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Kazakhstan: Political Oppression During the Pandemic

1. Summary

The coronavirus infection COVID-19 has become a challenge not only for healthcare systems, economics, social policy and public administration in most countries of the world, but also to human rights. Human rights have been especially threatened in authoritarian states, including Kazakhstan.

Following the path of China: hiding the extent of infection

In Kazakhstan, the fight against infection was not led by medical doctors, but by the National Security Committee (NSC) and law enforcement agencies. Following the example of China, the Kazakhstani authorities resorted to censorship of information concerning the spread of infection and problems in combating it.

Medical doctors and civil society activists constantly report concealment of the real extent of the epidemic, corruption, a lack of personal protective equipment, a lack of adequate social support for doctors, problems in the medical field and inefficiency of the authorities’ actions. For doing this, they are being subjected to detention and arrest, criminal and administrative liability, intimidation and information attacks. Medical doctors are also threatened with disciplinary sanctions and dismissal (Section 2.1, 2.2).

In late January 2020, a Kazakhstani medical doctor, Duman Aitzhanov, warned his friends about dozens of detected cases of coronavirus infection in Almaty. At the same time, doctors from Aktobe, Almaty and Zhanaozen received reports of the presence of patients with coronavirus. For example, an employee of a pharmaceutical company reported the detention in Aktobe of three Chinese citizens with coronavirus. However, in response, the Kazakhstani authorities brought criminal charges of “disseminating false information” against the doctors and forced them to record a video message with “words of repentance” (Section 2.1).

Thus, the authorities severely persecuted those who at the end of January spoke about the appearance of coronavirus from neighbouring China, with which Kazakhstan has a long border and close ties. At the same time, against the background of these reports, between 29 January 2020 and 3 February 2020 Kazakhstan suspended bus, rail and air connections with China. Thus, it was confirmed that at that time, infections in Kazakhstan could, indeed, have been identified; however, they were concealed.

At the same time, the authorities did not officially recognise the presence of coronavirus in the country until 13 March 2020. Let us not forget that on 11 March 2020, the WHO announced a pandemic. Two days later, the Minister of Health of Kazakhstan, Yelzhan Birtanov, announced the “import” of coronavirus into the country, namely, the first infected persons who “arrived from Germany”. Later, Kazakhstan state propaganda emphasised that the first patients arrived from European countries [1], [2], [3].

As in other authoritarian states, officially, Kazakhstan has a very low mortality rate from coronavirus infection (approx. 0.4% as of early July 2020), which may indicate the manipulation of statistics. In order to decrease the number of infected people, since June 2020, authorities have ceased to include in the statistics those who have an asymptomatic disease (Section 2.3). It was also reported that patients with pneumonia are not included in the statistics of coronavirus incidence. Since the beginning of June 2020, Kazakhstan has seen a significant increase in the incidence of pneumonia – up to 2,500 cases per day. However, the test for coronavirus in patients with pneumonia is supposedly negative.

All this indicates that the actions of the authorities of Kazakhstan to prevent the spread of coronavirus were ineffective, and the situation got out of control. The authorities decided to reintroduce strict quarantine measures throughout the country from 5 July 2020.

China’s experience has proven that the concealment of relevant information about coronavirus and untimely response may lead to even more serious consequences. As a result, the virus has spread throughout the world and reached the scale of a pandemic. Given the danger of the coronavirus infection, the purpose of this report is to document facts that refute the disinformation and manipulation by the Kazakhstani authorities, expose the concealment of information about the extent and consequences of the pandemic in the country, and also report systemic political oppression under the pretence of the pandemic.

In June 2020, the Open Dialogue Foundation, along with the Italian Federation for Human Rights, published a report on how the authorities of China, Iran, Moldova, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Russia and the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea use the pandemic to suppress human rights. Now, The Open Dialogue Foundation, in collaboration with Kazakhstani human rights defenders – the Qaharman Human Rights Foundation and the “405” movement – is presenting an extended review of the situation in Kazakhstan. The analysis has been prepared on the basis of information obtained from primary source materials: documents, files of administrative and criminal cases, the testimonies of residents of different regions of the country.

State of emergency and arbitrary restriction of human rights

On 15 March 2020, a state of emergency (PE) was introduced throughout Kazakhstan, which was in force until 11 May 2020.

International standards in the field of human rights stipulate that in a state of emergency, restrictions of human rights and freedoms are permissible; however, they must comply with the principles of legality and proportionality [1], [2].

The restrictions resorted to by the Kazakhstani authorities, were of arbitrary and discriminatory nature. The restrictions were not specified, due to which the authorities applied inappropriately harsh measures (Section 3). Residents reported cases, such as:

  • welding the doors in the entrances of apartment buildings shut, so that residents would not be able to get out;
  • bribery at checkpoints for the possibility of unhindered passage;
  • the prohibition of movement on personal vehicles and the evacuation of cars to impound yard for a “causeless ride”;
  • evacuation of vehicles that deliver food to stores, to impound yard;
  • a ban on trips to the store or to summer cottages more often than twice a week.

At the same time, representatives of the highest state leadership did not adhere to quarantine measures – they participated in public events without masks and did not abolish the practice of shaking hands.

In order to stimulate social distance, the authorities banned passenger transportation. At the same time, the complicated and ineffective procedure for implementing the social assistance programme provoked nationwide crowds of tens of thousands of Kazakhstanis who gathered near banks and post offices in a bid to receive financial aid in the amount of 42,500 tenge (approx. 95 euros according to the exchange rate for April).

Queue near the post office. Photo: Радио Азаттык / Ongar Saymosayev

Mass arrests for quarantine violation

During the state of emergency in Kazakhstan, more than 16,000 people were detained for violating the state of emergency, of which more than 12,000 people were brought to administrative responsibility. In the first month of the state of emergency alone, more than 1,500 people were arrested.

The detainees were held in small and overcrowded cells, which is a direct violation of quarantine measures. In Kazakhstan, places of detention lack proper conditions of detention and proper medical care. Mass arrests were contrary to the principle of social distancing and put people and their lives at unreasonable risk (Section 5.1). In most cases, arrests could have been replaced with fines or warnings, and in many cases, the court sentences were illegal and politically motivated.

It should be noted that in many regions, police officers often did not wear masks and gloves. The police leadership forced them to buy scarce remedies for themselves. Only after the public disclosure of these cases were the police provided with masks.

Politically motivated oppression under the pretence of a pandemic

Despite the state of emergency and quarantine, authorities continued political oppression in the country. Moreover, the state of emergency provided the authorities with additional tools enabling this.

Civil activists, bloggers, and human rights activists were arbitrarily accused of “violating the state of emergency” and “provoking a violation of law and order during the state of emergency”. They were massively subjected to arbitrary arrests and fines for criticising the authorities on social networks, including for their assessment of the effectiveness of measures to combat coronavirus (Section 4).

The Open Dialogue Foundation, the Qaharman Human Rights Foundation, and the human rights movement “405” have documented more than 80 prosecutions of opposition activists and bloggers during the state of emergency. Of these, at least 21 cases are prosecutions under the pretence of “violation of the state of emergency”.

Activists were frequently summoned to police departments for questioning, which put their health at risk as they were forced to violate their isolation regime. Many have been prosecuted. Blogger Azamat Baykenov was sentenced to a year of restraint of liberty, and Arman Khasenov was held in a detention centre and sentenced to three years of restraint of liberty for “public insulting and encroachment on the dignity” of Nursultan Nazarbayev (Section 4.3). Also, in retaliation for opposition activities, the activists were subjected to compulsory hospitalisation (Asanali Suyubaev, Ruslan Nurkanov) or received threats of compulsory hospitalisation (Marat Duysenbiyev, Bekzat Dzhumabekov, Garifulla Embergenova) (Section 4.2).

Human rights activists Dana Zhanay, Altynay Tuksikova and Anna Shukeyeva, who monitor human rights in a pandemic, have been faced with repeated forced detentions, interrogations, fines and threats from the Kazakhstani authorities. As regards the human rights activist Elena Semenova, who makes public incidents of torture and the lack of proper medical care in places of detention, seven lawsuits were filed against her by the prison authorities (Section 4.4).

