The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association were unduly restricted, including in the context of mass protests in January. Security forces used excessive force against peaceful protesters, injuring and killing scores. Demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested and faced torture in detention. Law enforcement officers generally enjoyed impunity for attacking and ill-treating protesters. Journalists who reported on the protests were targeted and some were detained. Kazakhstan abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
In January, protests erupted across Kazakhstan after fuel subsidies were abolished. More than 200 civilians were killed as a result of clashes and the use of deadly force by the authorities.
On 5 January, President Tokayev dissolved the cabinet and sacked several top officials believed to be close to the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who, in turn, was removed from the chairmanship of the Security Council and of the ruling Nur Otan party.
Two sets of constitutional amendments were enacted, on 8 June and 17 September. They restricted presidential powers, limited the presidency to one seven-year term, created a human rights ombudsman, changed the structure of the government and renamed the country’s capital back to Astana, from Nur-Sultan.
On 20 November, President Tokayev claimed 81% of the votes in a snap presidential election. Observers from the OSCE criticized the election as “lacking competitiveness” and noted that restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and access to information “limited voters’ ability to make an informed choice”.
Freedom of assembly
Mass protests started on 2 January after a sharp fuel price increase and demands soon broadened from economic to political and anti-corruption calls. In particular, many protesters demanded the removal from power of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who retained significant political and economic influence despite his formal resignation in 2019.
The majority of protesters were peaceful, but many committed acts of violence in a number of cities, including Almaty. Authorities responded with mass arbitrary arrests and excessive use of force, including rubber bullets and live ammunition. On 5 January, President Tokayev introduced a nationwide state of emergency and night-time curfew, called the protesters “terrorists” and deployed the army to disperse them. More than 10,000 demonstrators were arrested and many were beaten, otherwise ill-treated and held in inhumane conditions. More than 3,000 were placed under administrative detention for up to 15 days. Around 1,600 faced criminal prosecution, mostly for “participation in mass riots, accompanied by violence” and other violent crimes.
On 27 October, parliament passed an amnesty law for those prosecuted in relation to the January protests. According to officials, 1,071 individuals had been covered by the law, which excluded those accused of terrorism, extremism, organizing mass riots, corruption or torture.
Legislation governing peaceful assemblies remained unduly restrictive. It allowed the authorities to arbitrarily ban unwanted protests on vague or technical pretexts, which they routinely did. According to Kazakhstani human rights groups, the authorities denied permits for at least 154 peaceful protests in 2022. Law enforcement agencies frequently conducted so-called “preventative arrests” of prospective protesters, which were often arbitrary.
Excessive use of force
In January, security forces used rubber bullets and firearms indiscriminately and unlawfully against peaceful protesters and violent mobs, looters and bystanders. On 7 January, President Tokayev effectively endorsed this practice when he publicly stated that he had ordered the law enforcement agencies and army to shoot without warning.1 According to official figures, at least 219 civilians and 19 law enforcement officers were killed during these events.
The army was deployed to police the protests despite having no appropriate training or equipment. There were multiple reports of armed men shooting at pedestrians and cars during the curfew. At least some of the attacks appeared to have been committed by government forces. Most of these incidents remained without investigation at the end of the year. The amnesty declared on 27 October may allow officers who committed these killings to avoid criminal prosecution.
Torture and other ill-treatment
Many of those arrested for participation in the January protests faced torture or other ill-treatment by law enforcement personnel. Detainees were often held in irregular places of detention, such as sports halls, or in overcrowded cells, forced to stand in uncomfortable positions, made to sleep on the floor, provided with little or no food and water and denied medical care, among other violations of their rights. Officers, often wearing black uniforms without insignia, frequently beat detainees on arrival at detention centres and throughout their detention.
Local human rights groups reported that hundreds of detainees were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment to extract confessions or to punish specific individuals. The practices included beatings, electric shocks, burning with steam irons, putting a plastic bag over detainees’ heads and inserting needles under their fingernails. Officials admitted that six individuals died in detention in January as a result of “unlawful interrogation methods”.
The authorities did not conduct effective, impartial and thorough investigations into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including those resulting in death. Even where investigations nominally began, they rarely led to prosecution. According to officials, more than 300 cases of torture were being investigated, but only 49 law enforcement officers had been prosecuted as of October on various charges relating to the January events. In a rare exception, five police officers were put on trial in the city of Taldykorgan for torturing 24 detainees, including two children.
On 12 January, authorities arrested Raigul Sadyrbaeva, a human rights defender who had been monitoring the protests in the city of Semey, and falsely charged her with participating in a mass riot. She was held incommunicado for two weeks, ill-treated, subjected to a mock execution, threatened with rape and denied medical care to pressure her into incriminating herself. She remained in pretrial detention until 14 March, when she was moved to house arrest. She was released in September, but banned from travelling; her prosecution was continuing at the end of the year. In October, the authorities reportedly refused to investigate her torture allegations, citing lack of evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Freedom of expression
Law enforcement officials arbitrarily arrested journalists covering the January protests. Some were placed under administrative detention for “participating in unlawful peaceful assemblies”.
Media restrictions continued throughout the year. On 3 July, law enforcement officers arrested independent journalist Makhambet Abzhan on accusations of extorting money from a local businessman. There were concerns that he was targeted for his criticism of the authorities. He remained in detention at the end of the year.
Freedom of association
Participation in organizations arbitrarily designated “extremist” remained a criminal offence under Article 405 of the Criminal Code, punishable by up to six years’ imprisonment. Sixteen individuals were prosecuted for this offence between January and October, compared to 66 in the same period in 2021.
On 25 February, police arrested Zhanbolat Mamay, leader of the opposition Democratic Party. He was initially placed under “administrative arrest” for organizing a peaceful vigil for those killed in the January events. On 14 March, he was moved to pretrial detention on criminal charges and on 2 November moved to house arrest where he remained at the end of the year. Zhanbolat Mamay stood accused of “disseminating knowingly false information”, “insulting an official” and “violating regulations governing peaceful assemblies”. All the accusations related to his exercise of his human rights.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, thousands of Russians fled to Kazakhstan, which allowed Russian citizens to enter and stay in the country for up to 90 days using their domestic passports. About 20,000 Russian citizens arrived in Kazakhstan before 21 September, when mobilization began in Russia, and up to 200,000 after, although many subsequently returned or moved on to other countries.
Kazakhstani authorities promised assistance and generally sought to accommodate those arriving from Russia, including by opening additional facilities for registration of foreign citizens and creating temporary shelters. In October, the authorities proposed that Russian citizens may have to provide their international passports – documents issued by Russian authorities for citizens travelling abroad that only a minority of Russian citizens have – to register for residence. Such amendments, if passed, could force many to return to Russia or to apply for asylum through procedures that remained lengthy and ineffective.
Amendments to the Criminal Code which removed all references to the death penalty came into force on 8 January, after being adopted the previous month.
On 8 June, constitutional amendments entered into force that enshrined the abolition of the death penalty in the Constitution.
On 24 June, Kazakhstan’s ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, entered into force.
Failure to tackle climate crisis
Kazakhstan’s energy sector remained almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. The government had not updated its NDC to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since 2016.