Crackdown on free speech as Kazakhstan joins Human Rights Council
On December 16, 2011, police opened fire on striking oil workers and others in Zhanaozen, killing 12 people and wounding dozens, according to government figures. In recent weeks authorities have begun a series of court cases against media outlets and opposition groups in a move to shut them down.
“Closing down independent media outlets is a blatant attempt by the government to muzzle critical voices in Kazakhstan,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop their lawsuits and ensure that the right to free speech and freedom of the media are upheld.”
On November 21, 2012, Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General's Office announced that the Almaty city prosecutor was suing key independent media outlets and opposition groups. The suits seek to close them down on grounds that they published information that was found to incite social discord and that called for the overthrow of the constitutional order. The prosecutor contends that the media outlets and opposition groups therefore engaged in “extremist” speech and activities.
The media and opposition groups named by the Prosecutor General's Office are newspapers Golos Respubliki and Vzglyad, as well as their affiliate newspapers and websites, the online television portals K+ and Stan.TV, the unregistered opposition group Alga!, and the People's Front, an opposition movement.
The same day the Prosecutor General's Office made the announcement, an Almaty court ordered Alga! to suspend its activities immediately. Other courts banned the publication and distribution of Golos Respubliki and Vzglyad, their affiliated newspapers and online content, and the broadcasting of materials produced by Stan.TV. These orders have effectively shut down each of the media outlets before courts have even reviewed the allegations against them.
The Prosecutor General's Office's announcement came after an appeals court, on November 19, upheld a guilty verdict against Vladimir Kozlov, leader of Alga!. Kozlov, 52, was sentenced on October 8 to seven-and-a-half years in prison for his alleged role in violent clashes in Zhanaozen, which followed extended labor strikes there.
The clashes between striking oil workers, other people, and the police took place on Kazakhstan's Independence Day on Zhanaozen's central square. Police and government troops opened fire in response to the clashes and subsequent mayhem. In addition to the 12 killed and others wounded by gunfire, three other people died and 35 police officers were injured.
Hearings against various media outlets and Alga! started on November 27 and are ongoing. In each lawsuit, the Almaty city prosecutor has cited state-ordered, linguistic expert “analysis” of materials produced by the media outlets and opposition groups, which also served as evidence in the case against Kozlov. The analysis concludes that materials contained “features of inciting social discord and propagandizing violent overthrow of the government.”
Under Kazakh national legislation, inciting social discord and calling for the violent overthrow of the government are types of “extremism.” The lawsuits also invoke Kozlov's conviction, in which the court held that the “conceptual content” of materials produced by these media outlets was “aimed at inciting social discord.”
In its suit against Alga!, the city prosecutor sought to ban the opposition group as “extremist.”
“The Kazakh government is clearly intensifying its year-long clampdown on free speech under the umbrella of the vague and overreaching charge of 'inciting social discord' and the pretext of state security,” Rittmann said. “Unashamedly ignoring their human rights obligations, the authorities are invoking allegations of 'extremism' to justify silencing legitimate, critical voices.”
On December 4, an Almaty court banned production and broadcasting of Stan.TV materials in Kazakhstan. A local media watchdog, Adilsoz, reported that on December 6, another Almaty court prohibited the broadcast in Kazakhstan of any material produced by K+ or its affiliates.
Motions by the media outlets and Alga! to dismiss the lawsuits have been rejected, representatives of these groups told Human Rights Watch. The hearings have also failed to comply with Kazakh procedural law, they said.
On December 12, the Almaty City Specialized Inter-district Administrative Court fined Tatyana Trubacheva, Golos Respubliki editor-in-chief, approximately US$100 for violating the November 21 order to suspend the production and distribution of the newspaper and its affiliate materials. On November 30, court bailiffs seized copies of Ne-Vzglyad, although this newspaper is not on the list of publications subject to immediate suspension.
In a separate case, in response to a suit filed by a district prosecutor in Almaty, another Almaty court suspended the activities of Guljan.org, an online news portal, and blocked access to the site in Kazakhstan for three months.
Kazakh authorities have a long track record of restricting media freedom, Human Rights Watch said. Libel remains a criminal offense. The authorities have failed to ensure that people who carry out violent attacks on journalists are brought to justice, allowing a culture of impunity for these crimes. The criminal charge of “inciting social discord” is incompatible with international human rights law and has been misused in the past to silence people who criticize government policies.
In the year since the Zhanaozen violence, dozens of people have been convicted for allegedly bearing responsibility for the disturbances, despite serious and credible claims of torture by many of them. The authorities have failed to carry out effective investigations into the torture allegations. In recent months Gulnara Zhuaspaeva, a lawyer representing Rosa Tuletaeva and Maksat Dosmagambetov, two of the more outspoken oil workers who went on strike in 2011 and are now serving prison terms, has repeatedly attempted to appeal the decision not to open a criminal investigation into her clients' torture allegations. Her appeals have been rejected by Aktau courts.
On December 6, Asel Nurgazieva, a civil society activist and lawyer who has been providing legal advice to those who suffered in the Zhanaozen violence, was sentenced to 12 days of administrative detention for “petty hooliganism” and “resisting police officers” after she was accused of being involved in an altercation on the street. According to media reports, the following day, an Uralsk-based Alga! member, Maksat Aisautov, was temporarily detained by police in Zhanaozen, where he had gone to participate in a gathering commemorating people who died in the violence.
On December 7, the Zhambyl Regional Court in Taraz sentenced a civil society activist, Vadim Kuramshin, to 12 years in a “strict regime” prison for extortion, following a trial marred by procedural violations, his lawyers said. Kuramshin had previously been acquitted by a jury on the extortion charge, although found guilty of other minor charges. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but was released for time served at the end of the trial on August 28.
Then, on October 31, an appeals court annulled the jury verdict and sent his case back for retrial after the prosecutor contended that there had been procedural violations in the original trial. Kuramshin was arrested the second time after he spoke about repression and torture in Kazakhstan at a conference organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in September in Warsaw, prompting fears that his detention came as retribution for his public criticism of the government.
Kazakhstan was elected to join the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in November and will take up its seat in January. It should immediately demonstrate respect for freedom of expression, which is considered the foundation of every free and democratic society, Human Rights Watch said. The country's international partners should condemn the escalating harassment of and interference with Kazakhstan's independent journalists, news outlets, civil society activists, and opposition groups.
“There is a bitter irony that Kazakhstan will be joining the pre-eminent UN human rights body at a time when abuse of human rights at home is nearing a crisis point,” Rittmann said. “Kazakhstan's international partners, especially the United States and European countries, should expect the country to respect human rights if it wants to be respected on the international stage.”