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29 января 2024
Mihra Rittman, HRW. Photo by Almas Kaisar.

Longing for Justice in Kazakhstan

A column by Human Rights Watch

Longing for Justice in Kazakhstan

January 2024 marks two years since Kazakhstan experienced large-scale anti-government protests, in which at least 238 people were killed. In the weeks after these events, dubbed “Qandy Qantar” (Kazakh for ‘Bloody January’), the authorities committed a cascade of human rights violations, from arbitrary arrests of protesters and others to torture and ill-treatment of detainees. At least six people died in custody.

Nursultan Isayev, 33, from western Kazakhstan, is one of nearly 1,400 people whose lives were upended by criminal prosecutions in connection with the protests, according to government figures.

In February 2023, a court in the city of Aktobe sentenced Isayev to 15 years for crimes the authorities allege he committed during the protests. However, courts have so far denied Isayev his right to a fair trial and authorities have dismissed his credible allegations of torture. An appellate court upheld his conviction, and Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court will conduct a preliminary review of his case on February 5.

Isayev was prosecuted on charges of “encroaching on the life of police officers” and “mass rioting.” The authorities allege that he tried deliberately to run over police officers with his car. Isayev says he did not intend to cause any harm. He told the court that he went to the square where the protests were taking place to see what was going on, but did not participate in mass riots, and later tried to move his car away from the tear gas and shooting in the city center.

In his testimony, Isayev said he was unable to see clearly after a bullet hit his windshield, and that he unintentionally bumped into a police cordon. Evidence is on his side, with a court-commissioned expert analysis and testimony showing that neither of the two officers he allegedly hit suffered any serious harm. During the investigation, Isayev and his lawyer petitioned to have the charges reduced to no avail.

Isayev also testified that after he was detained, police beat him to coerce a confession, breaking his ribs, knocking out his teeth, bruising his face, and giving him a concussion, actions that amount to torture under international human rights law.

Despite medical reports that corroborate his allegations, a preliminary investigation into his complaint was closed, with the prosecutor’s office finding “there was no crime” in the police officers’ actions.

Like Isayev, at least several hundred people who were detained in connection with the January 2022 protests have alleged torture and ill-treatment at the hands of police. Despite the significant number of complaints, only two dozen police officers have been held accountable to date.

Human rights groups have documented that Kazakhstan’s authorities beat, hooded, and burned detainees, including with clothes irons; administered electric shocks; and used sexual violence against both male and female detainees. The authorities have dismissed the majority of cases that were opened, with pro forma conclusions that there was “no evidence of a crime.”

And while Isayev was sentenced to 15 years in prison for apparently knocking into two police officers, the authorities in Taraz, Kyzylorda, and Shymkent have summarily closed investigations into the deaths of dozens of people killed in those cities during the protests on the grounds that the officers’ actions did not constitute a crime.

Kazakhstan’s authorities have also posthumously prosecuted at least 15 people in violation of their right to a fair trial.

On January 15, relatives of several of the people who were killed gathered outside the Presidential Palace in Astana demanding a meeting with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to voice their grievances. The authorities’ response was to arrest and fine them for holding an “unsanctioned meeting.”

Over the last two years, Kazakhstan’s government has repeatedly rejected calls for an independent investigation into human rights violations committed during and after the protests. Yet, Isayev’s case, and others like his, serve as an urgent reminder of the need for an independent and impartial investigation into the events and aftermath, no matter how much time has passed.

In an interview the president gave at the start of this year, he again expressed his view that “armed radicals, and terrorists” were behind the violence that occurred during the January 2022 protests. Such questionable assertions create further obstacles to justice for the 238 people who were killed, and the many others, like Isayev, whose allegations of ill-treatment and torture have been dismissed as unfounded.

Kazakhstan’s government would have us all turn a page on Qandy Qantar, and focus instead on the president’s promises of reform. But to do so would be to turn away from the suffering of people who are still waiting for – and demanding – accountability for violations against themselves and their loved ones that continue to have devastating impact today.

Isayev has another day in court and his lawyers are preparing their case. Optimists hope justice may prevail.

And for the many still waiting for and demanding justice, an independent and impartial investigation into the human rights violations committed during and after the January 2022 protests is as much needed today as it was two years ago.

Mihra Rittmann is senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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