During the state of emergency, authorities massively persecuted activists of the peaceful opposition movement “Koshe Partiyasy” and participants in the Telegram chat of this movement (Section 6.2). Activists sharply criticised the government’s actions aimed at concealing the real extent and consequences of the pandemic in Kazakhstan, which became one of the main reasons for their persecution. “Koshe Partiyasy” was established in various cities of Kazakhstan in February 2020. In the Telegram chat, activists peacefully discussed social and political issues. As of 19 May 2020, there were 177,456 people registered in the chat. On 19 May 2020, the Yesilsky District Court of Nur-Sultan, at the request of the General Prosecutor’s Office, secretly recognised “Koshe Partiyasy” as an “extremist” organisation and banned its activities in Kazakhstan. The court denied the activists’ right of appeal, stating that they were allegedly “not a party to the case,” although these very activists were persecuted by NSC and MIA activists for their participation in the “Koshe Partiyasy” movement.

The Open Dialogue Foundation, the Qaharman Human Rights Foundation and the human rights movement “405” have collected data on more than 200 activists who were arbitrarily detained and illegally interrogated from 19 May 2020 until the end of June in connection with their support of the “Koshe Partiyasy” manifesto and participation in peaceful rallies.

In exactly the same way, on 13 March 2018, the authorities labelled the opposition movement “Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan” (DCK) an “extremist” organisation (there were more than 100,000 members in the DCK Telegram chat at the time of the ban). The European Parliament has recognised the DCK as a peaceful movement. Since March 2018, the authorities have arbitrarily detained more than 7,000 peaceful protesters, citing the secret court decision banning the DCK.

Following the end of the emergency regime and the weakening of quarantine, on 6 June 2020, mass peaceful rallies were held in 14 cities of Kazakhstan with demands for better social guarantees against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. The DCK, Koshe Partiyasy, as well as the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan and the “Oyan, Qazaqstan” movement, which position themselves as opposition parties, called for rallies. Law enforcement authorities brutally detained several hundred peaceful protesters, and some of them (Kanchay Shermakhanbetova, Diana Mukhametova, Asia Tulesova, Maksat Begaliyev) faced criminal charges.

The government of Kazakhstan abuses the quarantine regime in order to prevent peaceful assemblies. On 6 June 2020, places of planned rallies were cordoned off under the pretence of “carrying out street disinfection”. At the same time, representatives of the Ministry of Health threatened that the protesters, in case of infection, “would be isolated, incl. in quarantine hospitals”.

Protest rally on 6 July 2020 in Almaty

Another example is the reaction of the authorities to the so-called “Subbotages” (actions of citizens who decided to unite, without political slogans, and organise rallies in a form of evening walks, dances and songs), which the DCK is calling for. Starting from 13 June 2020, the rallies took place on Saturdays, but immediately after that, the authorities tightened quarantine throughout the country on weekends. For such walks in the city centre, activists are subjected to administrative detentions for 15 days and fines of approx. EUR 180, and their relatives receive threats.

Participants in the “subbotage” action in Astana, 26 June 2020

On 7 June 2020, the Chief Sanitary Doctor of Kazakhstan, Aizhan Esmagambetova, granted the powers to tighten quarantine measures in certain territories to the chief sanitary doctors of the respective territories, as well as to the heads of structural divisions of the Ministry of Defence, the National Security Committee and the police. Such powers may be used to discourage peaceful civilian actions under the pretence of quarantine.

New oppressive Law On Peaceful Assembly

When, in the midst of a pandemic, parliaments and governments of democracies took urgent measures to strengthen the healthcare system and save the economy, at that time, the authorities of Kazakhstan, while in a state of emergency, hastily adopted a new law on the procedure for organising and holding peaceful meetings. Between March and April 2020, the draft law on peaceful assemblies passed an opaque parliamentary review process. On 20 May 2020, the Parliament of Kazakhstan finally approved the law, and on 25 May 2020, President Tokayev signed it.

This discouraging fact was an example of how the authoritarian regime of Kazakhstan abused the state of emergency to pass a law that has become a historic blow to civil society, while openly neglecting all the recommendations of the international community.

The UN bodies, the OSCE, Members of the European Parliament, the US State Department, international associations of lawyers and human rights organisations have repeatedly emphasised that the law proposed by the authorities fundamentally does not meet international standards, unduly restricts the right to peaceful assembly and fundamentally contradicts Kazakhstan’s international obligations.

A flurry of criticism of the international community concerned many points of the law, in particular, the burdensome “conciliation” procedure (in fact, the licensing procedure for rallies), the vague and politicised grounds for banning rallies, and the absurd rule on holding rallies only in “specialised places” (a brief analysis of problem points of the law is given in Section 6.1).

President Tokayev presents this law as an “achievement” and one of the “democratic reforms”. Still, these declarations are used for appearance’s sake. Tokayev’s rhetoric contradicts his actions: in practice, he continues the authoritarian policy of Nursultan Nazarbayev.

International assessment of Kazakhstan’s actions during the COVID-19 epidemic

The authorities of Kazakhstan directed their efforts to create, at the international level, the image of a successful example of combating the spread of coronavirus infection. The public relations efforts and propaganda of the authorities of Kazakhstan have not been futile. Hans Kluge, Director of the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Europe, called Kazakhstan “a great example of proactive action to stabilise the situation with COVID-19”. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo also praised Kazakhstan’s efforts to fight the infection.

Head of the Delegation of the European Parliament in Central Asia, Fulvio Martusciello, stated that Kazakhstan “is one step ahead of the epidemic”. The Kazakhstani authorities reported that President of the European Council Charles Michel “praised the practical actions and decisions of the President of Kazakhstan to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in the country”.

Such statements contribute to the propaganda of an authoritarian regime and do not take into account the voice of civil society, which, as a result, may worsen the image of international organisations in the eyes of citizens. Also, such statements are in sharp contrast with the facts, which confirm that, in fact, Kazakhstan has become an example of how to imitate the fight against the spread of infection, and also use quarantine measures to persecute critics of the regime.

The international community should give an objective assessment of the actions of the authorities of Kazakhstan during the epidemic of coronavirus infection in order to prevent future massive violations of human rights under the pretence of combating the infection.

Numerous facts indicate corruption and inefficient use of budget funds allocated for the fight against coronavirus in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhstani authorities stated that they had allocated a record amount equal to 13 billion US dollars from the state budget to counter the coronavirus epidemic, but medical workers were not adequately provided with personal protective equipment, and there was a shortage of pharmaceuticals in hospitals and pharmacies. Medical doctors and patients report that all regions of the country continue to face an acute shortage of beds in hospitals and a lack of medical equipment (including ventilators). At the same time, the volunteers who organised the free distribution of scarce medicines, were prosecuted for “not ensuring proper safety measures and social distance”.

During the state of emergency and in the conditions of the economic crisis, the budget of the National Security Committee was increased by 52 billion tenge (116 million euros). At the same time, the budget for the health care system, which, in such difficult times, fulfils the function of the common public good, was increased only by 78 billion tenge (170 million euros). On 5 July 2020, the authorities reported that they had additionally allocated 18.1 billion tenge (approx. 40 million euros) to fight the coronavirus epidemic, which is almost three times less than the amount allocated for additional NSC funding. One of the real functions of the NSC is the fight against critics and political opponents of the authorities.

In view of this, any external financial assistance to Kazakhstan should be transferred under the condition of the fulfilment of human rights obligations and the rule of law, as well as the provision of a transparent mechanism for monitoring the use of the assistance provided to civil society.

2. Concealment of information on the spread of COVID-19 in Kazakhstan and pressure exerted on medical doctors

2.1. Persecution of medical doctors who first reported cases of infection with COVID-19

The first reports of coronavirus infections in Kazakhstan appeared at the end of January 2020. They were reported by medical professionals and pharmacists. This was immediately followed by the reaction of law enforcement agencies, who labelled this information “false” and began to persecute medical doctors. The persecution has become another confirmation that Kazakhstan tried to conceal information about patients infected with coronavirus.

  • On 29 January 2020, in Aktobe, a pharmacist reported on a social network that three Chinese citizens with coronavirus were identified in the city; reportedly, they were held in a residential building and were not taken to hospital. The pharmacist was detained, and after interrogation, she “repented”. She was accused of “disseminating knowingly false information” (Article 274 of the Criminal Code).
  • Two ambulance drivers from the city of Kapshagai (Almaty Province) wrote on Messenger that two people had been brought to the city hospital with suspected coronavirus infection. Police “began to search for where the rumours came from”. On 31 January 2020, medical doctors were detained, and criminal proceedings were instituted against them.
  • On 30 January 2020, Almaty police reported the detention of medical doctor Duman Aitzhanov, who sent a video message about 70 people infected with coronavirus to his friends on WhatsApp in Almaty. The medical doctor faced criminal charges of “disseminating knowingly false information” (Article 274 of the Criminal Code). Shortly after the arrest, a video was published in which Duman Aitzhanov “apologised for what he had done” and called for people “not to upload such kinds of videos”. In the video, the medical doctor is handcuffed to a policeman. The persecution of doctor Aytzhanov caused significant public outcry and condemnation by civil society and human rights defenders. In June 2020, the criminal case against Aytzhanov was discontinued.

