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Kazakhstan

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but there were significant restrictions on this right, and police used force to disrupt peaceful demonstrations. The law defines unsanctioned gatherings, public meetings, demonstrations, marches, picketing, and strikes that upset social and political stability as national security threats.

The law includes penalties for organizing or participating in illegal gatherings and for providing organizational support in the form of property, means of communication, equipment, and transportation, if the enumerated actions cause significant damage to the rights and legal interests of citizens, entities, or legally protected interests of the society or the government.

By law organizations must apply to local authorities for a permit to hold a demonstration or public meeting at least 10 days in advance. Opposition figures and human rights monitors complained that complicated and vague procedures and the 10-day notification period made it difficult for groups to organize public meetings and demonstrations and noted local authorities turned down many applications for demonstrations or only allowed them to take place outside the city center.

Authorities often briefly detained and fined organizers of unsanctioned gatherings. The NGO KIBHR, which monitored demonstrations in nine cities, recorded 19 peaceful demonstrations during the year, none of which were sanctioned by the government.

In April and May, a series of unsanctioned peaceful protests took place in a number of cities. Participants protested a law extending the period during which agricultural land could be leased to foreigners. On April 24, the first rally was held in Atyrau, despite local authorities’ denying permission, followed by more protests three days later in Aktobe and Semey. Government authorities for the most part did not use force against the protesters, trying instead to dissuade them from the gatherings.

Activists of the protest movement used social media to announce plans to hold nationwide protests May 21. While more than 1,700 activists and 50 reporters were detained in different cities on May 21, most were released the same day. According to official statistics, 51 individuals were brought to court, four were sentenced to administrative arrests, 13 were fined, and 34 were given warnings.

Law enforcement officials also detained a number of activists throughout the country in the lead-up to the May 21 protests.

Two activists in Atyrau, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, were arrested May 17 and charged with organizing unsanctioned protests, inciting social discord, and intentionally spreading false information. Their court trial began on October 12, following repeated extensions of pretrial detention that amounted to nearly five months. During detention Bokayev reportedly suffered from health problems, but the court denied his release to house arrest, citing a risk of flight.

Authorities repeatedly denied applications by civil society activists to hold peaceful protest actions in support of Bokayev and Ayan, with the justification protest actions would exert pressure on the court proceedings. On October 23, a group of activists gathered in Almaty to demonstrate their support for the two. Police arrested five protesters, with three sentenced to 10-day administrative arrests. Other activists supporting Bokayev and Ayan reported harassment by authorities or being prevented from traveling to observe the trial.

Maina Kiai, UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, provided a legal analysis of the Bokayev and Ayan case, expressing concern over the implications for freedom of assembly and highlighting the danger of vague laws being applied selectively in ways that criminalize peaceful dissent. KIBHR director and leading human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis criticized the charges as a threat to freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, as well as to political dialogue in the country.

On November 28, Bokayev and Ayan were sentenced to five years in prison, as well as fines and three years’ deprivation of public activity. Supporters in the courtroom who chanted and sang to register their disagreement were urged to disperse as they had not been authorized in advance to protest.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

The law provides for limited freedom of association, but there were significant restrictions on this right. Any public organization set up by citizens, including religious groups, must be registered with the Ministry of Justice, as well as with the local departments of justice in every region in which the organization conducts activities. The law requires public or religious associations to define their specific activities, and any association that acts outside the scope of its charter may be warned, fined, suspended, or ultimately banned. Participation in unregistered public organizations may result in administrative or criminal penalties, such as fines, imprisonment, the closure of an organization, or suspension of its activities.

NGOs reported some difficulty in registering public associations. According to government information, there were discrepancies in the submitted documents. The special rapporteur encouraged authorities to facilitate the formation of public associations proactively, since they could play a crucial role in advancing human rights and development.

Membership organizations other than religious groups, covered under separate legislation, must have at least 10 members to register at the local level and must have branches in more than half the country’s regions for national registration. The government considered political parties and labor unions to be membership organizations but required political parties to have 40,000 signatures for registration. If authorities challenge the application by alleging irregular signatures, the registration process may continue only if the total number of eligible signatures exceeds the minimum number required. The law prohibits parties established on an ethnic, gender, or religious basis. The law also prohibits members of the armed forces, employees of law enforcement and other national security organizations, and judges from participating in trade unions or political parties.

According to Special Rapporteur Kiai, the law regulating the establishment of political parties is problematic as it imposes onerous obligations prior to registration, including high initial membership requirements that prevent small parties from forming and extensive documentation that requires time and significant expense to collect. He also expressed concern regarding the broad discretion granted to officials in charge of registering proposed parties, noting that the process lacked transparency and the law allows for perpetual extensions of time for the government to review a party’s application.

In 2015 parliament passed amendments to NGO financing laws that include new provisions governing registration and recordkeeping. Under the new law, all “nongovernment organizations, subsidiaries, and representative offices of foreign and international noncommercial organizations” are required to provide information on “their activities, including information about the founders, assets, sources of their funds and what they are spent on….” An “authorized body” may initiate a “verification” of the information submitted based on information received in mass media reports, complaints from individuals and entities, or other subjective sources. Untimely or inaccurate information contained in the report, discovered during verification, is an administrative offense and may carry fines up to 53,025 tenge ($159) or suspension for three months in case the violation is not rectified or is repeated within one year. In extreme cases criminal penalties are possible, which may lead to a large fine, suspension, or closure of the organization.

The law prohibits illegal interference by members of public associations in the activities of the government, with a fine of up to 636,300 tenge ($1,910) or imprisonment for up to 75 days. If committed by the leader of the organization, the fine may be up to 1.06 million tenge ($3,180) or imprisonment for no more than 90 days. The law does not clearly define “illegal interference.”

Under the law a public association, along with its leaders and members, may face fines for performing activities outside its charter. The delineation between actions an NGO member takes in his or her private capacity versus as part of an organization is not clear in the law.

An NGO observer estimated that 20 of the almost 27,000 formally registered NGOs in the country remain independent of the government. In February the NGO International Legal Initiative (ILI) filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Sports and Culture, claiming that the rules for compilation of ILI’s database did not comply with legislation. In On July 1, the Astana economic court, and on September 7 its appellate panel, both rejected the NGO’s lawsuit.

At least one NGO, Caspi Tabigaty in Atyrau, ceased operations, citing the redundancy and burden of the new requirements.

On July 26, the president of the country signed legislation affecting civil society organizations. The law includes reporting requirements concerning the receipt and expenditure of foreign funds or assets, and a requirement to label all publications produced with support from foreign funds as such. The Law on Payments also introduces administrative and criminal penalties for noncompliance with these new requirements and potential restrictions on the conduct of meetings, protests, and similar activities organized with foreign funds.

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