China. Sauytbay subsequently appealed the rejection of her asylum through the courts, which had not made a final decision when she left Kazakhstan to seek asylum in Sweden in June.
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 assistance. There are no guidelines for handling sensitive cases, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) cases.
Employment: Refugees faced difficulties in gaining employment and social assistance from the government. By law refugees have the right to work but cannot engage in individual entrepreneurship. Refugees faced difficulties in accessing the labor market due to local employers’ lack of awareness of refugee rights, with the result that most refugees work on the informal economy.
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 2018 it became possible for refugees to apply for permanent residency if they have a valid passport. Some refugees have already received permanent residency in 2018 and 2019, and they are to be eligible to become Kazakhstani citizens after five years. The law also lacks provisions on treatment of asylum seekers and refugees with specific needs. Refugees have access to education and health care on the same basis as citizens, but they have no access to social benefits or allowances.
UNHCR reported cordial relations with the government in assisting refugees and asylum seekers.
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 may exercise 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.
g. Stateless Persons
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. The country contributes to statelessness because application for Kazakhstani citizenship requires renunciation of citizenship of the country of origin, with no guarantee that Kazakhstani citizenship will be granted. As of July 1, 7,476 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.
A 2017 law allows the government to deprive Kazakhstani citizenship to individuals convicted of a range of grave terrorism and extremism-related crimes, including for “harming the interest of the state.” According to UNHCR and the government, no one has yet been deprived of citizenship under this law. Instead, during the year the government repatriated hundreds of Kazakhstanis who joined international terrorist organizations and their families, prosecuting the fighters in criminal court and providing social services to family members.
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 Health Care and Social Development. Officially recognized stateless persons have a right to employment, although not with the government. 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.