Duman Aytzhanov hadcuffed to a policeman. Photo: Polisia.kz
  • In early February 2020, reports appeared in the media about the hospitalisation of dozens of people with suspected coronavirus infection. However, the authorities officially reported that they had a diagnosis of acute respiratory infection and flu. Health Minister Yelzhan Birtanov stated that there was no need to test all people who arrive from China.
  • In early March 2020, a nurse at the Zhanaozen hospital, Arukhan Shyrakbayeva, reported on Messenger that a patient with suspected coronavirus infection was brought to them. The patient came from South Korea. Law enforcement authorities “promptly identified the nurse”, after which she recorded a video material with an “apology” and stated that it was a “poor joke”.
  • On 10 March 2020, the Chief Sanitary Doctor of Kazakhstan, Zhandarbek Bekshin, stated: “According to our forecast, approx. from March 11–16, we may finally have coronavirus in the country…. Our scientists say that it can be 10 or 16 March”. After the pandemic was announced by the WHO, on 13 March 2020, Kazakhstan announced the first cases detected, and on 26 March 2020, the first death from coronavirus was recorded (Raykul Akimzhan from Akmola Province). She became infected in Kazakhstan. The diagnosis was made after her death. For several days, she was denied hospitalisation. Relatives of the deceased were pressured by law enforcement agencies: they were forced to sign a non-disclosure statement.
  • On 4 April 2020, the police announced the detention in Aktobe of an employee of a private clinic, who, on social networks, had reported mass infection of the clinic’s employees. The employee noted that the number of the infected in Aktobe was much higher than that reported by the authorities. After the arrest, a video was published in which the accused apologises and “admits” that “she disseminated false information”. The medical doctor was punished with a fine of approx. 240 euros.

According to official figures, since the beginning of 2020, 87 criminal cases have been instituted in Kazakhstan regarding the dissemination of knowingly false information about the coronavirus.

2.2. Unsafe working conditions for medical doctors, as well as intimidation of doctors in response to their protests

According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the state must create the conditions for providing all necessary medical care. The state is also obliged to minimise risks of work-related injuries and diseases. This means that medical workers who fight against coronavirus infection must be provided with personal protective equipment and conditions for safe work.

On the one hand, the whole world was not ready for a pandemic in a timely manner, and doctors became the main risk group. On the other hand, judging by the set of measures taken, it is possible to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the actions taken by the government. The facts confirm that the authorities of Kazakhstan primarily concentrated their efforts on censorship and preventing the spread of information about the scale of infection in Kazakhstan and problems in the medical sphere. To this end, physicians were persecuted, including being subjected to criminal prosecution.

In addition, on 1 February 2020, the President of Kazakhstan announced the government’s decision to provide China with humanitarian assistance to fight the coronavirus. At the same time, inside Kazakhstan, the authorities failed to properly prepare for the epidemic. Medical workers, just like other citizens, were not provided with personal protective equipment. Doctors stayed in medical institutions around the clock and worked overtime. All this caused a large number of infected doctors; at the same time, neither the government nor the President of Kazakhstan provide regular and confirmed data on this issue. According to official information, in early April 2020, there were 211 infected doctors (21% of all cases), and at the end of April – 820 doctors (30% of all infected in the country). On 18 June 2020, the Ministry of Health announced about 1,904 infected doctors (12% of all infected).

The largest case of mass infection of doctors was recorded in the city hospital of Almaty. Sixty percent of doctors were infected there (according to official data that was presented at the end of June). The Chief Sanitary Doctor of Almaty, Ayzat Moldagasimova, accused the doctors themselves, noting that they allegedly “did not observe safety measures”.

Gaukhar Amirayeva. Photo: Facebook

According to the doctors, after these allegations, bullying against them began in the media. The doctors expressed their intention to file a lawsuit against the Chief Sanitary Doctor of Almaty, Moldagasimova, as stated by Gaukhar Amirayeva, the head of the gynaecology department. After that, the authorities reported that Amirayeva was subjected to a test for coronavirus, which turned out to be positive. The doctors publicly stated that they believed that NSC officers had forced laboratory staff to fake test results in order to exert pressure on Amirayeva. The case was widely reported and commented on. Soon, the leadership of the Ministry of Health announced that a “sad mistake” had occurred, and Amirayeva’s test was actually negative. The Chief Sanitary Doctor of Almaty, Moldagasimova, was removed from her post.

Another massive case of infection of doctors (approx. 100 people) was recorded in a hostel where employees of different hospitals in Almaty were accommodated. According to them, the infection occurred due to unsanitary living conditions.

Garbage bags used as a protective suit in Taraz

All over the country, medical workers complained that they were being forced to independently produce personal protective equipment from improvised materials [1], [2], [3]. In Taraz, one of the activists videotaped doctors using garbage bags as personal protection. The video received broad publicity. After that, the activist recorded a video message with an “apology” and said that the video was not depicting “doctors, but representatives of a public organisation”. At the same time, the activist was noticeably nervous, and his speech sounded the reading of a prepared text.

“Had we been helped, had we been provided with everything necessary in advance, it would be easier now. But, on the contrary, they intimidate us, they threaten us with dismissal if we tell the truth,” a Kazakhstani doctor told the media on condition of anonymity.

  • On 16 June 2020, it became known that the head physician of the Uralsk Infectious Diseases Hospital, Nadia Akhmetova was dismissed from her post. Prior to this, she had reported that the hospital had run out of reserves of beds and drugs due to the large number of patients, but the authorities were inactive. After a conflict with the local health department, the doctor wrote a letter of resignation.
Tolkynay Ordabayeva. Photo: Facebook
  • In early April 2020, the case of an infectious disease specialist from the Zhambyl Province, Tolkynay Ordabayeva who became ill with COVID-19, was widely publicised. She reported that she had not been provided with personal protective equipment. After that, 400 medical masks were found in her office. According to Ordabayeva, the masks were planted there in order to discredit her. Kazakhstani citizens expressed strong support for Ordabayeva. The management of the hospital where she works has been removed from office. Ordabayeva also stated that the region isconcealing incidents of infection of medical doctors. She was placed in the same room with an epidemiologist who, when admitted to the hospital, was registered as “unemployed”.
  • On 26 June 2020, a video was distributed on social networks; it was recorded by an ambulance doctor Arman Khamzin from Shymkent. The doctor recorded ambulances that could not enter the city hospital territory. “I am an ambulance doctor, I have a seriously ill patient with pneumonia. No hospital wants to admit him, they say there are no beds. What now? Two patients died yesterday in our team’s car,” Khamzin stated, asking the Ministry of Health to resolve the problem. The next day, this doctor publicly explained his action as a “psycho-emotional breakdown” and apologised for the “panic”. There is every reason to believe that these “apologies” are the result of pressure, given the systemic practice of the NSC persecuting medical doctors for disclosing problems in the medical field.
  • On 26 June 2020, a nurse from Pavlodar sent a video message via the WhatsApp messenger in which she reported the critical situation in the city due to the large number of patients with pneumonia. “The whole city has some kind of pneumonia, there are few COVID-positive ones. The situation is very serious – there aren’t enough staff, there aren’t enough beds, there isn’t enough medicine, all doctors and nurses are forced to interrupt their holidays,” the nurse stated. A few hours later, she published another video message where she stated that she had “expressed her subjective feeling, which turned out to be wrong,” and that “in fact, everything is quite safe in Pavlodar”.
  • On 30 June 2020, medical doctor Kairat Seydualiyev of the Kelesky District Hospital (Turkestan Province) was dismissed from work for posting a video on Facebook showing the poor-quality medical gloves that were given to doctors. The gloves tore as he was trying to put them on.

The authorities have announced that they would pay bonuses to medical doctors who are “involved in anti-epidemic measures.” However, it transpired that the bonuses were provided only to those who “worked directly with infected patients”. This approach seems to be discrediting and irrational, because if someone from the work team has contact with infected persons, then other members of the team are also at risk. At the same time, a case was recorded when the bonuses were not received even by those who had had direct contact with infected people.

