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The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on human rights in the Republic of Kazakhstan

As the government of Kazakhstan prepares to receive US$800,000 of additional assistance from the U.S. to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, President Tokayev continues to repress fundamental freedoms unabated. 

Source of photo: Azigul Zhumakulbai (Courtesy Photo)

Despite the government’s efforts in acknowledging positive cases of COVID-19, the ‘state of emergency’ and related anti-coronavirus measures put in place on March 16, 2020, are yet other tools to keep the lid on truth-telling Kazakhstani citizens.

As highlighted in the latest report by Human Rights Watch, the Kazakhstani government – along with Central Asian Countries – has failed ‘to consistently uphold human rights obligations in their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by limiting access to information about the spread of the virus and implementing restrictions in discriminatory or arbitrary ways’.

We couldn’t agree more, and first-hand testimonies from civil activists on the ground confirm the fact that the COVID-19 outbreak is fostering an epidemic of authoritarianism in Central Asia, including in Kazakhstan.

ODF, together with other human rights organisations on the spot, is collecting daily uncensored information to guarantee a truthful picture of the sad reality of the pandemic in Kazakhstan. Particularly, we wish to set out a number of concerns ranging from inadequacy in the healthcare system to the urgent issue of political prisoners amid COVID-19. 

Poor health care system 

Activists and doctors report that there aren’t enough masks and medical equipment as the authorities fell short of taking basic precautionary measures for medical professionals. Figures from April 17, 2020, show that 400 out of 1,498 people infected are medical workers. A blatant example is a hospital in Almaty which became a COVID-19 hotspot.

Suppressing freedom of expression

Under the guise of fighting the pandemic, the authorities are prosecuting regime’s critics, particularly civil activists and social media users, for posting online videos about Tokayev’s inaction against the crisis or alleged affiliation to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) peaceful opposition movement. Several cases of politically motivated prosecution have been reported in the last few days such as ‘Qaharman’ human rights defender Dana Zhanay from Aktobe, Dias Moldalimov from Almaty, Roman Reichert and Berik Nogaev from Aktobe, Arman Khasenov and Nurken Akhmetzhanov from Karaganda.

Political prisoners 

In a letter signed by almost 700 Kazakhstani citizens, the signatories demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, among them critically ill Aset Abishev, Maks Bokayev, Almat Zhumagulov and Kenzhebek Abishev. Currently, in Kazakhstani detention facilities, quarantine conditions are not being put in place with inmates and prison staff left without protective masks and COVID-19 tests. In the worst case, political prisoners – like DCK activist Aset Abishev – demanding the application of appropriate preventive measures are punished with solitary confinement. 

Disruptive education access

As the COVID-19 spreads and schools are forced to close, the government is depriving children of their right to education. Without access to internet & digital devices, participation in remote lessons is impossible, thus increasing a massive disruption to education access.

The Open Dialogue Foundation hereby demands the EU and other foreign embassies on the ground to promptly intervene on the above mentioned matters and fully monitor the impact on human rights of the COVID-19 crisis in the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Read also ODF’s latest reports on Kazakhstan: