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Kazakhstan 2023

The rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association continued to be unduly restricted. Prosecution of members of the security forces for unlawful killings, and torture and other ill-treatment during mass protests in January 2022 continued, but often resulted in sentences not commensurate with the gravity of the offence. Police regularly disrupted or prevented peaceful political street protests. Practising religion outside registered religious organizations remained banned. Widespread violence against women and girls continued. Climate action policies remained inadequate.


President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s promise in 2022 to “reload and renew all key political institutions” by mid-2023 was fulfilled only nominally. Snap parliamentary elections in March were marred by numerous allegations of violations in favour of the ruling Amanat party, which secured a majority.

Kazakhstan hosted an official visit by Russian president Vladimir Putin in November, but rejected accusations of subverting Western economic sanctions against Russia by pursuing cooperation with that country.

Human rights violations continued in the wake of protests in January 2022, when at least 219 civilians and 19 law enforcement officers were killed after security forces used rubber bullets and firearms indiscriminately and unlawfully against peaceful protesters and violent mobs, looters and bystanders.

Freedom of peaceful assembly

Legislation and practice relating to peaceful assemblies remained unduly restrictive. Prior permission was required even for a single person picket, and holding or simply planning an “unauthorized” assembly or picket was punishable by up to 15 days in jail. The 12-month statute of limitation for this “offence” allowed the authorities to jail protesters long after the event, often to prevent them from participating in further protests. For example, ahead of the announced but “unauthorized” peaceful protests on Republic Day on 25 October, 13 activists, supporters of the unregistered political party Alga, Kazakhstan!, were arrested and detained for 15 days for attending “unauthorized” rallies in the past.

Some protesters faced much harsher criminal punishment. In July, five people who had peacefully protested in January 2022 received sentences of up to eight years’ imprisonment after an unfair trial marred by allegations of torture and witness intimidation.1

Peaceful assemblies could only be held in designated locations (of which there were only three or four in any city or town) without the risk of a fine or jail. A feminist march planned for 8 March in the city of Almaty was banned on the pretext of another group having already booked the only street designated for marches. The feminist rally was instead held in a designated cramped square and the other group’s march did not take place at all.

Excessive use of force

During the year only three cases against police officers or soldiers for unlawful use of firearms during the January 2022 events reached court. They included a contract soldier acquitted in November by the Almaty Garrison Military Court. He had been charged with abuse of authority for shooting and killing a four-year-old girl who was in a car with her siblings on their way to shop for groceries.

Torture and other ill-treatment

Impunity for torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread. Amendments to the criminal code in January separated the offence of torture from other ill-treatment, with torture to be investigated by specialized prosecutors.

Most criminal cases for torture and other ill-treatment following the January 2022 events were dropped for alleged lack of evidence. Some cases were requalified as abuse of authority or other lesser crimes, and some were dropped due to plea agreements with the suspects. Out of the six officially acknowledged cases of death caused by torture, five reached court by the end of 2023. They included two police officers given a non-custodial sentence of four years’ conditional imprisonment in the city of Semey on a charge of torture causing the death of Zhandos Zhotabayev. A nurse was also sentenced in the same case to one year’s conditional imprisonment for non-fulfilment of duties.

Prosecutions in other cases of torture and other ill-treatment were marred by many procedural violations. Only a few victims of torture received compensation, up to the equivalent of EUR 245, from the state-run Victim Compensation Fund.

Freedom of expression

The human rights community in Kazakhstan recorded 23 people imprisoned on political grounds during the year, including human rights defenders, activists, bloggers and journalists.

In July, the law on Internet Platforms and Internet Advertising entered into force. It mandated fines for unintentionally posting or spreading false information on social media and any other internet platforms by users, owners, and online influencers. In November, following a complaint by a private individual, a court fined the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty editorial office in Kazakhstan (Radio Azattyq) the equivalent of EUR 200 for a publication stating that the Collective Security Treaty Organization “was run by Russia”.

Freedom of association

Ten individuals were convicted and imprisoned following unfair trials for being supporters of unregistered peaceful opposition political parties or movements allegedly linked to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement, designated “extremist” by a court in the capital, Astana, in 2018. On 30 November, Marat Zhylanbayev was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for purportedly financing and supporting “extremist activities”. Participation in organizations designated “extremist” remained punishable by up to six years’ imprisonment. Five more individuals were under investigation at year’s end.

Registering an opposition political party remained virtually impossible, and operating without registration could entail prosecution. In April, Zhanbolat Mamay, the leader of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, which had been arbitrarily denied registration, was convicted of organizing mass unrest during the January 2022 events. He was given a six-year suspended sentence and banned from participating in any public events including on social media.

In September, for the first time ever, the State Revenue Committee published a list of physical and legal entities who had received foreign funding during the first six months of 2023. The list included 240 individuals and organizations including such prominent human rights NGOs as the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and the International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech “Ӓdil Sӧz”. ̈ The requirement to report foreign funding extended to fees payable for conducting surveys and polls, providing legal aid, or collecting and distributing information.

Freedom of religion and belief

Practising a religion outside a registered religious organization remained prohibited. Any missionary activity remained subject to mandatory state accreditation, and only members of registered religious organizations could apply for such accreditation. Religious organizations could only be registered if they had no fewer than 50 founding members for local organizations, 500 members for regional organizations, and 5,000 for nationwide organizations. Distributing religious materials was prohibited without prior agreement by state-approved religious experts.

In August, the Ministry of Education reinforced the ban on any religious symbols as part of school uniforms, sparking intense public debate. Local human rights defenders estimated that as a result of hijabs falling within this ban no fewer than 2,000 Muslim schoolgirls were withdrawn from school by their parents between September and November alone.

Violence against women and girls

Violence against women and girls continued to be widespread throughout the country. The majority, and possibly all, of the 64 domestic killings officially registered from January to August were of women. The penalty for a first offence for what was officially regarded as a minor physical assault committed in a family setting was only a formal police warning.

Right to a healthy environment

In its 2023 ranking, the Climate Change Performance Index noted Kazakhstan’s small improvement relative to other countries, but criticized its climate policies and action as leading to rising, rather than falling, emissions and therefore inconsistent with a 1.5°C global temperature rise pathway. Kazakhstan remained among the top 30 greenhouse gas polluters globally.

Meanwhile, the country suffered environmental disasters exacerbated by climate change, including forest fires in Abai region in eastern Kazakhstan leading to the death of 14 firefighters. Air pollution, mainly from burning fossil fuels, especially coal, was estimated to have caused more than 10,000 premature deaths annually.

  1. “Kazakhstan: Release peaceful protesters”, 31 July