Kazakhstan’s annual human rights consultations with the European Union took place this week against the backdrop of what activists say is an alarming spike in arrests over social media postings.
Astana is set to upgrade its relations with EU with the signing of an expanded partnership agreement, prompting concerns that Brussels may choose to gloss over rights issues for geopolitical ends.
While tolerance for dissent has always been low in Kazakhstan, authorities appear to have opened a new front by chasing down what they deem to be critical postings on websites like Facebook and Russia’s VKontakte.
Ahead of the human rights consultations, which took place in Astana on November 26, advocacy groups urged Brussels to address the clampdown.
“The EU should insist that the Kazakhstani authorities stop criminally prosecuting individuals who are legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression to voice opinions or share information that may not be to the liking of those in power,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of the Brussels–based International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), in a joint statement with the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR). “Open debate – both off- and online – is a key element in any society aspiring to be a free and democratic one.”
On November 11, activist Bolatbek Blyalov of the Anti-Heptyl movement, which campaigns against Russia’s use of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur space station, was arrested on charges of inciting ethnic strife in social media postings.
Blogger Yermek Taychibekov is on trial on the same charge over postings in which he argued Kazakhstan should become part of Russia.
Two prominent activists, Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev, have been in detention since October, also on the same charge, over online discussions of an unpublished book by Murat Telibekov, another activist who is the target of a suspended police inquiry on that charge.
After the Astana meeting, the EU issued a boilerplate note of concern, which addressed pressure on independent media but avoided entering into specifics.
“Democracy and human rights are universal values and a silver thread running through the all our actions in the EU and abroad,” the EU’s Toivo Klaar, co-chair of the human rights meeting, said at a civil society seminar on the sidelines of the main talks.
But the EU-Kazakhstan expanded partnership agreement – negotiated a year ago and to be signed imminently – is markedly circumspect in its emphasis on democracy and rule of law.
As well as expanding economic ties, the deal is seen by Brussels as a way to keep Kazakhstan onside as the West’s relations with Russia deteriorate. Astana wishes to prove its good faith as a partner to Europe while remaining a Kremlin ally.
One specific issue alluded to by the EU statement was that of opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, who is serving a seven-and-a-half year jail sentence on charges of inciting bloody unrest. His supporters argue the charge was without basis.
The EU said it had reiterated its concerns to Astana over Kozlov’s case and welcomed the release on parole of others jailed over labor unrest in the western town of Zhanaozen that left 15 dead.
Brussels reserved some complimentary language for what it described as significant efforts made by Astana to end torture in its jails.
Another case highlighted by the IPHR and KIBHR, however, suggest Kazakhstan remains prickly over scrutiny in this area and prefers to respond to criticism with legal action instead of transparency and evidence.
Yelena Semenova, a member of the Coalition Against Torture advocacy group, is under investigation on charges of allegedly disseminating false information over Facebook by posting what she says is documentation of abuses in prisons.