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Make rights key to good relations, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) – Berlin, February 6, 2012 – German Chancellor Angela Merkel should raise urgent human rights concerns with the Kazakhstan government during talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev on February 8, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. Nazarbaev is scheduled to meet the chancellor in Berlin to discuss bilateral cooperation and energy issues, and to sign a strategic energy and raw materials partnership agreement.

Kazakhstan is the leading economic player in Central Asia, Germany's key energy and trade partner in the region and an increasingly influential actor on the international stage. Despite this, its human rights record has deteriorated significantly in recent months, undermining its standing as a stable economic partner. Germany's aspirations for closer ties with Kazakhstan should not come at the expense of rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“A country that violates fundamental human rights is not a good environment for economic investment,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Angela Merkel should make clear to Nursultan Nazarbaev that Germany wants to see Kazakhstan show a genuine commitment to upholding human rights at home.”

Key human rights concerns include the need for a full investigation into police use of lethal force against civilians in the oil-rich town Zhanaozen, western Kazakhstan. The clashes on December 16, 2011, ended with 14 dead, and those found responsible should be held to account. Kazakh officials should also investigate allegations that detainees held following the protests were kicked and beaten by police with truncheons, forced to strip naked, trampled underfoot, and subjected to freezing temperatures.

The authorities should also drop vague and overbroad “inciting social discord” charges against outspoken opposition activists arrested after the clashes, Human Rights Watch said.

These concerns were raised in a letter Human Rights Watch sent to Kazakhstan's prosecutor general on February 1.

The bilateral meeting is also an opportunity to address other important rights concerns, such as restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, and the recent arrest of an independent journalist, Human Rights Watch said.

The violent clashes between civilians and police on December 16 in Zhanaozen occurred at the site of a peaceful oil workers' strike that had been ongoing since May 2011. The government immediately announced that there would be a thorough and transparent investigation into the violence, and Nazarbaev even indicated that the peaceful labor action would not be conflated with the violent clashes. On January 25, the prosecutor general acknowledged that “in some cases” disproportionate force was used by police, “thus leading to the deaths and injuries of people,” and indicated that four law enforcement officers will face criminal charges, including for abuse of power.

On January 26, Kazakhstan's foreign minister, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, reiterated in an article published in Foreign Policy magazine that his government is acting transparently and “not hiding behind an iron curtain” with respect to the December 16 events and the government's investigation into the violence.

But Human Rights Watch is concerned that Kazykhanov failed to mention that immediately following the violent clashes, from December 16 to 21, all telecommunications with Zhanaozen were shut down and some websites in Kazakhstan, including Twitter.com, were blocked.

During those four days Kazakh authorities detained hundreds of people, according to accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch and by others, witnesses and victims said police variously kicked and beat detainees with truncheons, forced detainees to strip naked and then walked on them, and subjected them to freezing temperatures. Human Rights Watch also documented the death of Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, 50, who was detained by police on December 16 as he was walking down the street and who later died from injuries apparently sustained in custody.

Human Rights Watch has also documented allegations of excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement against civilians, allegations of theft and extortion by police officers, and arrests of oil workers and labor and political activists charged in connection with the violence.

The authorities are placing blame for organizing or instigating the violence on outspoken oil workers and opposition activists, raising concerns about the impartiality of the authorities' investigation.

At least three oil workers – all of whom spoke out publicly last year to raise awareness about the oil workers' demands during their strike – have been charged with “organizing mass riots.” In January, authorities detained three opposition activists on charges of “inciting social discord,” a vague and overbroad offense that is incompatible with fundamental human rights. The authorities have accused Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered opposition Alga party, of using the oil workers' strike “with the intent of inciting social discord and destabilizing the situation in the region.”

In an initial court document, the authorities stated that Kozlov “actively supported the illegal actions of the participants of the unsanctioned [strike]” and that he and others, including his colleague Aizhangul Amirova, circulated fliers, the content of which the authorities allege amounts to “inciting social discord.” The authorities also claim that these alleged illegal actions “lead to the serious consequence…of mass disturbances on December 16, 2011.”

At least two other opposition activists who visited western Kazakhstan during the strike are also under investigation on the same charges.

On January 23, Igor Vinyavskii, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Vzlgyad, was detained on politically-motivated charges of “calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order using mass media,” charges he denies. It is not clear if his arrest is tied to the violence in western Kazakhstan.

“Merkel should call on the Kazakh president to ensure justice for each of the 14 deaths in Zhanaozen, and stop abusing the criminal code to imprison government critics,” said Williamson. “As a first step the government should free opposition activists who have been detained.”

The government is also using restrictive freedom of assembly laws to fine organizers of peaceful protests and to sentence them to short term administrative detention.

On January 28, following a two-hour peaceful protest that was organized by the opposition Azat Social Democratic Party and which attracted approximately 500 people, three party leaders – Bolat Abilov, Amirbek Togusov, and Amirzhan Kosanov – were sentenced to 15-day administrative sentences for violating the law on public meetings. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, another party leader, was fined. Abilov was sentenced to an additional three days in detention for allegedly showing disrespect to the judge at his hearing.
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