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Kazakhstan: the EP’s new resolution urges for sanctions against human rights violators

A debate during the European Parliament’s plenary session on February 11, 2021, led to the adoption of an urgent resolution concerning the human rights situation in Kazakhstan. The MEPs voted in favour of one of the strongest appeals ever issued by the EP, firmly condemning the current situation in the country. The resolution is a long-demanded and awaited move from the EP that the Open Dialogue Foundation has extensively advocated for, along with 10 other local and international human rights initiatives/NGOs from Kazakhstan.

A landmark statement of the European Parliament

The European Parliament’s resolution marks a historic milestone for Kazakhstan’s civil society, presenting a 9-pages comprehensive analysis of all areas of human rights violations.

The resolution was supported by an absolute majority of votes: 598 MEPs from different political groups like Greens/EFA, GUE/NGL, Renew Europe, S&D, EPP, ID and ECR voted in favour and 43 against, with 52 MEPs abstaining.

The text of the resolution contains individual cases of:

  • prominent political prisoners,
  • victims of political persecution and political murders

and tackles, among other things:

  • the issue of the abuse of the so-called extremist legislation to outlaw opposition movements,
  • violence against women,
  • discrimination of people in the LGBT community,
  • lack of political pluralism during the 2021’s parliamentary elections.

For the above reasons, the EP urges the Kazakhstani authorities “to act in accordance with its international obligations and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”, and calls for the Vice-President of the Commission / High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (VP/HR) Josep Borrel and the Member States to consider imposing targeted sanctions against individuals affiliated with the human rights violations according to the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime.

We have long been advocating in support of Magnitsky-style laws in Europe and overseas, promoting sanctions against foreign individuals and entities who are responsible for human rights abuses or acts of corruption in autocratic regimes around the world. In our recent report “Servants of the regime“, ODF lists the names of 364 Kazakhstani human rights violators eligible for Magnitsky sanctions and thoroughly examines the pattern of systemic repression perpetrated in the country.

The misconduct of the EU Delegation to Kazakhstan

Moreover, the resolution takes a harsh stance towards the EU Delegation in Kazakhstan, demanding human rights to be a priority while engaging with Central Asia, underlining the importance of shared values and active engagement on democratic reforms by Kazakhstan for deeper economic and political cooperation, as envisaged by the EPCA: “The Parties undertake to strengthen cooperation on all subjects of common interest and in particular the observance of international law, strengthening respect for democratic principles, the rule of law, human rights and good governance”.

The misconduct of the Delegation was extensively summarised in our report, which details the difficulties encountered by the Foundation and human rights defenders on the ground when trying to cooperate on high profile cases with the EU representatives in Kazakhstan.

A smear campaign against the resolution

Unsurprisingly, in the run-up to the adoption of the resolution, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan exerted remarkable pressure aimed at MEPs, intended to remove from the European Parliament resolution the cases of political killings of Dulat Agadil, Zhanbolat Agadil, Amanbike Khairolla, Serik Orazov and Garifulla Embergenov, the abuse of Interpol and mutual legal assistance mechanisms, persecution of peaceful movements and other topics inconvenient for the government.

Unfortunately, the ambassador of the EU Delegation in Astana, Sven-Olov Carlsson, MEPs Fulvio Martusciello (Chairman of DCAS), Thierry Mariani and another MEP from Latvia, Andris Ameriks, were involved in spreading the regime’s propaganda with the aim to exclude sensitive information and individual cases from the final text, which was denounced by MEP Niklas Niennas (Germany; Greens/EFA) during the debate.

However, their attempts did not succeed in changing the critical tone of the resolution, as stated by MEP Viola von Cramon (Germany; Greens/EFA): “Human Rights are not for sale”. Over 800 citizens of Kazakhstan, including 8 human rights NGOs/movements, signed an appeal addressed to President Sassoli and HR/VP Borrell calling for an independent investigation into the facts of interference from the EU Delegation to Kazakhstan and three MEPs for their disgraceful lobbying attempts, aiding an authoritarian state they are supposed to monitor.

A long-list of the persecuted organisations and activists

Importantly, the European Parliament’s resolution mentions persecuted civil society organisations, such as Bostandyq Kz, Femina Virtute, Veritas, 405 and Elimay; individual cases of political prisoners, including Almat Zhumagulov, Kenzhebek Abishev, Ulasbek Akhmetov, Yerzhan Yelshibayev, Daryn Khassenov, Asel Onlabekkyzy, Ulasbek Akhmetov or Nurgul Kaluova, to name just a few of them.

The resolution puts emphasis on the immediate release of 26 political prisoners, including 17 supporters and leaders of the opposition movements Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) & the Koshe Party, among which are Askhat Zheksebayev and Kairat Klyshev, along with other DCK activists Almat Zhumagulov, Aset Abishev and Kenzhebek Abishev, who have already received long prison term sentences. As torture remains a widespread practice in Kazakhstan’s places of detention, these political prisoners may face the same fate as the murdered activist and blogger Dulat Agadil.

On this account, during the debate, MEP Róza Thun (Poland; EPP) highlighted the sensitive case of Agadil, who was murdered in police custody, and the subsequent politically motivated killings, including his 17-year-old son and three other opposition activists: Serik Orazov, Amanbike Khairolla and Garifulla Embergenov. She also mentioned Dametkan Aspandiyarova who is kept under house arrest under extremist charges for organising a fundraising campaign to support Agadil’s family.

As Róza Thun stated, Kazakhstan can not truly celebrate the 30th anniversary of its independence “until all political prisoners are released, until politically-motivated court proceedings are dropped, as well as all kinds of harassment aimed at regime critics, human rights defenders and civil society activists – until all of this is stopped”. Hence the MEPs demand transparent investigations, reiterating “the importance of bringing to criminal responsibility law enforcement and government officials who ordered and executed such
crimes”.

