On 25 March 2021, human rights defenders from Kazakhstan, EU representatives, academics, and journalists gathered for an online discussion “Addressing human rights abuses in Kazakhstan: a need for the EU response” to provide an overview of the ongoing human rights violations and an update of Kazakhstan’s implementation of the European Parliament urgent resolution of 11 February 2021. The event was co-hosted by MEP Petras Auštrevičius (Renew Europe; Lithuania) in cooperation with the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF). The discussion was moderated by Lyudmyla Kozlovska, President of ODF.
In his opening remarks, MEP Petras Auštrevičius, one of the authors of the EP’s resolution, highlighted a number of key concerns which should be prioritised in the framework of the EU-Kazakhstan relations, in particular the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA).
Among these is the holding of fair elections to ensure individual choice, noting that, during the last parliamentary elections, peaceful opposition movements the “Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan” (DCK) and “Koshe Party” were labelled as extremists and banned from any election campaigns. He added that “Their members and supporters dominate the list of political prisoners” and called on the authorities of Kazakhstan to cease any forms of persecution against human rights organisations and defenders and immediately and unconditionally release those arrested. MEP Auštrevičius also pointed out the widespread physical attacks, harassment and detentions of journalists while exposing corruption and grave human rights violations.
The second speaker, Ambassador Peter Burian, EU Special Representative for Central Asia, shared his views about the EU’s engagement in Central Asia and reiterated that the EU stands ready to cooperate with Kazakhstan to advance the agenda of political reforms in line with the EPCA and address current obstacles to freedom of expression, association and assembly which had a negative impact on the recent elections. “Democracy building is a never-ending process […] and at the end the process of reforms is in the hands of your people, the people of Kazakhstan” he added.
Following Ambassador Burian’s intervention, Lyudmyla Kozlovska introduced the next speaker, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, prominent human rights defender and Director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis raised the issue of discriminatory legislation misused to control NGOs by obligating them to submit special reports to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Information and Public Development and report foreign fundings to the tax authorities. “I think that the decision [of the authorities] to drop all these charges against NGOs was clearly due to international pressure, to a number of criticisms”, he noted. Zhovtis also mentioned the difficulties of organising a peaceful assembly, in particular in the light of the new law on peaceful assemblies which was declared as a big step forward but in fact is no better than the previous one.
As a member of the Expert Council on Political Prisoners, he remarked that the list of political prisoners is growing every month, before and after the adoption of the EP resolution. Besides those who are sentenced to prison or other forms of punishment, politically persecuted activists are considered “extremists” and are automatically included in the list of people “financing terrorism or extremism” for 3-6 years, compiled by the Ministry of Finances.
Anna Shukeyeva, human rights defender and a member of the human rights movement “405”, underlined the great support shown by the EP to the civil society of Kazakhstan but pointed out that, since the adoption of the EP’s resolution, “nothing has been done” by the authorities of Kazakhstan. However, according to her, “it doesn’t mean that the regime hasn’t heard the call of the EP, the regime heard it well and began to save its image from possible sanctions.”
The activist brought attention to the fact that, as of 25 March 2021, in Kazakhstan there are 105 politically motivated criminal cases, 21 political prisoners and 30 people under house arrest, most of them under extremism charges (around 75 persons). Following the adoption of the resolution, 4 criminal cases were opened and 15 activists, including her, have been secretly sentenced without the right to appeal on the grounds of aiding “extremism”. The cases have been fabricated with the help of Nazarbayev’s controlled banks, “Halyk Bank” and “Kaspi Bank”, which provided information protected by the law concerning bank transfers to the police and the National Security Committee.
Shukeyeva expressed the wish that the EU diplomats find the opportunity to visit political prisoners and meet with human rights defenders and called on the EU Member States to impose personal sanctions against those who order mass persecutions.
Kazakh human rights lawyer and a sister of a former political prisoner Iskander Yerimbetov, Bota Jardemalie, opened her intervention with a brief video showing luxury real estates. She explained: “these properties in various Western countries have all one thing in common: they belong to the family members of Nursultan Nazarbayev. […] Nazabaryev built a corrupt, kleptocratic and authoritarian regime”. While commenting on Nazarbayev’s so-called “resignation”, she said: “Tokayev is not regarded as an independent political figure in Kazakhstan, right now we don’t have a transition [of power], we have a parasystem in which the dictator enjoys full impunity”. Bota Jardemalie also stressed that Nazarbayev is the ultimate beneficiary of the corruption and responsible for human rights violations, which is the reason why Nazarbayev and his associates should be targeted with personal sanctions.
