Imprisoned overnight: Kazakhstan’s extreme response to COVID-19

 Heather McGill is Amnesty International’s Central Asia Researcher.

On 2 April, around a hundred people in the Kazakh city of Ust Kamenogorsk woke to find they had become prisoners overnight. The lock on the front door of their apartment block had been welded shut, trapping everybody inside and causing panic when residents realized they couldn’t get to work.

This was not a practical joke. The previous evening a woman living in the building had been hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. The local authorities had responded by imprisoning her unsuspecting neighbours and sending police to surround the building. Residents who arrived home late from work were trapped outside and had to sleep in their cars.

“There were no explanations, nothing,” says Aleksei, who lives in the building with his wife and his grandmother. “For 14 days we were trapped there.”

The next day, Aleksei says, a notice was put up in the hallway explaining that they were being quarantined for 14 days.

“Then doctors arrived and went around all 56 flats ordering us to take our temperatures. They had an ordinary thermometer to use under the arm and they wiped it down after each person.”

Aleksei duly took his own temperature and his grandmother’s and reported back. He was then given a piece of paper stating that anyone who violated the quarantine would be criminally liable.

“Under what law?” asks Aleksei. “When we asked, the doctors said they didn’t know anything and the police would explain.”

Thus began a bizarre two weeks for the building’s residents. The heavy police presence continued, as did the disinfection of the building.

“They sprayed everything – shoes, prams, even my cat! He was poisoned, not lethally, thank goodness,” says Aleksei.

Because they had been given no warning people didn’t have enough food and were soon relying on packages from relatives and voluntary organizations, who heard of their plight on social media. The local shop agreed to deliver goods on credit and a bakery donated bread to each flat.

“But the state didn’t provide anything – they didn’t even give us information.”

Aleksei and his neighbours were not the only ones. Similar enforced “quarantines” have been documented in at least three other Kazakhstani cities as well as in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. These reports usually appear first on social media and are then picked up by local news but rarely make it into international media.

In Aktau, a city in the east of Kazakhstan, videos shared on social media on 12 April showed sparks flying as the door of an apartment building was welded closed. According to local media reports, a few days later a man fractured his spine after jumping out of a third-floor window – he had apparently been visiting relatives when he was locked in. On its own Instagram account the Aktau administration denied sealing the building.

Meanwhile in the Kyrgzstani city of Karakol, an apartment building was sealed for several day after a man who later fell ill invited neighbours to his flat. When he refused to give their names the building was quarantined.

These measures are arbitrary, disproportionate, and breach international law in that they replace one health and safety threat (COVID-19) with others – (fire, no access in medical emergencies etc). They also serve as a reminder of the disregard for human rights and corruption faced by the residents of these countries, which receive little attention on the international stage.

In both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, authorities have used COVID-19 as a pretext for cracking down on opponents and further restricting freedom of expression and association. On 17 April, for example, Kazakh police arrested human rights defender Alnur Ilyashev because he had criticized the government’s pandemic response on social media. Police then paid intimidating visits to his relatives, causing his teenage daughter to have a panic attack.  

Prisoners are at particular risk from COVID 19 because it is difficult to follow World Health Organization recommendations regarding hygiene and social distancing in the often crowded conditions of prisons and pre-trial detention centres. Azimjan Askarov, a human rights defender is currently serving a life sentence on a series of fabricated charges. Askarov is 68 and has cardiac and respiratory problems, putting him at serious risk should he contract the virus in prison. Askarov’s allegations that he was tortured in detention have never been investigated.

Amnesty International is calling for the release of Azimjan Askarov because he is a prisoner of conscience. Detainees in pre-trial detention centres have not been able to see their lawyers due to COVID-19 and are kept in particularly overcrowded cells.

Barricading people in their buildings is just the latest manifestation of overreach by states which consider free speech a crime and human rights an annoyance. In this context it’s unsurprising that the Kazakhstani authorities have met criticism with denials and obfuscation. Aleksei says the woman who had fallen ill ultimately tested negative for COVID-19: “She had pneumonia instead. It was all for nothing but nobody would admit it.”

The residents were finally freed after 14 days, on the expiration of the quarantine.  But true freedom remains out of reach in Kazakhstan, where expressing your opinion can still land you in jail.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are little understood countries in the West; even the EU describes them as “overlooked”. The shocking measures taken to contain COVID-19 must put Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan on the map and increase scrutiny of their poor human rights records.