On 29 June 2020, a video message by a medical worker at the clinic of the Zhualynsky District of Zhambyl Province, Farida Zhanbatyrova, was published on social networks. She stated that the clinic’s administration had demanded that she return part of the bonus (85 out of 350 euros) received in April 2020. In May, the administration demanded that Zhanbatyrova return 328 euros of the 437 euros received. She refused to do this and was removed from duty. Other employees of the clinic were also forced to return part of the bonuses.

The doctors who did not receive bonuses held protests in several cities of Kazakhstan [1], [2]. [3]. It is significant that the doctors did not receive protection from labour unions. For example, in the Akmola Province, in response to complaints, a representative of the ambulance workers’ labour union accused workers of “sabotage”. In recent years, with the help of oppressive legislation and the persecution of union activists, the authorities have cracked down on independent labour unions in various sectors.

A rally organised by medical workers in Shymkent. Photo: vera.kz

Employees of the Mangistau Regional Hospital stated that the leadership began to threaten them with dismissal after they complained about their problems in a video message to the President. “In particular, the medical doctors reported that they had received only part of their salary, and they had been given sour milk as compensation for their round-the-clock work. Also, one of them, Siylagan Mukhanbetov, was threatened with criminal prosecution.”

2.3. Manipulation of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality statistics

As in other authoritarian countries, Kazakhstan has officially recorded a very low mortality rate from coronavirus (approx. 0.4%), while, for example, the EU average is approx. 11%. Even in South Korea, which is successfully coping with the spread of infection, the mortality rate exceeds 2%. Such a large gap may indicate the manipulation of not only mortality statistics, but also incidence rate figures.

With the increase in the number of infected, the Ministry of Health of Kazakhstan changed the counting algorithm. In the beginning of June 2020, Kazakhstan began to separately consider symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. In addition, patients with pneumonia are not included in the statistics of coronavirus incidence. Compared with June 2019, in June 2020, the mortality rate from pneumonia in Kazakhstan increased four-fold.

As of 9 July 2020, 188 deaths from coronavirus infection were officially registered in Kazakhstan. At the same time, 628 people died from pneumonia in June 2020 alone. Dozens of people diagnosed with coronavirus were not included in the statistics of mortality from coronavirus; other diseases were indicated as the official cause of death.

Cases were recorded when law enforcement agencies threatened relatives of coronavirus victims with criminal liability if they disclosed details of their death. In addition, journalists found that in Almaty, the number of graves in places designated for burial of victims of infection was three times higher than official mortality data (32 instead of 10).

Kazakhstan ranked fourth globally as regards the number of PCR tests per 100 thousand people; however, the detection rates of infection are several times lower than in other countries. On 29 June 2020, President Tokayev acknowledged that the test systems used by Kazakhstan, and PCR studies may be of “poor quality”.

Even with the manipulation of statistics, a sharp jump in the incidence of coronavirus is observed in Kazakhstan, which indicates the failure of the campaign to prevent the spread of infection. The authorities were forced to re-introduce harsh quarantine measures throughout Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan became the first state in the world where, after quarantine measures were relaxed, they were again significantly tightened [1], [2].

A graph that shows a sharp increase of covid-19 cases in Kazakhstan in comparison with other countries. Photo: Our World in Data

3. Discrimination and arbitrary restrictions during the state of emergency regime

On 15 March 2020, a state of emergency was introduced throughout Kazakhstan, which was valid until 11 May 2020. On 16 March 2020, Kazakhstan closed the border, and passenger traffic across the country was suspended. The work of enterprises and institutions was also suspended, except for government agencies, utilities, pharmacies, shops and the mass media.

In the context of the spread of a life-threatening infectious disease, it is advisable to restrict the movement of citizens, as well as isolate the population. However, during the state of emergency, the Kazakhstani authorities resorted to openly discriminatory and arbitrary restrictions, which hardly contributed to the fight against the spread of coronavirus, but severely limited the constitutional rights of citizens.

In a number of regions of Kazakhstan, the movement of personal vehicles was prohibited or severely restricted. There were cases when the police took cars to impound yards although permission had been granted by the sanitary service for them to be used, including cars that delivered food to shops. In Nur-Sultan, hundreds of private cars were evacuated to the impound yard for “causeless driving in the city”. Aktobe restricted the possibility of shopping to every three days. In Uralsk, residents were banned from travelling to summer cottages more frequently than twice a week.

At the entrances to large cities, roadblocks were established, additional forces of internal troops were deployed to the cities. In fact, the roadblocks transpired to be hotbeds of corruption, as there were cases of bribery in exchange for unhindered travel.

The authorities resorted to the method of forced isolation of apartment buildings throughout Kazakhstan. If someone from an apartment building was diagnosed with coronavirus, all residents were forbidden to go out. In Aktobe, the wrong entrance was quarantined by mistake, and dozens of families were blocked for several days. The authorities explained that it was “a mistake by the police”. Sometimes, tenants found themselves locked in houses without food, as the authorities did not resolve the issue of food provision in a timely manner.

Holes in the door for the transfer of food in one of the Pavlodar houses. Photo: Instagram

In several cities (Aktau, Ekibastuz, Karaganda, Pavlodar, Zhanaozen), cases were recorded of bolts being welded to the front doors of multi-storey buildings, and a small hole being cut out in the doorway for the transfer of food and groceries [1], [2], [3], [4]. This step outraged many residents of Kazakhstan, who began to compare the cut openings with those in the doors of prison cells.

Activists Nursultan Tastayev, Aidar Syzdykov and Aibek Sabitov during the “subbotage” action in Nur-Sultan on 26 June 2020

In a multi-storey building in Pavlodar, a bolt was welded on the door simply because a doctor who had had contact with a coronavirus victim lived there. The Akim of Zhenis Kasymbek Province admitted that the authorities “went too far”. In Aktau, a man jumped from the third floor of a quarantined house, because he could not leave it in any other way. He was hospitalised with a fracture of the spine.

Diana Baymagambetova in the hospital after her detention on 6 June 2020

Another example of arbitrary restrictionsis the reaction of the authorities to the so-called “Subbotages” (actions of citizens who decided to unite, without political slogans, and organise rallies in a form of evening walks, dances and songs), which the DCK is calling for. Starting from 13 June 2020, the rallies took place on Saturdays, but immediately after that, the authorities tightened quarantine throughout the country on weekends. Activists are subjected to administrative detention and punished with fines for such walks in the city centre. For example, on 27 June 2020, activist Diana Baymagambetova was subjected to 15 days’ incarceration for simply walking along the street. Previously, the police had detained her using brute force for participating in a peaceful rally on 6 June 2020.

Participants in the “subbotage” action in different cities of Kazakhstan

The authorities of Kazakhstan resorted to tough measures to reduce social contacts in society; however, they themselves did not adhere to the quarantine measures. President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev and members of the government neglected the ban on handshakes, and also participated in public events without their masks on. In particular, the delegation of Kazakhstan took part in mass events in Russia on the occasion of Victory Day celebrations.

Ignoring quarantine measures led to the situation that coronavirus infection was found in many high-ranking officials – Nursultan Nazarbayev, press secretary of the President Berik Uali, Health Minister Yelzhan Birtanov, Deputy Prime Minister Eraly Tugzhanov, Deputy Akim of the Pavlodar Province Askhat Oralov, Speaker of the Lower Chamber of Parliament Nurlan Nigmatulin, Akim of Temirtau Galym Ashimov, Chief Sanitary Doctor of Almaty Zhandarbek Bekshin, and Head of the Almaty Public Health Department Kamalzhan Nadyrov.

Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev during his visit to Moscow on 24 June 2020. Photo: Телеканал Хабар 24 , Facebook / Berik Uali

President Tokayev stated that the government had spent approx. 13 billion US dollars on the fight against coronavirus infection, which is 8% of Kazakhstan’s GDP. Tokayev labelled such measures “unprecedented”. The authorities failed to provide a transparent and comprehensive report on the use of these funds. After the introduction of the state of emergency regime, the Kazakhstani authorities announced a social assistance programme in the amount of 42,500 tenge (approx. 95 euros) for citizens who were left without an income. The authorities reported that 4.5 million people received payments. However, due to bureaucratic difficulties and delays, a huge number of Kazakhstanis (approx. 37% of applicants) were not able to get the aid [1], [2] [3]. According to official figures, between March and April 2020, more than 4.2 million people in Kazakhstan were left without a job.

A good example of the inefficient use of financial resources by the authorities of Kazakhstan is the construction of new infectious disease hospitals in Almaty and Nur-Sultan with 280 and 200 beds, respectively. Approximately 10 billion tenge (approx. 22 million euros) were allocated for the construction of the two facilities. It is obvious that the practice of urgent construction of new hospitals was borrowed from China, where a hospital for patients with coronavirus was erected in record time, while in Western countries, ready-made infrastructure facilities (exposition centres, stadiums) were converted for medical purposes.

