The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government and constitution concentrate power in the presidency. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became president after June 2019 elections that were marked, according to an observation mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, by election day violations, including ballot stuffing and falsification of vote counts; restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, expression, and association; and “scant respect for democratic standards” overall. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoys broad, lifetime legal authority over a range of government functions. The executive branch controls the legislature and the judiciary, as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. On August 12, in the country’s only national election during the year, the legislatures of oblasts and cities of national significance chose 17 of 49 senators for parliament’s upper house in an indirect election tightly controlled by local governors working in coordination with the presidential administration.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs supervises the national police force, which has primary responsibility for internal security. The Committee for National Security also oversees internal and border security, as well as national security, antiterrorism efforts, and the investigation and interdiction of illegal or unregistered groups, such as extremist groups, military groups, political parties, religious groups, and trade unions. The committee reports directly to the president, and its chairman sits on the Security Council, chaired by former president Nazarbayev. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killing by or on behalf of the government; torture by and on behalf of the government; political prisoners; problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; corruption; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
The government selectively prosecuted officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases. Nonetheless, corruption remained widespread, and impunity existed for many in positions of authority as well as for those connected to law enforcement entities.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several well-publicized reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings or beatings that led to deaths. Activists noted that deadly abuse in prisons, particularly abuse carried out by so-called voluntary assistants–prisoners who receive special privileges in exchange for carrying out orders of prison staff, remained frequent.
On October 17, police detained local herdsman Azamat Orazaly and took him to the police station in Makanchi village on suspicion of cattle theft. Later that same day, Orazaly died, allegedly while police tried to beat out a confession of the theft. On October 19, police confirmed that Azamat died in the police office in Makanchi. The investigation led to charges of torture, and three police officers were arrested.
Some human rights organizations also considered the February 24 death of civil society activist Dulat Agadil, while in police custody, an unlawful killing. Police had arrested Agadil in his house near Nur-Sultan on February 24 and placed him in the capital’s pretrial detention facility following a contempt of court decision related to insults directed at a judge in a separate case. Early the next morning, police reported Agadil had died from a heart attack. After human rights activists demanded an impartial investigation, medical authorities examined Agadil’s body the following day with the participation of two independent doctors, who did not find evidence of forced death, although they did find signs of bruising. On February 29, President Tokayev stated that he had studied the case materials and was confident Agadil died of a heart attack. On May 28, the Nur-Sultan Prosecutor’s Office announced it had dropped its investigation into Agadil’s death after finding no signs of criminal acts, as Agadil’s arrest and detention were in full compliance with the law.
The legal process continued in the killing of a human rights defender from 2019. In May 2019 the body of activist Galy Baktybayev, who was shot with a rifle, was found in the Karaganda region’s Atasu village. Baktybayev was a civil activist who raised problems of corruption, embezzlement, and other violations by local government. A special investigation group created by the Minister of Internal Affairs detained four suspects, including one former police officer. The investigation was completed and submitted to court in May, and an ongoing jury trial began on August 17.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture; nevertheless, there were reports that police and prison officials tortured and abused detainees. Human rights activists asserted the domestic legal definition of torture was noncompliant with the definition of torture in the UN Convention against Torture.
The National Preventive Mechanism against Torture (NPM) was established by law as part of the government’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman. According to public statements by Ombudsman Azimova in September, the number of prisoner complaints about torture and other abuse increased in comparison to 2019. During the first 10 months of the year, her office received 125 complaints about torture and cruel treatment, compared to 84 throughout 2019. The NPM reported that 121 criminal cases were registered from those complaints and 23 individuals were convicted of torture. In 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office reported 136 complaints of torture in the first six months of the year, of which five were forwarded to courts following investigation.
The ombudsman also criticized what she termed “the widely practiced GULAG-style treatment” of prisoners and suggested that the lack of education and monitoring were the reasons for that lingering problem. She called for regular training of the staff of penitentiary institutions and an update of the penitentiary system’s rules to provide for more effective interaction with the NPM to make it impossible for prison staff to conceal incidents of torture.
