WASHINGTON - The government of Kazakhstan, which has been widely criticized in the past for using an “extremism” label to target political dissent, is now increasing pressure on peaceful assembly under the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, say rights groups and observers of the Central Asian country.
Kazakhstan has registered 127,580 infections and 1,945 deaths from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Heather McGill, a Central Asia researcher at Amnesty International, told VOA that any Kazakh who criticizes the authorities for their response to the deadly virus may be prosecuted under charges of “disseminating knowingly false information” and would be banned from “voluntary political and social activism” for years.
She said peaceful protestors are frequently detained before or during events under the justification of conducting preventative measures against the spread of the coronavirus.
“Torture and other ill treatment are widespread in police custody,” McGill said, citing the suspicious death of a prominent Kazakh activist, Dulat Agadil, in a pretrial detention center in the capital city Nur-Sultan this February.
Agadil, a 43-year-old father of six, had regularly attended demonstrations calling for the release of political prisoners. His death hours after his detention by Kazakh police on Feb. 24 triggered anti-government rallies, with protesters blaming authorities and calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Yerlan Turgumbayev.
However, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Agadil had died of heart failure and that “to make any claims counter to this is to go against the truth.”
Kazakh rights activists say dozens of peaceful protesters have since been arrested due to Agadil’s case. One of the activists, Alma Nurusheva, told VOA that she was sentenced to seven days of administrative arrest for participating and “helping wash dishes” at the funeral of Agadil.
“The authorities of Kazakhstan call human rights activities and participation in peaceful protests ‘extremism,’” said Nurusheva, a 50-year-old psychologist and member of Veritas human rights movement in Nur-Sultan.
Earlier this month, Agadil’s son Zhanbolat Agadil died in a detention center in Nur-Sultan. Kazakh officials say the death of the 17-year-old was due to “fatal stabbing during a fight between young men.” Activists, however, are suspicious of the cause of his death and are calling for an independent investigation.
According to Nurusheva, Zhanbolat was the only key witness to the arbitrary arrest and death of his father.
The Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not responded to a VOA request for comment on the death of Zhanbolat and the suspicion cast by activists.
Since his election last year, Tokayev has vowed to introduce reforms to his government to meet the demands of his citizens. Through the newly founded National Council of Public Trust, he has announced “significant” reforms, including on freedom of assembly.
Despite the pledges, most of the reforms have involved less politically sensitive areas such as torture prevention, said Yevgeniy Zhovtis, the director of Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
“Kazakhstan is a typical authoritarian state where the government is in full control of opposition and civil society,” said Zhovtis, adding that political activists continue to face persecution and harassment under Tokayev.
“The prosecution of an active political opposition and civic activists, especially of banned peaceful political movements like Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan [and] Koshe Partiasy is direct and harsh,” Zhovtis told VOA.
Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) is a political opposition movement founded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former Kazakh minister turned into a fugitive foe of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The movement was banned as an “extremist organization” by a Kazakhstan court in March 2018.
The Koshe Partiasy or Street Party, a movement said to be the successor of DVK, was also deemed an “extremist organization” by Kazakh authorities in May.
While government officials say the groups propagate “the forcible change of Kazakhstan’s constitutional order” and thus qualify as extremist, their supporters claim their goal is to call for “democratic reforms” in Kazakhstan.
According to some activists, people associated with the two movements have been detained, interrogated and prosecuted on criminal charges as “extremist” or “terrorist” under Kazakh criminal code, which carries a penalty of fines or restriction of freedom or imprisonment for up to two years for participants and for up to six years for organizers.
An activist from Almaty and member of monitoring group Activists Not Extremists, Daniyar Khassenov, 24, told VOA that he was detained and interrogated multiple times due to his activism. Fearing imprisonment on political criminal charges, he said he fled the country to Ukraine in August.
“The police opened a criminal case on ‘extremism’ for my human rights activities, imposed a travel ban — I could not leave the country for two months — and froze bank accounts of my father, sister and my own, although my family members are not activists,” Khassenov told VOA. He claimed the overall human rights situation has been deteriorating in Kazakhstan despite Tokayev’s declaration of “the hearing state” and “democratic reforms.”
Some rights groups say the move falls short of any worthwhile improvement in freedom to dissent and of assembly.
“While a handful of protests have been allowed to take place since the law’s adoption, the law itself does not meet international human rights standards, and serious restrictions on the right to protest remain,” said Mihra Rittmann, a Central Asia researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Luca Anceschi, a senior lecturer on Central Asian Studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, told VOA that Tokayev’s accession to power has brought no relaxation in the regime’s systematic repression of civil activism around the country.
“The regime responded with typical violence to the wave of protests through which ordinary Kazakhstani citizens reacted to Tokayev’s appointment, borrowing heavily from Nazarbayev’s authoritarian playbook,” Anceschi said.
Critics of Tokayev, a former chair of Kazakhstan’s senate, say he was handpicked last March by his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned the same month after 29 years in power. Nazarbayev is still chief of the oil-rich country’s security council and head of the ruling Nur Otan party.
The U.S. State Department in its 2019 country report on human rights in Kazakhstan said that former president Nazarbayev still maintains “broad, lifetime authority” over a range of government functions. It said, “unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government … substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation,” remain as significant human rights issues in Kazakhstan.