Reacting to a televised address this morning (7 January) by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev calling for security forces to “fire without warning” at any further disturbances following the recent mass protests and violence, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said:
“The Kazakhstani authorities have a duty to maintain order, but giving blanket approval for police officers and troops to fire without warning is unlawful and a recipe for disaster. It could pave the way for knee-jerk reactions that result in unlawful killings. Unless this order is immediately and clearly revoked, Kazakhstan’s already abysmal human rights record and the ongoing crisis which it has produced are set to get worse.
The Kazakhstani authorities have a duty to maintain order, but giving blanket approval for police officers and troops to fire without warning is unlawful and a recipe for disaster. It could pave the way for knee-jerk reactions that result in unlawful killings.Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia
“Under international law, police officers should only ever use lethal force as a last resort. It can only be used when it is strictly necessary, either to protect themselves or others from an imminent threat of death or serious injury, and only if all other options to de-escalate the situation have failed.
“When the use of force and firearms are strictly necessary, the relevant UN principles are clear. Security forces must always give clear warning when they are about to open fire – the exception being where doing so would put themselves or others at risk. Not doing so increases the risk of innocent bystanders being seriously injured or killed. This blanket order not to provide warning is extremely dangerous and alludes to a policy of ‘kill first, think later’.
“The presence of violent individuals or groups does not remove the Kazakhstani security forces’ obligation to protect the right to peaceful assembly.”
On 2 January, protests erupted in the Mangystau Region in south-east Kazakhstan over gas price hikes, before spreading into several other major cities, including the biggest city, Almaty.
The protests gradually turned violent, with crowds storming and setting fire to the Almaty city administration’s office, and looting firearms from law enforcement agencies. In response, police fired tear gas and stun grenades at the protesters, and later used firearms. There are videos and eyewitness testimonies that provide evidence of security forces openly firing live ammunition at crowds, including near Almaty’s Republic Square on 6 January.
The authorities have also restricted the internet and other means of communication and warned all media against “violating” Kazakhstan’s unduly restrictive media law. Communication with people in Kazakhstan, and particularly in Almaty, is severely disrupted, and intermittent at best.
The Ministry of the Interior has said that over 3,800 people have been arrested, and confirmed hundreds of injuries and 26 deaths among protesters and officers. The number of protester deaths is likely to be much higher, given that earlier activists and the police were quoted speaking of “tens” of casualties, and President Tokayev spoke of “hundreds”.
Police arbitrarily detained and questioned at least two senior journalists from the RFE/RL’s local Azzattyk radio service on 4 January, and other media workers since.
On 5 January, Kazakhstan’s government requested military assistance from Russia and its other regional allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, who promised to provide collectively close to 3,000 troops, purportedly to restore order following the violence and address an unspecified external “threat”.
For years, the authorities have repressed the basic rights of the Kazakhstani people by not only banning peaceful protest but also opposition political parties. Numerous peaceful protest leaders, human rights defenders, bloggers and others have been arrested and imprisoned following unfair trials. In 2011, at least 14 protesters were killed after police cracked down on a demonstration in Zhanaozen. The event has not been fully and effectively investigated.
Under international law and standards law enforcement must only use firearms as a last resort where it is necessary to protect themselves or others from an imminent threat to life or of serious injury.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that: “law enforcement officials shall identify themselves as such and give a clear warning of their intent to use firearms, with sufficient time for the warning to be observed, unless to do so would unduly place the law enforcement officials at risk or would create a risk of death or serious harm to other persons, or would be clearly inappropriate or pointless in the circumstances of the incident.”