Cases of prison officers being brought to justice for torture were rare, and officers often received light punishment.
On February 3, the Kapshagay district court convicted seven officers of Zarechniy prison of torture. The court sentenced Deputy Director for Behavioral Correction Arman Shabdenov and Deputy Director for Operations Jexenov to seven years in jail, and the others received sentences ranging from five to six years in jail.
On April 1, Yerbolat Askarov, director of the operations unit of a prison in Shakhtinsk near Karaganda, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years’ probation for torturing prisoners in addition to a three-year ban on work in penitentiary institutions. On January 23, more than 200 prisoners in Uralsk prison RU-170/3 were severely beaten by National Guard soldiers brought in by prison administrators to search for contraband. A prisoner’s relative contacted human rights activists about the incident, and the next day NPM representatives led by a local human rights activist visited the prison and listened to prisoners describe their treatment. Prisoners stated that the soldiers beat prisoners, kept them outdoors in frigid temperatures for three hours with inadequate clothing, destroyed personal items, and verbally abused them. After the raid prison officials did not let prisoners visit the infirmary. NPM representatives collected 99 written complaints, and the Penitentiary Committee and prosecutors promised to investigate all allegations. A similar incident occurred in that same prison a year prior, but no one was held responsible for either incident.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were generally harsh and sometimes life threatening, and facilities did not meet international health standards. Health problems among prisoners went untreated in many cases, or prison conditions exacerbated them. Prisons faced serious shortages of medical staff.
Physical Conditions: The NPM reported many concerns including poor health and sanitary conditions; poor medical services, including for prisoners suffering from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and diabetes; high risk of torture during search, investigation, and transit to other facilities; lack of feedback from prosecutors on investigation of torture complaints; lack of communication with families; discrimination against prisoners in vulnerable groups, including prisoners with disabilities and prisoners with HIV/AIDS; censorship; and a lack of secure channels for submission of complaints.
The COVID-19 pandemic compounded prisons’ poor health and sanitary conditions, particularly in cases where prisoners had added vulnerability to infection. On August 1, Human Rights Ombudsman Azimova reported on social media that the number of complaints about insufficient health care for individuals in police custody and prisoners increased during the country’s public-health lockdown.
Activists continued during the lockdown to raise alarm about health conditions in prisons and detention facilities. Human rights defenders and observers criticized authorities for ignoring recommendations of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which reiterated the state’s responsibility for ensuring those in custody enjoy the same standards of health that are available in the community, and urged all states to reduce prison populations through early, provisional, or temporary release when possible.
On June 1, three men died, and two required intensive care as a result of an alleged poisoning in a Kokshetau detention facility, according to press accounts. Most of those affected were detained for traffic violations. Activists criticized authorities for failure to apply alternatives to incarceration for such minor offenses.
There were multiple complaints from prisoners’ relatives that prison administrators ignored prisoners’ complaints about symptoms clearly consistent with COVID-19. When such complaints reached the public, prison officials denied there were COVID-19 cases among prisoners and reported that prisoners had tested negative for the virus.
Prisoner rights activists expressed concern that authorities used COVID-19 restrictions to block access to information about treatment in prisons. After an order from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all administrators banned in-person meetings between prisoners and relatives. In order to compensate for the lack of visits, however, administrators of some prisons increased the number of prisoners’ telephone calls and allowed prisoners to have online meetings with relatives.
According to Prison Reform International (PRI), although men and women were held separately, and pretrial detainees were held separately from convicted prisoners, during transitions between temporary detention centers, pretrial detention, and prisons, youth often were held with adults.
Abuse occurred in police cells, pretrial detention facilities, and prisons. Observers cited the lack of professional training programs for administrators as the primary cause of mistreatment.
The NPM and members of public monitoring commissions (PMCs) (quasi-independent bodies that also carry out monitoring) reported continuing infrastructure problems in prisons, including unsatisfactory hygiene conditions such as poor plumbing and sewage systems and unsanitary bedding. PMC members reported that some prisoners with disabilities did not have access to showers for months. They also reported shortages of medical staff and insufficient medicine, as well as mobility problems for prisoners with disabilities. In many places the NPM noted restricted connectivity with the outside world and limited access to information regarding prisoner rights. The PRI and NPM reported that there was widespread concern about food and nutrition quality in prisons. Prisoners and former prisoners complained about their provisions and reported that they were served food past its expiration date.