In addition, Kazakhstan’s authorities also intended to hold a series of events in honour of the Day of the Capital City public holiday, which is held annually on 6 July and coincides with the birthday of Nursultan Nazarbayev. However, “in connection with the epidemiological situation”, the planned activities were transferred online at the last moment. At the same time, spending on decorating the city on the occasion of the holiday including the installation of another monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev, was not stopped. According to some reports, approx. 2.4 million euros were spent on preparations for the festivities in Nur Sultan. On 6 July 2020, in Nur Sultan, against the backdrop of a large number of patients and fatal victims of coronavirus, a festive firework show was held.

4. Persecution of activists and human rights defenders during the epidemic

The state of emergency introduced throughout Kazakhstan provided the authorities with additional tools to prosecute opposition activists, bloggers and human rights defenders. The authorities began to selectively and arbitrarily apply the articles of the Administrative Code regarding the “violation of the state of emergency” (Article 476 of the Code of Administrative Offenses) and “actions provoking the violation of law and order in a state of emergency” (Article 478 of the Code of Administrative Offenses). Some activists were arrested for going to the shop or pharmacy.

4.1. Persecution of activists

  • In late March and early April, activists from Aktobe: Alibek Moldin, Asylkhan Zhaubatyrov, Aytzhan Temirgaziyev and Sagyndyk Bekeyev were arrested for 10 days, and Karagoz Bashigulova and Aklima Tuksikova were sentenced to a fine in the amount of approx. 60 euros. The activists were accused of “violation of emergency procedures” for coming to the courthouse to monitor trials against activists.

Top row: Karagoz Bashigulova, Sagyndyk Bekeyev, Alibek Moldin
Bottom row: Aklima Tuksikova, Aytzhan Temirgaziyev, Asylkhan Zhaubatyrov
  • On 2 April 2020, activist Murat Baymaganbetov from Kyzylorda was brutally detained and arrested for five days for participating in a protest near the regional akimat the day before. The action was organised by mothers with many children and other poor citizens who were in a difficult financial situation due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • On 9 April 2020, the court of Uralsk imposed a fine in the amount of approx. 60 euros on activist Isatay Utepov for “violation of the state of emergency”. He was detained when he went to the pharmacy for medicines for his sick mother.
  • On 10 April 2020, activist Askhat Zheksebayev was detained on the way to the supermarket in Almaty. He was accused of violating the state of emergency and was incarcerated for four days.
  • On 10 April 2020, an activist from Aktobe, Aktamak Koptleuova, came to the Aktobe police department to pick up her cell phone, which had been confiscated from her earlier. For this, she was punished with a fine in the amount of approx. 240 euros due to “violation of the state of emergency” and “actions provoking a violation of law and order during the state of emergency”.
  • On 17 April 2020, activist Alnur Ilyashev was detained and then placed in a pre-trial detention centre. Criminal charges were brought against him for “disseminating knowingly false information during a state of emergency” (Article 274 of the CC). According to the criminal case file, Ilyashev published several comments on social networks, “aimed at forming an opinion on the insolvency of the activities of the Nur-Otan party during the state of emergency”. On 22 June 2020, Ilyashev was sentenced to three years of restraint of liberty and a five-year ban on social activities. The case of Alnur Ilyashev was widely covered in the Kazakhstani state media, where he was labelled a “political activist”. Such rhetoric is uncharacteristic of the pro-government Kazakhstani media, as they frequently use propaganda clichés, such as: “a member of an extremist organisation” against opposition activists.
  • On 20 April 2020, an activist from Aktobe Province, Serikbolat Nogayev, was punished with a fine of approx. 240 euros for posting information on Facebook about the hunger strike of prisoners in the Aktobe special detention centre. Nogayev was accused of “violation of the state of emergency”.
  • On 27 April 2020, activist from Aktobe, Berik Nogayev, was sentenced to 15 days’ incarceration for posting comments that criticised the authorities on Facebook. He was accused of “provoking violation of the state of emergency”.

Top row: Murat Baymaganbetov, Askar Ibrayev, Serik Idyryshev, Serikbolat Nogayev
Bottom row: Askhat Zheksebayev, Isatay Utepov
  • Activist Serik Idyryshev from Ust-Kamenogorsk was sentenced on 5 May 2020, during the state of emergency, to nine months in prison. In December 2019, he was sentenced to restriction of liberty under Art. 405 of the Criminal Code – “participation in the organisation’s activities following its recognition as extremist” (for supporting the peaceful opposition movement DCK). Recently, the sentence has been changed to a prison term. The reason was that Idyryshev had published posts criticising the authorities on social networks.
Roman Reichert
  • Roman Reichert from Aktobe Province is another activist who was prosecuted and convicted under art. 405 of the Criminal Code for supporting the DCK. On 31 March 2020, the police stormed the house where Roman and his wife and children were staying; the police beat him, and then carried out a search, seizing a mobile phone and a blue balloon as evidence (blue is the colour of the DCK symbols). On 22 May 2020, he was sentenced to one year restriction of liberty.
  • Kanchay Shermakhanbetova from Saryagash, Diana Mukhametova and Asia Tulesova from Almaty, as well as Maksat Begaliyev from Nur-Sultan, faced criminal charges for participating in mass rallies on 6 June. Several hundred peaceful protesters were brutally detained, of whom it has been possible to identify more than 300 people in 14 cities.
    Kanchay Shermakhanbetova reported that a policeman in a car began to beat her and apply strangulation. Feeling a lack of air, she bit his hand in self-defence. She was accused of “using violence against a representative of the authorities” (Article 380, section 1 of the CC). Maksat Begaliyev is also being prosecuted under Art. 378 of the CC (“insulting a representative of the authorities”), allegedly, for swearing at a police officer during detention); the same article was applied to Diana Mukhametova (for harsh criticism of the President and the Minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs after she saw a portrait of Stalin on the wall in the police station). Two articles – 378 and 380 of the CC – were applied to Asia Tulesova due to two sharp swings which she made with her hands in the direction of the policeman and knocking off his cap. Tulesova explained that, in this way, she was trying to resist massive arbitrary detentions. Since 8 June 2020, she has been held in detention.

Kanchay Shermakhanbetova, Diana Mukhametova, Maksat Begaliyev
  • Activist Askar Ibrayev from Kostanay was detained before the rally on 6 June 2020. Earlier, on 21 February 2020, he was sentenced to a year of restriction of liberty under Art. 405 of the CC. He was accused of participating in DCK rallies, subscribing to the pages of this movement on social networks, and also placing posters with the inscriptions “Go DCK!”, “Old Man, go away”, and “Freedom” on the street. On 12 June 2020, the court granted the prosecutor’s motion to replace the restriction of liberty with a prison term: Ibrayev was sentenced to 11 months in prison. He learned about the trial an hour before the court session; he was not allowed to familiarise himself with the case file.

4.2. Threats of hospitalisation and punitive psychiatry against activists

  • On 16 April 2020, activist Asanali Suyubaev from Aktobe was forcibly placed in a neuropsychiatric dispensary. In connection with a leg injury, he has a class-2 disability and uses a wheelchair. The police stopped him on the street when he was returning from the post office. Suyubaev is known as one of the administrators of the “Koshe Partiyasy” Telegram chat in Aktobe. On the day of his arrest, he was handing out leaflets of this peaceful opposition movement. Upon learning that Suyubaev was registered in a mental clinic, the police called a team from a psychiatric dispensary. The case was widely publicised, and after 20 days, he was released from the psychiatric hospital.
Ruslan Nurkanov
  • On 30 March 2020, activist Ruslan Nurkanov from the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk was approached by a policeman who handed him a summons. Nurkanov had a fever, and the policeman called an ambulance, while indicating false information that the activist had coronavirus. He was hospitalised in a tuberculosis dispensary. The coronavirus test was negative, Nurkanov was further treated for pneumonia. He faced criminal charges under Article 405 of the CC for his support of the DCK and participation in peaceful rallies. On 1 July 2020, court hearings began. Nurkanov was repeatedly beaten during arbitrary detentions and interrogations.
  • On 29 April 2020, activist Marat Duysenbiyev was taken out of his house by ambulance doctors and law enforcement officers. He was supposedly suspected of having a coronavirus infection. The activist’s son stated that his father was not sick and requested that they refrain from calling an ambulance. Duysenbiev reported that, prior to his arrest, he had received threats from the NSC. On 6 May 2020, Duysenbiev was incarcerated for two days for allegedly insulting a medical doctor.
  • During a protest rally of 6 June 2020, the police threatened civil activist Bekzat Dzhumabekov from the city of Taraz that they would “quarantine him” with a diagnosis of coronavirus infection if he did not stop his civic activities. On the eve of the protest rally in Aktobe, they tried to quarantine activist Garifulla Embergenov under the pretence that he had allegedly had contact with a person infected with coronavirus. The next day, the activist was detained for participating in a protest rally. Embergenov has a class-1 disability.

