Months after hundreds of people were killed in raucous violence in Kazakhstan amid protests that the government sought to quell by calling in Russian military forces, accountability remains elusive. What preceded these events is largely undisputed: peaceful protests over a fuel price increase and other grievances were hijacked by violent marauders and looters who ransacked Almaty, the country’s business capital, and a few other cities. What happened next is murkier, and signals major failures by the government in Kazakhstan to uphold its obligations as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and as a signatory to key U.N. human rights treaties.
Amid the authorities’ chaotic response to the violence, hundreds of civilians died and thousands of people were arrested, many of whom allege abuse while in government custody. Five months later, there are mounting signs that the authorities are shirking their responsibility to fully investigate the deaths and torture allegations. Without international pressure and assistance, the authorities responsible for many abuses may not be brought to justice at all. That would risk escalating already high tensions in Kazakhstan over government impunity, socioeconomic inequality, and the absence of meaningful political reform.
When I traveled to Kazakhstan in April to gather information about what the government euphemistically calls the “January events,” local human rights activists explained there were many signs that government authorities were responsible for numerous abuses. Even according to government data, more than 230 people died during the nine days of unrest; 19 of them were members of law enforcement. The government has also reported that 20 civilians were killed when they “accidentally came under fire.” Evidence gathered by local and international human rights groups and media confirms the unjustified use of lethal force against protesters. In one incident on Jan. 5, at least 10 protesters were killed and 19 were injured by government fire outside the president’s residence. According to an analysis by Human Rights Watch, the protesters were not posing an imminent threat to security forces.
Over the span of two weeks, authorities detained more than 10,000 people, charging many of them with crimes such as theft, mass rioting, and acts of terrorism. Thousands more were given warnings, fines, or short periods of administrative detention for violating Kazakhstan’s strict and problematic policies on public assemblies. Many of these individuals were detained while peacefully protesting, or they were seemingly taken at random. As detentions mounted, so have claims of abuse or torture, including of minors. In one case, 36-year-old Kairat Kozhakhmetov says he was attacked with a flash-bang grenade while walking to the pharmacy on Jan. 5, and, after being taken to a hospital, was detained by police and repeatedly abused. Kazakhstani human rights activists told me that the abuses they have documented, such as torture with hot irons, are on a whole new level of severity compared to previous years. According to the government’s own numbers, it has received at least 363 complaints of torture or other abuse from individuals detained during the unrest, and eight detainees died in pre-trial detention due to what the government euphemistically calls “illegal methods of investigation.”
Responding With an `Anti-Terrorist’ Operation
After the violence began, the government quickly pointed the finger at “terrorist groups trained abroad” and “individuals who have military combat zone experience in the ranks of radical Islamist groups,” but provided little evidence to back up the claims. Still, the claim was used to justify launching an anti-terrorist operation, calling in troops from Russia and neighboring countries to help it regain control, and ordering its forces to shoot to kill. Soon, officials claimed that the unrest was an attempted coup d’etat supposedly facilitated by terrorist abettors.
Despite assurances from the government, investigations of the unrest and allegations of government abuse are not going well, according to most accounts, and do not meet standards for an effective or independent investigation. The government has yet to publish the names of those killed, as it has previously pledged, and the families of those killed are largely in the dark about investigations underway, if any. Officially, 243 investigations were opened into allegations of torture by law enforcement officers, yet only one police officer and eight National Security Committee officials have been detained, a number that has hardly changed in months. Activists from a coalition of leading human rights NGOs working to end torture in Kazakhstan shared numerous other concerns about the investigations, concluding in a recent update that “investigations into torture or other ill-treatment are being conducted without any commitment whatsoever to identify and prosecute the perpetrators and to seek redress for the victims.” More recently, it seems that authorities might be downplaying allegations of torture and abuse by claiming that they are false and meant to discredit the security forces and to allow for confessions to be thrown out. In at least 11 cases, individuals claiming torture are even being prosecuted for their claims with charges of “disseminating knowingly false information,” which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
Kazakhstan’s poor track record of investigating large-scale abuses and holding perpetrators accountable makes it all the more important that the public and Kazakhstan’s international partners ask the government for answers. For example, following a brutal crackdown on striking oil workers in the western Kazakhstani city of Zhanaozen in 2011, which, like the January events, was also accompanied by mass detentions of protesters, allegations of torture, and protester deaths, no one was held accountable for the most serious abuses. In addition to a history of impunity for serious abuses, many governance experts have serious concerns about the capacity of Kazakhstan’s judiciary to adjudicate crimes committed by government forces. For example, Kazakhstan receives only 1.25 out of 7 points for its judicial framework and independence in Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2022 report on governance in Eurasia because Kazakhstani courts are highly dependent on the executive branch and are frequently instrumentalized to persecute and intimidate dissenters. Given this poor record, and mounting signs that the investigation of the deaths and abuses is being downplayed or possibly sabotaged, there is considerable concern that pledged reforms will not come soon or go deep enough. Moreover, the government’s secrecy and lack of accountability could serve as yet another powder keg, especially as hundreds of thousands of Kazakhstani migrants return from Russia, newly unemployed as sanctions squeeze Russian employers, and with ample time to protest government inaction.
Stability at Stake
At stake are Kazakhstan’s stability, as well as accountability for hundreds of deaths and torture and pledges for meaningful political reform, so the international community has a vested interest in helping Kazakhstan recover from this tragedy. Recovery cannot occur without an independent and transparent investigation, followed by accountability for those responsible for crimes and abuses in accordance with Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations. To preserve any hope of accountability under domestic law, the United States, the European Union, and international human rights institutions like the OSCE should press leaders of Kazakhstan to urgently address the multiple inadequacies of its investigation of abuses related to the January violence. The government should start by dramatically increasing the transparency of its investigations and demonstrating concrete progress in holding perpetrators, including those in positions of authority, accountable.
Since the current trajectory suggests the Kazakhstani authorities do not plan on fulfilling their duty in this matter, U.S., European, and international leaders should go beyond the statements of concern and calls for restraint that they have already issued. To ensure justice for the victims, independent investigators from organizations with the capacity to examine violations of international human rights law, such as the U.N. and the OSCE, must get involved. In addition to initiating an international investigation, the United States and the EU should consider more forceful steps, given Kazakhstan’s refusal to fully account for past abuses, including by withholding security assistance until concrete progress is made.
One proposal has been to establish a hybrid national-international investigation to independently and transparently investigate abuses committed during the January events. Unfortunately, due to the doubts about the government’s will to investigate, the effectiveness of such a hybrid approach is in question. For this reason, a backstop is needed. Kazakhstan’s international partners should consider establishing an investigatory mechanism that draws on the expertise and experience of the U.N. Human Rights Council or the OSCE. Such efforts have been effective in the past in uncovering abuses and evaluating them against governments’ international human rights obligations in places such as Venezuela and Belarus. This offers the best chance to reveal what occurred during those dark days in early 2022.