The government did not publish statistics on the number of deaths, suicides, or attempted suicides in pretrial detention centers or prisons during the year. PRI and PMC members reported that many suicides and deaths occurred in prisons.
Administration: Authorities typically did not conduct proper investigations into allegations of mistreatment. Human rights observers noted that in many cases authorities did not investigate prisoners’ allegations of torture or did not hold prison administrators or staff accountable. The NPM’s 2018 report emphasized the problem of voluntary assistants who are used to control other prisoners and carry out additional duties.
The law does not allow unapproved religious services, rites, ceremonies, meetings, or missionary activity in prisons. By law a prisoner in need of “religious rituals” may ask his relatives to invite a representative of a registered religious organization to carry them out, provided they do not obstruct prison activity or violate the rights and legal interests of other individuals. PMC members reported that some prisons prohibited Muslim prisoners from fasting during Ramadan. According to the NPM, prayer is permitted so long as it does not interfere with internal rules. Prayers are not allowed at nighttime or during inspections.
Independent Monitoring: There were no independent international monitors of prisons. The PMCs, which include members of civil society, may undertake monitoring visits to prisons. Human rights advocates noted that some prisons created administrative barriers to prevent the PMCs from successfully carrying out their mandate, including creating bureaucratic delays, forcing the PMCs to wait for hours to gain access to the facilities, or allowing the PMCs to visit for only a short time. Some advocates said that the PMCs are not effective because the PMCs do not have any enforcement powers, and justice-sector institutions, including prisons, are not truly interested in reform.
Authorities continued pressure on activist Elena Semyonova, the chair of the PMC in Pavlodar. Prison authorities in Almaty region, Taraz, and Kostanay filed seven lawsuits against her on charges of damaging their dignity and honor through dissemination of false information. In July courts issued rulings in favor of authorities and ordered Semyenova to refute her claims publicly on social media and also pay litigation costs. As of September complainants withdrew three lawsuits, and Semyenova lost four litigations.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but such incidents nevertheless occurred. In August the prosecutor general reported to media outlets that prosecutors released 500 unlawfully detained individuals.
Human rights observers reported arbitrary detentions during the COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law reported that Almaty authorities built a tent facility and involuntarily confined all homeless citizens picked up in the city during the COVID-19 lockdown that began in March. Some individuals who live near the facility alleged that, in addition to homeless citizens, others who happened to be on site during police raids were also among those locked up in the facility. The few individuals who managed to escape the police-controlled facility complained about hunger, cold, and brutal beatings. Journalists and human rights observers who tried to verify allegations were denied access to the facility.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and law prohibit violations of privacy, but the government at times infringed on these rights.
The law provides prosecutors with extensive authority to limit citizens’ constitutional rights. The National Security Committee (KNB), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other agencies, with the concurrence of the Prosecutor General’s Office, may infringe on the secrecy of private communications and financial records, as well as on the inviolability of the home. Consistent with previous years, human rights activists reported incidents of alleged surveillance, including KNB officers visiting activists’ and their families’ homes for “unofficial” conversations regarding suspect activities, wiretapping and recording of telephone conversations, and videos of private meetings being posted on social media.
Courts may hear an appeal of a prosecutor’s decision but may not issue an immediate injunction to cease an infringement. The law allows wiretapping in medium, urgent, and grave cases.
Human rights defenders, activists, and their family members continued to report the government occasionally monitored their movements.
