Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused authorities in Kazakhstan of increasing their misuse of vague and overreaching criminal charges relating to the crime of “extremism" to harass and prosecute government critics.
The rights group said in a statement on July 7 that authorities have targeted at least 135 people across the country with criminal investigations and prosecutions for alleged participation in banned “extremist” political opposition groups.
“It is not a crime to want to see political change in Kazakhstan or to peacefully express sympathy or support for political opposition groups advocating those changes,” Mihra Rittman, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.
“Kazakh authorities have effectively criminalized the expression of nonviolent political views, and in doing so, blatantly violated fundamental human rights,” Rittman added.
HRW said it has interviewed seven people under investigation, charged, or convicted on charges of the “organization and participation in the activities of a public or religious association or other organization after a court decision banning their activities or liquidating them in connection with extremism or terrorism.”
The New York-based rights group also said it has interviewed two Almaty-based lawyers who have collectively worked on 10 such cases since 2018 and reviewed court documents for nine other cases and dozens of media articles about such prosecutions.
“Since 2018, the authorities across Kazakhstan have increasingly harassed, questioned, detained, and prosecuted perceived or actual members of the banned 'extremist' groups, including for participating in peaceful rallies,” HRW said.
At least three people who were convicted in 2019 under Article 405 are facing prosecution for a second time on the same charges, Human Rights Watch found.
Following a 2019 visit to Kazakhstan, the UN's special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, expressed her “serious concern about the use of the terminology of ‘extremism’ in national law and practice.” She found that when “extremism” is a “criminal legal category,” it lacks legal certainty and thus is “incompatible with the exercise of certain fundamental human rights.”
She highlighted arrests on charges related to Article 405 as evidence of the government’s heavy-handed approach to civil society.
HRW said arrests and prosecutions under Article 405 have continued following Ni Aolain’s visit.
The rights group said “the Kazakh authorities should cease their relentless efforts to crack down on peaceful dissent and allow free speech and criticism of the authorities without fear of retribution and political opposition groups to carry out peaceful activities in Kazakhstan.”
“Seeking political change is not a crime,” Rittmann said.
“The bottom line is that the Kazakh government has a responsibility to protect and uphold freedom of association, assembly, and speech for everyone, including those who hold views the authorities don’t like.”
There was no immediate reaction from Kazakh officials.