Marat Duysenbiyev, Garifulla Embergenov, Asanali Suyubaev

4.3. The persecution of bloggers

  • On 27 March 2020, activist and blogger from Almaty, Dias Moldalimov, published a video message “coronavirus in Kazakhstan”, in which he called on the government to provide financial assistance to citizens. The next day he was detained. A criminal case was opened against Moldalimov on charges of “disseminating knowingly false information during the state of emergency” (Article 274 of the CC). His phone was seized and he is being subjected to interrogations.
  • On 6 April 2020, an activist and blogger from Zhambyl Province, Baghdat Baktybayev, was incarcerated for 10 days for broadcasting a live video of a large queue near the post office building on social networks. He was accused of “actions provoking a violation of law and order in an emergency”. According to the court decision, Baktybayev “entered the social network Facebook and openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the actions of state bodies”. Bagdat Baktybayev is systematically subjected to politically motivated prosecution. In January 2020, Baktybayev was sentenced to 80 hours of community service on charges of “insulting a government official” for his comments that he made during the broadcast of the trial. In 2020, Baktybayev was fined a total of approx. 500 euros for his statements directed at the authorities.
  • On 12 April 2020, Arman Khasenov from the city of Karaganda posted a video message on social networks in which he expressed the opinion that there was no support for Kazakhstani medical doctors during the pandemic; he also commented on widespread corruption in the family of Nursultan Nazarbayev. The next day he was placed in a pre-trial detention centre of the National Security Committee, where he spent almost a month. Khasenov was accused of “public insult and other infringements of the honour and dignity of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy” (Article 373, section 2 of the CC). The investigation stated that the accused “sincerely repented”. On 30 April 2020, the court sentenced Khasenov to three years of restriction of liberty and 300 hours of forced labour. The court verdict states that Khasenov admitted that he“had no moral right to swear at the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy”, and that he “undertakes to refrain from making such video materials and be useful to society.
  • On 14 April, 2020, a Shymkent court decided to incarcerate a local activist Ruslan Zhanpeisov for 35 days because he was travelling in a private car in the city. Zhanpeisov claims that he had permission to travel. The day before the arrest, Zhanpeisov published a video message to the President of Kazakhstan, in which he criticised harsh and ineffective measures by the authorities to combat coronavirus. On 24 April 2020, he was incarcerated for another five days for “provoking violation of law and order during the state of emergency”. According to the counsel, a criminal case was initiated against Zhanpeisov on charges of “disseminating knowingly false information” (Article 274 of the CC). After the end of administrative detention, Zhanpeisov apologised to the President, apologised for criticising the police and declared that “he would never do it again”.
  • On 5 May 2020, Azamat Baykenov, a popular blogger from Petropavlovsk, was incarcerated for seven days on charges of “violating the state of emergency” for going to the shop. Also, criminal charges were brought against him for “participating in an organisation’s activities following its recognition as extremist” (Article 405 of the CC). The case concerned support for the DCK peaceful opposition movement. The investigation stated that Baykenov’s texts “create a negative opinion among citizens of Kazakhstan towards the authorities”. On 13 March 2020, in Almaty, unidentified persons in plain clothes (most likely NSC officers) detained Baykenov by force. Subsequently, these unknown persons bought him a ticket to Nur-Sultan, from where he was escorted to Petropavlovsk (in fact, he was kidnapped). On 15 May 2020, Baykenov was sentenced to a year of restriction of liberty and a ban on using social networks for three years.

Top row: Azamat Baykenov, Arman Khasenov
Bottom row: Dias Moldalimov, Baghdat Baktybayev
  • Blogger and civil society activist Nurbol Onerkhan fell victim of politically motivated prosecution due to critical statements regarding the authorities. In December 2019, he was incarcerated for ten days. Following the incarceration, right at the exit from the detention centre, he was handed a writ of summons for military service. Onerkhan was also dismissed from work. Despite quarantine measures throughout the country, Onerkhan was systematically summoned to undergo a medical examination at the military recruitment office. Onerkhan’s medical examination revealed heart problems, but, nevertheless, the medical commision recognised that he was fit for military service. The blogger believes that this decision was issued under pressure from the authorities.

4.4. Persecution of human rights defenders

Kazakhstani human rights defenders who are involved in monitoring human rights observance in Kazakhstan during the pandemic are subjected to persecution.

Top row: Dana Zhanay, Elena Semenova
Bottom row: Anna Shukeyeva, Altynay Tuksikova
  • On 25 April 2020, Dana Zhanay, human rights activist of the Qaharman Human Rights Protection Foundation, was sentenced to a fine of approx. 280 euros for “violation of the state of emergency” and “actions provoking a violation of law and order during the state of emergency”. She reported on Facebook that more than 70 people who were subjected to administrative detention in the Aktobe special detention centre had gone on hunger strike in protest against unsanitary conditions of detention that posed a risk of infection with coronavirus. Over the past year, Dana Zhanay has been detained several times, including for coverage of peaceful rallies. Representatives of the prosecutor’s office and the NSC threatened Zhanay’s relatives, demanding that she cease her human rights activities.
  • In April 2020, Altynay Tuksikova, a human rights activist at the Qaharman Human Rights Protection Foundation, shared a publication by Dana Zhanay on a hunger strike for administratively arrested people, for which she was fined approx. 240 euros. Previously, Tuksikova was detained for covering peaceful rallies. Since the end of March 2020, Altynay Tuksikova has been detained and interrogated in the framework of the criminal case on the death of the Aktobe opposition activist Amanbike Khayrolla (last name Meirkhanova according to her documents).
    The reason for the persecution of human rights activist Altynay Tuksikova was that the name “Altynay” was mentioned among other names in a death letter on the hacked Facebook page. Tuksikova notes that she was not acquainted with Khayrolla.

A group of activists from the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk 01.07.2020
  • One of the leaders of the Kazakhstani human rights movement “405”, Anna Shukeyeva, has been repeatedly detained during the days of peaceful rallies. She was taken to the police station with her nursing baby. On 10 June 2020, in the city of Nur-Sultan, Anna Shukeyeva, along with a group of activists, held a protest rally #DonkeyDemocracy near the building of the EU Embassy in Kazakhstan, and on 12 June 2020 near the US Embassy. The protest actions were held as part of the global campaign #Icantbreathe, #BlackLivesMatter. Activists demanded the release of those arrested during the 6 June 2020 protest rally and all political prisoners, and also drew attention to the facade character of “democracy” under the leadership of President Tokayev. Protesters spoke about the arbitrariness of law enforcement agencies and political oppression in the country. Activists stressed that no law enforcement officers had been punished for political killings in the country [1], [2].
    During the rally, Shukeyeva also demanded personal sanctions against the heads of the NSC (Karim Massimov), the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Yerlan Turgumbayev) and the General Prosecutor’s Office (Gizat Nurdauletov), as well as the employees of these departments, who are guilty of and responsible for systematic, politically motivated persecution, torture and politically motivated killings of opposition activists.

On 12 June 2020, Shukeyeva, along with other protesters was brutally detained near the US Embassy in Nur Sultan. Shukeyeva reported that she was held in detention by the police for more than six hours, she was deprived of the right to call, locked in a room, not allowed to drink, and not allowed to go to the toilet for a long time. During the detention, her hand was scratched, and in response to her indignation, they threatened to call a psychiatric team. On 6 July 2020, Shukeyeva reported that she had found an eavesdropping device in her apartment’s kitchen. In March 2020, neighbours warned Shukeyeva that unidentified persons were trying to find keys to her apartment.