What is more, many of the unjustly imprisoned activists are kept in overcrowded detention facilities, where torture is widespread and no sanitary regulations are followed, as stressed by MEP Petras Austrevicius (Lithuania; Renew) during his speech. In this context, the EP addresses the systematic use of torture in detention facilities and the harsh treatment of prisoners that go unrestricted.

Kazakhstani-Chinese relations and their impact on human rights

Furthermore, the resolution tackles the persecution of ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic tensions in Kazakhstan’s southern region, where violent ethnic clashes continue. In particular, the case of two ethnic Kazakhs was raised, namely Murager Alimuly and Kaisha Akankyzy, who fled China fearing imprisonment in concentration camps and were subsequently attacked by unknown assailants in Kazakhstan. Hence, it urges the government to grant them permanent refugee status and ensure their, and other minority groups’, safety.

The cooperation between Kazakhstani and Chinese authorities is once again demonstrated on the case of Saltanat Kusmankyzy, a whistleblower and a witness to a financial scheme, persecuted after exposing the information about fraud at Nazarbayev-controlled companies “Company As-Ai LTD” and “Minmetals Kazakhstan”, selling machinery and spare parts from China to Kazakhstan. Kusmankyzy was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment for the alleged embezzlement of funds, where she will be in certain danger of torture or murder for going public against the firms controlled by the authorities.

The rigged parliamentary elections in January 2021

One of the crucial issues outlined in the resolution is the parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, which took place in January 2021, where opposition movements were not allowed to participate, independent monitoring was limited through the abuse of the pandemic restrictions, and at least 350 peaceful protesters were arbitrarily detained.

The elections – marked by the gross irregularities and electoral falsifications – were described as a missed opportunity to implement political reforms and OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, by the European External Action Service (EEAS). As MEP Viola Von Cramon mentioned during the debate: “the EU’s recommendations were ignored during the parliamentary elections. Censorship was tightened and the Internet surveillance reached dystopian levels.”

In this context, the EP “urges the authorities to permit political pluralism and competition” and condemns the misuse of anti-extremism legislation that the government is taking advantage of to ban the critical voices affiliated to the peaceful opposition movements Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan & the Koshe Party, which were labelled as “extremist organisations”.

Abuse of Interpol and legal cooperation mechanisms

Moreover, the resolution sheds light on the abuse of INTERPOL and mutual legal assistance (MLA) mechanisms to persecute opposition figures and political refugees abroad. In particular, the resolution mentions human rights lawyer Bota Jardemalie, a political refugee in Belgium who had her documents seized by the Kazakh authorities, and Mukhtar Ablyazov, the politically persecuted leader of the DCK opposition movement, who was granted political asylum in France, which also cleared him of all politically-motivated accusations. On this specific issue, the MEPs emphasize “Kazakhstan’s systematic practice of misuse of criminal cooperation mechanisms” and call to “lift all politically motivated charges”.

This issue has also been noted in the PACE resolution on INTERPOL reform and extradition proceedings that we have campaigned for.

Freedom of speech in Kazakhstan

The resolution highlights the media landscape that is dominated by state-owned media channels. At the same time, national opposition newspapers are banned, and multiple journalists who voiced critical opinions are physically attacked, detained and persecuted.

The EP calls attention to the charges against Lukpan Akhmedyarov, editor-in-chief of independent newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya, for reporting the corrupt schemes of the elites, and the arbitrary detentions and physical assaults of Saniya Toiken, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist for its Kazakh edition.

Accordingly, the EP “calls on the Kazakh authorities to stop using the criminal code against activists, bloggers, journalists and others for exercising their right to freedom of expression”, condemns the state of media freedom in the country and “calls on the Government of Kazakhstan to provide a free and safe environment for independent journalists”.

Kazakhstan’s international obligations

The resolution calls for the Kazakh government to abide by its international obligations as specified in the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and to act in accordance with the recommendations of the ODIHR limited election observation mission (LEOM), “including those concerning constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms, civil society participation, political pluralism, the impartiality of election administration, eligibility to vote and stand for elections, voter registration, the media and publication of election results”.

The EP emphasises the importance of ending the persecution of human rights activists, social media users, journalists and opposition activists and asks “to drop politically motivated charges and end all forms of arbitrary detention, reprisals and harassment”.

It also appeals to the EU institutions and its Member States to support Kazakhstan’s civil society and provide assistance to civil society organisations that defend democratic values. Additionally, it encourages the EU Delegation to Kazakhstan to take a stronger and public stance against human rights violations, advance the engagement with local organisations and raise “their recommendations during official meetings with Kazakh government officials”.

The so-called silent diplomacy by the EU Delegation was also denounced by MEP Nacho Sanchez Amor (Spain; S&D) during his speech. “We have received complaints [from civil society organisations on the ground] about the attitude of the EU DEL in KZ, apparently they practice silent diplomacy. We need someone to speak up given the human rights situation”, he states.

On a final note, we would like to welcome the resolution with much applaud, especially that it incorporates issues raised by the Open Dialogue Foundation in partnership with Kazakhstani human rights organisations as “Qaharman” Human Rights Protection Fund, “405”, “Veritas”, “Elimay”, “Femina Virtute”, “Article 14”, “Bostandyq.kz” and international organisations such as Italian Federation for Human Rights and “Freedom Kazakhstan” Foundation, for promoting progress in the human rights field.

Read our latest reports on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan:

Cover photo: europarl.europa.eu