Kazakhstan’s New Legal Codes Ratchet Up Repression

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Project Director, Nations in Transit

This month has provided another good example of the Kazakh government’s tendency—every time there is a decision to be made—to opt for a tighter grip on civil society and public discourse. Over the past two weeks, the lower house of Parliament (the Majlis) has passed highly restrictive revisions to the country’s criminal code and code of criminal procedure. Companion reforms to the administrative and penal codes will also be passed shortly. The amended codes will then likely clear the Senate without substantial alteration this summer.

Because the codes cover nearly every area of the criminal and judicial process—from the definition of new crimes to the amount of time before an arrestee must be granted access to a lawyer—they have tremendous human rights and democracy implications. Civil society groups, including Freedom House’s field office in Kazakhstan, have worked for more than a year to identify and advocate for changes to the draft legislation that would be necessary to protect human rights.

The outcome is a severe disappointment. The draft codes not only retain what was harmful in the existing versions, they also add new restrictions that will further diminish the tiny space left for civil society. Here are just a few examples of the activities that will become illegal in Kazakhstan if the draft criminal code is enacted:

-         Forming, financing, or participating in an unregistered association (Article 403). This could include a Bible study group, a debate club, a film forum, or any form of association that does not have a legal personality.

-         Handing out religious materials on street corners without official registration (Article 404). The draft code criminalizes “unregistered missionary activity,” meaning activity without the approval of the opaque and repressive religious registration process created by law in October 2011.

-         Holding a public gathering without official permission (Article 398[1]); communicating in support of a nonpermitted gathering. The latter provision is so vague that it could include journalists or social-media users writing about an unauthorized assembly.

-         Interfering with or appropriating the functions of a state agency (Article 401[2]). This loosely worded offense could encompass criticism of government actions, or providing services like food banks or vaccinations where the government fails to do so.

-         Perjury is now punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment (Article 419). Civil society groups suspect that this article could be used to punish people who investigate official malfeasance. For example, a journalist who testifies about corruption in court could be sent to jail if that testimony is later held to be false.

-         Libel remains a criminal offense, and the draft Article 130 increases the fines to up to $10,000 at current exchange rates. The revised code also adds the possibility of imprisonment for simple libel, without any aggravating circumstance.                     

All of these decisions were taken after a year in which civil society vigorously advocated for changes to protect human rights, provided professional legal analyses of the draft legislation, discussed the bills with parliamentary working groups, and submitted detailed recommendations. It is not surprising that many in civil society feel betrayed. There can be no argument about the direction in which Kazakhstan is headed. Every time the government takes action, the space for public dissent gets a little smaller.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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