On June 25, President Tokayev signed into law amendments on the regulation of digital technologies. Human rights defenders expressed concern the amendments were adopted without any public dialogue or explanation on the part of the government and that some portions of the amendments were too broad and could be used to infringe on privacy rights and freedom of speech. According to critics, the law did not firmly provide for protection of personally identifiable data or access to such data, and lacked sufficient mechanisms for oversight of the national system. Additionally, it was unclear what the limits and purposes were for the use of biometric data and video monitoring. Under the law the agency authorized to protect personal data is a part of the Ministry of Digital Development, Innovations, and Aerospace Industry. Those who saw the amendments as insufficient pointed to the data breach in June 2019, when the personal data of 11 million citizens were leaked by the Central Election Commission. Critics said that the lack of proper oversight was highlighted when the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced in January that it had dropped its investigation into the incident, citing a lack of evidence that a crime had been committed.
On December 5, the government announced a cybersecurity drill in which local internet service providers would block residents from accessing foreign sites unless they had a certificate of authority (CA) issued by the government and installed on their devices. The CA allowed a “man-in-the-middle” function that intercepted and decrypted hypertext transfer protocol secure traffic and allowed security forces full access to online activity. While users were able to access most foreign-hosted sites, access was blocked to sites like Google, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix, unless they had the certificate installed. The government-mandated CA was rejected by foreign-hosted sites due to security and privacy concerns. Officials claimed the exercise was being carried out to protect government agencies, telecoms, and private companies, and that increased use of the internet during COVID-19 and the threat of cyberattacks necessitated the actions. Previously, officials had urged adoption of a similar CA in August 2019 but withdrew it after significant public outcry. On December 7, the KNB announced that the certificate rollout was simply a test that had been completed.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, but the government severely limited exercise of this right.
Although constitutional amendments in 2017 increased legislative and executive branch authority in some spheres, the constitution concentrates power in the presidency itself. The president appoints and dismisses most high-level government officials, including the prime minister, cabinet, prosecutor general, KNB chief, Supreme Court and lower-level judges, and regional governors. A presidential decree signed October 9 requires most of these appointments to be made in consultation with the chairman of the Security Council, a position that was granted in 2018 to then president Nazarbayev for his lifetime.
The 2018 law on the first president–the “Leader of the Nation” law–establishes then president Nazarbayev as chair of the Kazakhstan People’s Assembly and of the Security Council for life, grants him lifetime membership on the Constitutional Council, allows him “to address the people of Kazakhstan at any time,” and stipulates that all “initiatives on the country’s development” must be coordinated through him.
The Mazhilis (the lower house of parliament) must confirm the president’s choice of prime minister, and the Senate must confirm the president’s choices of prosecutor general, KNB chief, Supreme Court judges, and National Bank head. Parliament has never failed to confirm a presidential nomination. Modifying or amending the constitution effectively requires the president’s consent.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down in March 2019 and under the constitution the presidency immediately passed to the chairman of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Thereafter, the government conducted presidential elections in June 2019. Out of seven presidential candidates, Tokayev won with 70.96 percent of the vote. According to an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission’s report, the election “offered an important moment for potential political reforms, but it was tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices.” The report cited a number of violations, such as ballot-box stuffing and problems with vote counting, including cases of deliberate falsification. Other problems included lack of transparency, such as by not releasing election results by polling station, and violations of the rights of assembly, expression, and association. The report also noted the widespread detention of peaceful protesters on election day in major cities. Overall, the conduct of the election showed “scant respect for democratic standards.”
The OSCE report further observed that the problems went beyond election day itself. According to the final report, in recent years some opposition parties have either been banned or marginalized through restrictive legislation or criminal prosecution, and the ability of new political parties to register was significantly restricted by the Law on Political Parties. Moreover, the legal framework for candidate eligibility was highly restrictive. The OSCE report also noted that 2017 constitutional and legislative amendments abolished self-nomination and introduced further eligibility requirements that significantly reduced the candidate pool, with requirements for education, residency, and experience in the civil service or elected government office.
The most recent elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, took place in 2016. The ruling Nur Otan Party won 84 seats, Ak Zhol won seven seats, and the Communist People’s Party won seven seats. An observer mission from the OSCE noted irregularities and limitations on civil and political rights.
The country held Senate elections on August 12, following the legal requirement that 17 of 49 senators rotate every three years. Senators were selected by members of maslikhats (local representative bodies) acting as electors to represent each administrative region and the cities of national significance. Four incumbent senators were re-elected, and the majority of the newly elected senators were affiliated with the local authorities.