Protest rally #DonkeyDemocracy near the US Embassy in Nur-Sultan
  • In recent months, a new wave of persecution of human rights activist Elena Semenova, the head of the civil society organisation “We Against Torture”, has begun. Semenova receives from prisoners, evidence of torture, ill-treatment and refusal to provide medical care, after which she makes this information public and demands an investigation. In particular, on 16 June 2020, Elena Semenova received a message from prisoners of the LA 155/12 penal colony in the Almaty Province stating that most of the prisoners were seriously ill and suspected of being infected with coronavirus. They were not receiving medical care.
    Representatives of the colonies of the city of Kostanay, the city of Taraz and the village of Zarechny filed seven lawsuits against Semenova, demanding that she refute information about torture and apologise for “insulting honour and dignity”. Obviously, with the series of lawsuits, the authorities are striving to silence Semenova and block her human rights activities. As of 7 July 2020, the court granted two lawsuits against Semenova and ruled that the information about the torture of prisoners was “untrue”. The court ordered the human rights activist to “issue a rebuttal”. Also, Semenova will have to pay legal costs in the amount of approx. 210 euros.

5. Violation of quarantine measures in places of detention

5.1. High risks of infection in places of detention in Kazakhstan

In some countries, the authorities resorted to a partial amnesty for prisoners, one of the most vulnerable groups of population at risk of infection. Instead of reducing the number of people who are in places of detention, the Kazakhstani authorities intensified oppression, thus increasing the number of prisoners. As of the end of April 2020, more than 1,500 people had been placed in temporary detention facilities for violation of the state of emergency.

Neglecting the requirements of social distance, prisoners were held in crowded cells. For example, activist Murat Baymaganbetov, who was serving an administrative detention in a special detention centre in Kyzylorda in early April 2020, reported that 60 people were in the cell, which had only 34 beds.

Coronavirus infection statistics among prisoners are not disclosed. On 26 April 2020, in the Almaty Province, a coronavirus infection was detected in a prisoner when she was undergoing a routine medical examination in a hospital in connection with pregnancy. She was isolated from other prisoners. However, the very fact of infection in a closed institution may indicate that the prisoners with whom she had contact might also be infected. On 19 May 2020, 25 employees of the colony of Zhitikar were diagnosed with COVID-19. Such a massive infection of colony staff may mean that the prisoners were also ill, but the colony administration did not report such cases.

5.2. Authorities ignored the call to release political prisoners from places of detention

In connection with the spread of COVID-19, Kazakhstani [1], [2] and international human rights defenders called for the release of political prisoners from places of detention. However, the Kazakhstani authorities ignored these demands.

Currently, there are at least 11 political prisoners in Kazakhstan’s pre-trial detention centres and prisons, in particular:

  • In custody on charges of supporting the opposition DCK movement: Aset Abishev, Almat Zhumagulov, Kenzhebek Abishev, Serik Idyryshev, Askar Ibrayev [in addition, in Kazakhstan, more than 25 activists have already been sentenced to restriction of liberty for supporting DCK on social networks. Additional restrictions, including a ban on attending rallies and using social networks, were also imposed on them. Thus, the authorities are blocking their social activities].
  • In custody due to social activities: Aron Atabek, Maks Bokaev, Yerzhan Yelshibaev, Asia Tulesova.
  • In custody due to comments on social networks: Ruslan Ginatullin, Igor Chuprina, Igor Sychev.

Top row: Aset Abishev, Almat Zhumagulov
Bottom row: Maks Bokayev, Kenzhebek Abishev

Aset Abishev’s counsel reported that in April 2020, the political prisoner was transferred to strict conditions of detention because he had demanded that the prison administration ensure adequate medical conditions in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. The court denied his release on parole. On 29 June 2020, 12 American senators called on President Tokayev to release Aset Abishev from prison; the same request was sent with regard to activist Maks Bokayev, in respect of whom the authorities refuse to comply with the UN recommendation on release. On 1 July 2020, Maks Bokayev stated that he had been sick for several days and has symptoms characteristic of coronavirus (high fever, cough, loss of sense of smell). He is being treated with antibiotics. According to Bokayev, convicts and the colony administration are also sick.

On 29 April 2020, the court granted the petition of Kenzhebek Abishev for parole. Still, the prosecutor’s office protested against his release and filed an appeal. He remains in prison. On 1 July 2020, Almat Zhumagulov was denied release on parole.

6. Freedom of peaceful assemblies and associations

6.1. New Law on Peaceful Assembly

By enacting a new law on peaceful assembly during strict quarantine and a state of emergency, the authorities were most likely trying to exclude the proper participation of Kazakhstani civil society and to avoid criticism by the international community, whose attention is focused on the pandemic.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, US Department of State Central and South Asia Bureau, MEPs, international human rights organisations [1], [2], as well as leading international associations of lawyers called on the Kazakhstani authorities to refuse to adopt the law and send it for examination to the OSCE, UN or the Venice Commission.

However, Kazakhstan demonstratively ignored the recommendations of the international community and, thereby, showed contempt for its international obligations. Kazakhstan authorities present this law as their “achievement”. Below is a list of its most problematic issues.

  • Five days before a rally (and ten days before a march) it is necessary to send a notification to the local authorities, indicating the personal data of the organisers of the rally. The authorities label this the “notification procedure”, but it is onerous and, in fact, permissive. Even the use of posters at the rally must be agreed with the local authorities, and only with their permission can tents be set up. Spontaneous rallies are not allowed.
  • The new law provides ten reasons for refusal to hold a rally, which is much more than was in the old legislation. The law prohibits rallies in the event of “inciting social discord”, “using materials of extremist organisations” (or the participation of persons convicted of “extremism”), and a threat to public order. It was on these vague accusations that the authorities recognised the peaceful opposition movements “DCK” and “Koshe” as “extremist”. Thus, the law deprives inconvenient activists of the opportunity to hold authorised rallies.
  • Holding any peaceful assembly is possible only in “specialised places”, indicated by local authorities. This norm was subjected to a flurry of criticism from the international community. If activists do not agree with the place appointed by the authorities, then the rally is prohibited. “One can also be heard in a special place,” the representative of the Presidential Administration Dauren Abayev stated.
    The rule on “specialised places” was fundamental for President Tokayev; at the same time, he argued that such places should “not be on the outskirts”. But local authorities are already starting to allocate places for rallies – and they are on the outskirts, i.e. in Petropavlovsk and Uralsk. Moreover, the authorities determine the “maximum occupancy” of the venue. For example, in Almaty and Nur Sultan, no more than 1,000 people can rally in one place, which outlaws mass rallies.
  • It is forbidden to hold a peaceful assembly without the “organiser”, who must wear a “distinctive sign” approved by the authorities during the meeting.
  • The law provides for a discriminatory rule prohibiting foreigners, refugees and stateless persons from participating in peaceful assemblies.
  • The punishment for violations of the law on rallies was toughened. The law requires protesters to “comply with the requirements of employees of internal affairs bodies and the prosecutor’s office,” including demands to terminate the rally. Journalists are obliged “not to interfere with the actions of government officials”. The law prohibits rallies near the buildings of law enforcement agencies, the residence of the President and the residence of Nursultan Nazarbayev. For violations of the law on peaceful assembly, people may be punished with a fine of up to 430 euros and administrative detention of up to 20 days, as well as the possibility of facing criminal liability.

By the adoption of this law, Kazakhstan directly violated ratified agreements, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Agreement on Enhanced Partnership with the EU, as well as the Guidelines on the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly of the ODIHR and the Venice Commission, recommendations of the European Parliament resolution of 14 March 2019

6.2. Ban on the opposition movement “Koshe Partiyasy”

The “Koshe Partiyasy” movement was established in February 2020 and it proclaimed the goal of building a democratic legal parliamentary republic. Activists created a chat on Telegram, where they discussed socio-political issues, corruption issues, and also conducted human rights trainings. The Telegram chat “Koshe Partiyasy” became highly popular during the state of emergency in Kazakhstan. The chat participants sharply criticised the concealment of the real extent and consequences of the pandemic in the country and the ineffective actions of the government. As of 19 May 2020, there were 177,456 people registered in the “Koshe” chat. On 28 April 2020, one of the leaders of “Koshe”, Askhat Zheksebayev, announced his intention to submit documents to register the movement in Kazakhstan after the end of the emergency regime.

However, on 19 May 2020, the Yesilsky District Court of Nur-Sultan, by a secret decision, granted the request of the General Prosecutor’s Office to recognise “Koshe Partiyasy” as an “extremist organisation”. The investigative actions and the court session were held without the participation of the representatives of “Koshe Partiyasy”. Previously, on 13 March 2018, in exactly the same way, this court ruled that the peaceful opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) be recognised as “extremist”.

