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The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression remained severely limited. Critics of the authorities faced politically motivated prosecution. Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread. Human rights defenders faced harassment and civil prosecution for libel. LGBTI people faced stigma and abuse. People with disabilities were deprived of their rights. The worsening economic situation caused by the pandemic reduced access to education and increased child labour.


On 10 February during clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and Dungans, a Muslim ethnic group of Chinese origin, hundreds were injured and 10 died. Following the first confirmed COVID-19 cases a state of emergency was declared from 16 March to 11 May. By 29 October, 2,219 deaths from COVID-19 had been officially confirmed. Official excess death statistics, however, indicated a considerably higher death toll. The World Bank reported in a mid-year projection that as a result of the pandemic an additional 800,000 people were living in poverty.

In September, Kazakhstan signed the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, committing not to carry out executions and to abolish the death penalty.

Freedom of assembly

Peaceful demonstrators were subjected to administrative detentions and fines. In May, the President signed a new Law on Public Assemblies which fell short of international standards. It effectively requires the authorities’ permission and only allows assemblies in designated locations. It openly discriminates against non-citizens, persons with mental or “psycho-social” disabilities, and unregistered organizations.

On 6 June, a peaceful protest in the city of Almaty was dispersed on the grounds that the area needed to be disinfected. Hundreds were briefly detained. Human rights defender Asya Tulesova remonstrated with police officers for detaining peaceful protesters and knocked a police officer’s hat off. She was remanded for two months in pre-trial detention despite the risks of COVID-19 and sentenced on 12 August to 18 months of “restricted freedom” (a parole-like non-custodial sentence) and a fine for attacking and insulting a police officer.

Freedom of expression

In June, the President signed a law to decriminalize libel. However, peaceful critics of the government faced prosecution and harsh penalties as the authorities exploited the state of emergency measures envisaged by Article 274 of the Criminal Code (“dissemination of knowingly false information”) to clamp down on dissent. From January to August, 81 cases were started under Article 274 and five reached the courts.

On 22 June, Alnur Ilyashev was found guilty under Article 274 for three posts on social media criticizing the government’s response to COVID-19 and corruption. He was sentenced to restricted freedom for three years and banned from “voluntary political and social activism” for five years.1

Prisoners of conscience

Maks Bokayev continued to serve his five-year prison term, despite his worsening health condition. He had been convicted for his involvement in the organization of peaceful demonstrations and his posts on social media, including under Article 174 of the Criminal Code (“incitement of social, clan, national, racial or religious discord”).

Torture and other ill-treatment

Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread in penitentiary institutions. With few exceptions, authorities failed to carry out impartial, independent and effective investigations.

On 6 October, a Committee of National Security officer was sentenced to five and a half years’ imprisonment for rape and torture. Viktoriya Berdkhodzhaeva, a transgender woman serving a prison sentence in a women’s colony, reported that she had been raped by the officer in July 2019. She earlier reported that she had suffered sexual harassment from male staff and discriminatory attitudes from other prisoners since arriving in the colony in 2017.

On 17 October, Azamat Orazaly was detained on suspicion of stealing livestock and died in police custody the same day in Makanchi village in the East Kazakhstan region. Three police officers were detained on suspicion of torture. The case was ongoing at the end of the year.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders faced harassment and prosecution. Elena Semionova, from Pavlodar, in northern Kazakhstan, was the subject of eight civil defamation cases lodged against her by prison officials from six prisons because of her work exposing alleged cases of torture. On 3 June, a court found that she had defamed the staff of Prison 161/2 and ordered her to publicly retract her statements. On 3 July, she lost a defamation case against the director of Prison 164/4 in the village of Zarechny in Almatinsky region, for reporting the beating of a prisoner by prison guards on 10 April. Despite medical reports documenting the prisoner’s injuries, the court found that Elena Semionova’s reports were untrue and harmed the reputation of the prison director. Two cases were dropped by the applicants and four cases were ongoing at the end of the year.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI)

LGBTI activist Nurbibi Nurkadilova published a statement in May by the European Union and a number of foreign embassies in Kazakhstan marking the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. The publication provoked homophobic and transphobic comments, including by a well-known mixed martial arts fighter, Kuat Khamitov. After Nurbibi Nurkadilova replied to him and revealed that she was a transgender woman, he encouraged people to attack LGBTI people. No action was taken by the authorities.

Children’s rights

The closure of the Kazakh-Uzbek border due to the pandemic caused labour shortages. Radio Azattyk reported in October that children were working in cotton fields in the Turkestan region, in southern Kazakhstan. Some were below the legal working age for light work of 16. The World Bank reported that the number of secondary school students in Kazakhstan performing below functional literacy would increase as a result of pandemic-related school closures and inadequate access to distance learning.

Rights of people with a disability

People with mental disabilities continued to be deprived by the courts of legal capacity, and thereby of their basic rights. In the absence of systems for review it remained very rare for people to regain their rights. In January, a court in Almaty reinstated Vadim Nesterov’s legal capacity. He had been diagnosed as “retarded” and was deprived of legal capacity when he reached the age of 18 while living in institutional care.

Levels of institutionalization remained high. In April, four children living in a residential care home for children with disabilities in Ayagoz in eastern Kazakhstan died from medical conditions while most of the staff were on unpaid leave as part of quarantine measures. An investigation found that the home failed to provide adequate medical care and disciplinary measures were taken against some of the staff involved.

On 22 October, President Tokayev announced that by 2022 Kazakhstan would ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, allowing people to bring complaints under the treaty.