Before introducing the next speaker, Lyudmyla Kozlovska remarked that “In an the interview to Lukashenko in Autumn 2020, Lukashenko called on the Kazakhstani authorities to learn from the mistakes of Belarus and advised the authorities to take a proactive approach against contagion referring to the peaceful protests in the country, and take advantage of the fact that Kazakhstan is not under international scrutiny as much as Belarus. Is the Kazakhstani government following Lukashenko’s advice, according to your observations? What role does international pressure on authoritarian corrupt governments play?”
Rosalba Castelletti, journalist at “La Repubblica”, noted that “former president Nazarbayev made a lot of efforts during his presidency to improve the international recognition of the country. […] Kazakhstan’s government has spent millions on these events, and millions were stolen because of corruption, and this happens in a country where barely half of the population lives on about 20 dollars a month.” Talking about the rigged parliamentary elections of January 2021, she commented on the MEPs’ so-called election observation mission headed by the Chairman of DCAS, MEP Fulvio Marutsciello, which gave a sort of international recognition to an election that was neither free nor fair. Before the elections, Rosalba Castelletti had the chance to interview one of the six brave women who shaved their head to protest against the repression in the country. “I was very compelled when in a video posted online, they said: ‘We live in a prison called Kazakhstan’ ” she said.
She also noted that the EP is putting a lot of effort into denouncing human rights abuses, although it might not be enough. Hence, the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime may represent an efficient tool as it will give the possibility to target individuals and entities involved in these violations.
Dr Luca Anceschi, Senior Lecturer in Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow, recalled a two folded trend: on one hand, the increased EU’s involvement in the country and, on the other hand, a constant and inexorable decline of the government’s standards in Kazakhstan since 2011, as well as a way of repression and violations under Nazarbayev’s rule. “We have seen in the lead up to the OSCE chairmanship of Kazakhstan and then eventually in the lead up to the EPCA that Kazakhstan made some commitments about the ways in which they would adjust to the kind of standards that the people of the European Union were asking them to do. But what we haven’t seen is the EU making sure that these promises had to be kept by Kazakhstan.”
He opined that the EU should set up a fully functioning monitoring mechanism which operates in a transparent, open and fair way regularly, not once per year. The implementation of the mechanism should allow the consistent participation of activists, local politicians and externals such as academics and journalists.
Final remarks by speakers focused on the new EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime and its potential application in the Kazakhstani context.
On this, Ambassador Peter Burian commented that “the European Council decided on 7 December to approve the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime allowing to target individuals, entities and bodies responsible for or involved in serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, and these are genocide, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killings and many other abuses which are systematic and widespread.Imposing sanctions is, in my view, a measure of last resort ”.
Instead, Bota Jardemalie argued that we should not wait until it’s too late and stated: “sanctions would be a very strong message of support to civil society, creating real grounds for genuine reforms”.
Rosalba Castelletti added that “the EPCA mentions the importance of human rights in the country and you have to make sure that these freedoms are recognised to the people. […] The resolution was a message [to the authorities] and sanctions would be another political means to make this message effective”.
As Yevgeniy Zhovtis stressed that human rights, democracy and the rule of law are economic issues and corruption remains at the political level, MEP Petras Auštrevičius called on the EU to include corruption crimes within the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime and warned “my message is to all those [corrupt] countries, even municipalities, and governments that the day will come when people of those countries who have been robbed will come and ask give us [the money] back”.
The full discussion can be watched on Petras Austrevicius’ Facebook profile.
Read more on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan:
- Women’s rights in Kazakhstan. ODF at the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting 2021 (9 March 2021)
- Kazakhstan: the EP’s new resolution urges for sanctions against human rights violators (5 March 2021)
- European Parliament resolution of 11 February 2021 on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan (11 February 2021)
- “Voices of Kazakhstan”, issue #1, #2, #3, #4: pre and post-election review of the human rights situation in Kazakhstan (December 2020 – January 2021)
- Kazakhstan’s Kafkaesque dictatorship: the authorities “playing rodeo” with its critics (24 December 2020)
- Oppositionist Therefore Extremist: Political killings and persecutions of opposition and human rights activists before the parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan (1 December 2020)
Get acquainted with our efforts at promoting personal sanctions against human rights violators worldwide:
- Servants of the Regime: Servants of the Regime in Kazakhstan (28 October 2020)(28 October 2020)
- Magnitsky sanctions against officials misappropriating COVID-19 funds. Appeal to the U.S. government (9 July 2020)
- ODF’s recommendations on the adoption of Magnitsky-style sanctions in Australian legislation (21 April 2020)
- ODF travels to Rome to relaunch the draft bill for an Italian Magnitsky Law (10 February 2020)