Activists of Koshe Partiyasy and the DCK emphasise that their manifesto does not differ from the slogans of other Kazakhstani movements (for example, the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan), which position themselves as oppositionist. The authorities also allow other people with more loyal rhetoric to create “opposition parties”. This suggests that the authorities are creating the appearance of the presence of an opposition, but, in reality, they are harshly persecuting opposition activists who are seeking the resignation of the government and a peaceful change of power.

Members of the “Koshe Partiyasy” movement. Photo: Facebook

The public learned about the court’s decision banning “Koshe Partiyasy” from a press release from the General Prosecutor’s Office, which states that “DCK was transformed into the ‘Koshe Partiyasy’ movement”, and that DCK and Koshe “became one extremist organisation”. Attorney Galym Nurpeisov points to the non-legal and obscure nature of the term “transformation”, and activists note that “Koshe Partiyasy” is an independent organisation.

As of 2 July 2020, neither law enforcement agencies nor the court had provided “Koshe Partiyasy” activists with the court verdict. On 22 May 2020, 13 activists came to the Yesilsky court demanding a decision on the ban of “Koshe Partiyasy”, but, in response, they were brutally detained.

On 25 May 2020, eight leaders of “Koshe Partiyasy” appealed the decision of the court on behalf of the organisation. However, on 5 June 2020, the court returned the appeal to the activists, stating that they “were not involved in the case” and had not participated in the trial. At the same time, these same activists are systematically subjected to arbitrary detentions, administrative detentions and fines for supporting “Koshe Partiyasy”. Thus, the representatives of “Koshe” were not only excluded from the investigation process, but were also deprived of the right to appeal.

Between March and April 2020, dozens of “Koshe Partiyasy” activists were subjected to detentions and interrogations for comments criticising the authorities on social networks. Several persons, in particular: Kanat Dzhakupov, Erlan Fayzullaev, Asylbek Karaev, Andrei Pakhotnov, Aliya Isenova and Berik Nogayev were punished with a fine under Art. 489 of the Administrative Code (“participation in the activities of an unregistered association”).

After the prosecutor’s office and the court labelled the “Koshe Partiyasy” organisation “extremist”, the persecution of activists was further intensified. During interrogations, activists are asked what their political views are and whether they participate in the “Koshe Partiyasy” chats, and they are also given explanations about the criminal liability for supporting “Koshe Partiyasy”. Activists face surveillance, and pressure is exerted on their relatives.

For example, while at the police station, Serik Abyzbayev from Kyzylorda was forced to state in front of a video camera that he would not support “Koshe Partiyasy”. Another activist from this city, Kanysh Beskulakov, was beaten during detention, and, at the police station, he was threatened that he would be sent to prison where he would be subjected to torture. Ninagul Dzhumaniyazova from Almaty faced threats of physical violence by NSC and police officers. According to activist Birzhan Takiyanov from Nur-Sultan, NSC officers threatened that they would publish video footage of his personal life. Activist Asia Nesipbayeva from Karaganda reported that police officers exerted pressure on her employer, demanding that she be dismissed from work. Nesipbayeva also noted that the police threatened to take her child to the orphanage, and also tried to force the landlord to evict her and her child from the apartment.

7. Conclusions and recommendations

No country in the world was prepared for the challenges that had to be faced due to the pandemic of the coronavirus infection COVID-19. Quarantine measures led to a global lockdown, which dealt a significant blow to the economies of states. Millions of people were left without work and livelihoods. States had to find a balance between fighting for the lives of their citizens and saving the economy.

The results of the fight against the spread of coronavirus infection in Kazakhstan can be considered disastrous. The authorities allocated about 13 billion dollars from the budget to fight the pandemic, attracted foreign financial assistance in the amount of more than 1 billion dollars from the Asian Development Bank and the United States [1], [2], and resorted to the most severe measures to limit social contacts among the population. However, as of 10 July 2020, the number of people infected in the country, which has one of the lowest population densities in the world, is increasing day by day.

The WHO initially labelled Kazakhstan “an excellent example of proactive actions to stabilise the situation with COVID-19”, but on 25 June 2020, the organisation presented Kazakhstan as one of the countries with growing incidence that “can once again put the healthcare systems in Europe on the brink”. On 29 June 2020, President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev admitted that “the public administration system at the central and local level has not prepared for effective functioning”, which led to the spread of infection. Moreover, in mid-June, Tokayev had stated that the situation was under the control of the government.

Officially, a relatively low incidence and mortality from coronavirus infection is recorded in Kazakhstan. However, this was not achieved due to the successful actions of the state, but by manipulating statistics, concealing the real extent of the epidemic, and oppressing those who criticised the actions of the state.

UN human rights experts stated that restrictive measures in connection with the coronavirus epidemic should not be used as cover for harassing particular groups of citizens. This was also announced in the European Parliament, PACE and the OSCE. However, in Kazakhstan, the authorities used the state of emergency to prosecute their critics and political opposition, as well as to tighten legislation on peaceful assembly.

According to the guidelines of the UN, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, each state should not only refrain from actions that violate the rights of human rights defenders, but should also create favourable conditions for their unhindered and safe activities. In Kazakhstan, human rights activists who reported massive human rights violations during the state of emergency became themselves victims of attacks by the NSC and law enforcement agencies.

For all this, the assessment of the actions of the authorities of Kazakhstan by the democratic states, EU bodies and WHO representatives does not seem balanced and objective. There are no transparent mechanisms and practice for systematic online consultation with civil society to collect alternative information. Despite politically motivated oppression and the manipulation of statistics, Kazakhstan received positive reviews for decisive action to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Also, the US and the EU authorities “positively evaluate” the reforms announced by President Tokayev. However, such rhetoric weakens the expert conclusions of international human rights organisations, which record the tightening of politically motivated oppression in Kazakhstan.

The lack of an international response to massive human rights violations in Kazakhstan could lead to a significant tightening of repressive measures in the future. The President of Kazakhstan initiated a ten-fold increase in fines for violating the state of emergency (from the current 60 euros to 600), and the lower house of parliament has already supported this initiative. Also, due to the increase in the incidence rate, the authorities of Kazakhstan re-tightened quarantine measures in the country.

The Open Dialogue Foundation, Human Rights Protection Foundation Qaharman, and the human rights movement ‘405’ hereby calls on the international community (democratic governments, the EU, the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the WHO) to give an objective assessment of the actions carried out by the authorities of Kazakhstan during the coronavirus infection epidemic. We hereby urge Kazakhstan to fulfil its obligations in the field of human rights and political freedoms, in particular, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Agreement on Enhanced Partnership between the EU and Kazakhstan. We consider it necessary to:

  • Condemn the excessively harsh and inappropriate actions of Kazakhstan aimed at combating the spread of coronavirus infection COVID-19.
  • Condemn the practice of politically motivated persecution under the guise of combating coronavirus.
  • Condemn the practice of concealing the extent of the epidemic; condemn the state’s monopoly on coverage of the spread of infection; demand that the authorities of Kazakhstan provide real statistics on morbidity and mortality from coronavirus.
  • Conduct an international investigation into the concealment of information on the spread of coronavirus infection, which contributed to the transition of the epidemic to the level of a pandemic.
  • Condemn the practice of harassment and exertion of pressure on healthcare providers and patients.
  • Urge the authorities of Kazakhstan to revise amendments to the legislation on peaceful assemblies in accordance with the expert conclusions of the UN, the OSCE and human rights organisations.
  • Call on the Kazakhstani authorities to release political prisoners and reduce the total number of prisoners in the country in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.
  • During communication with representatives of the authorities of Kazakhstan, raise the issue of persecution of human rights defenders, as well as provide comprehensive, including public, support to the persecuted human rights defenders.
  • Demand that the Kazakhstani authorities cancel decisions to ban the peaceful opposition movements “DCK” and “Koshe Partiyasy”, and cease the persecution of their activists for exercising their right to freedom of opinion and assembly.
  • Introduce personal sanctions against persons who are responsible for or involved in serious human rights violations in Kazakhstan.
  • Create transparent mechanisms for systematic online consultations between the civil society of Kazakhstan and representatives of international organisations and diplomats. Such consultations would facilitate the collection of independent and comprehensive information about the human rights situation in the country, as well as misinformation and corruption by the authorities against the backdrop of the pandemic.

We also call on the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, EU authorities and democratic governments to review the principles upon which financial assistance is provided to Kazakhstan:

  • Financial assistance to Kazakhstan should be provided subject to the fulfilment of human rights obligations and the rule of law. Kazakhstan must comply with the demands of the international community to end politically motivated prosecutions, and release political prisoners.
  • It is necessary to create a transparent mechanism for monitoring the use of the financial assistance provided.