In June 2018 the government amended the election law. One change reduced the independence of members of maslikhats. Previously, citizens could self-nominate and vote for individual candidates running in elections for the maslikhats. Under the amended law, only parties may select candidates for party lists, citizens vote for parties, and the parties then choose whom from their list would join the maslikhat.
Another election law change affected public opinion surveys ahead of elections. According to the amendments, only legal entities may conduct public opinion surveys about elections after notifying the Central Election Commission (CEC). Such entities must be legally registered and have at least five years’ experience in conducting public opinion surveys. Violation of the law leads to a fine of 37,875 tenge ($98) for an individual and 75,750 tenge ($197) for an organization. The law prohibits publishing, within five days of elections, election forecasts and other research related to elections or support for particular candidates or political parties.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As part of the set of amendments in the political parties law signed by President Tokayev on May 25, the registration threshold was reduced from 40,000 to 20,000 members, with a minimum of 600 members from each region.
By law 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 political parties.
There were six registered political parties: Adal (formerly Birlik), Ak Zhol, Kazakhstan People’s Party (formerly the Communist People’s Party), National Social Democratic Party, Nur Otan Party, and People’s Patriotic Party “Auyl.” All parties generally did not oppose Nur Otan policies.
In 2018 the Yesil district court in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) banned, as an extremist organization, the DCK movement, which was organized by the fugitive banker and opposition figure, Mukhtar Ablyazov. The movement’s declared goal was the peaceful change of the country’s authoritarian regime into a parliamentary republic. The court ruled that the DCK incited social discord, created a negative image of state authorities, and provoked protest.
On February 8, a group of activists announced that they were founding the Koshe Party (“Street Party”), with the stated goal to change the country into a parliamentary republic, release all political prisoners, and combat corruption. On May 19, the Yesil district court in Nur-Sultan banned the Koshe Party as a successor organization of the DCK. The party was not represented at the court hearing. Human rights observers criticized the lack of fair court proceedings as a violation of the freedom of association.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: On May 25, President Tokayev signed into law amendments on national elections and political parties that mandate a combined 30 percent quota for women and youth in the lists of candidates of political parties running in elections. Youth are defined as those between the ages of 14 and 29. The amendments do not, however, specify the same ratio among the actually elected members of parliament and the maslikhats.
Traditional attitudes sometimes hindered women from holding high office or playing active roles in political life, although there were no legal restrictions on the participation of women or minorities in politics.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Although the government took some steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, impunity existed, especially where corruption was involved or personal relationships with government officials were established.
Corruption: Corruption was widespread in the executive branch, law enforcement agencies, local government administrations, the education system, and the judiciary, according to human rights NGOs. According to the Anticorruption Agency, the largest number of officials held liable for corruption in the first six months were in police, finance and agriculture areas. They also reported a three-fold increase in the number of corruption cases among military officers.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Agency on Combatting Corruption, KNB, and economic investigations service of the Finance Ministry are responsible for combating corruption. The KNB investigates corruption crimes committed by officers of the special agencies, anticorruption bureau, and military. During the first nine months of the year, the government recorded 2,140 corruption crimes across all agencies. In addition to administrative and disciplinary penalties, 195 officials had cases submitted to the courts and were held criminally liable. The most frequent crimes were bribery, abuse of power, and embezzlement of property. The government charged 442 civil servants with corruption crimes.
On May 27, a court found the governor of Pavlodar province, Bulat Bakauov, guilty of abuse of power. As a result of a plea bargain reached by the defendant and prosecutors, the court sentenced Bakauov to 3.5 years of restricted freedom of movement (probation) and to a life ban on government service. The court did not rule on confiscation of any property because it did not find any property obtained by unlawful means.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials, applicants for government positions, and those released from government service to declare their income and assets in the country and abroad to tax authorities annually. The same requirement applies to their spouses, dependents, and adult children. Similar regulations exist for members of parliament and judges. Tax declarations are not available to the public. The law imposes administrative penalties for noncompliance with the requirements.