UK investigation to examine human rights abuses in Kazakhstan
Commission to focus on detention of journalist and political leader Zhanbolat Mamai after nationwide protests
Wed 2 Nov 2022 11.03 EDT
Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested Russian support for a violent crackdown on protests earlier this year. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The state of human rights in the vast, mineral-rich central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan, including the continued detention of opposition leaders, is to be formally examined by senior UK parliamentarians including the former director of public prosecutions Lord MacDonald.
He will lead an independent investigation into the detention and treatment of Zhanbolat Mamai, the leader of the unregistered opposition Democratic party in Kazakhstan. Mamai has been detained since February 2022 over his role in nationwide protests over steep rises in fuel prices that were seen as the most serious dissent in the central Asian republic since Kazakhstan was granted independence from Russia 30 years ago. The country has a 7,500km border with Russia, a considerable border with China, and is also being courted by European powers, especially Germany. A crackdown after the protests led to more than 200 deaths in an event that came to be known as “Bloody January”.
During a visit to Kazakhstan this week, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, underlined the growing European interest in the country’s strategic importance, as well as its potential for hydrogen.
She said: “Russia’s war against Ukraine is causing all the successor states of the Soviet Union to wonder whether they too might sometime face a challenge to their sovereignty”. In her visit to Astana, she said “sustainable growth was only possible in the context of human rights being guaranteed”, adding that Kazakhstan was on the path to reform.
However, numerous human rights groups have called for Mamai’s release, and the UK investigation is a sign that civil society is taking a growing interest in the political direction of the country.
Lord MacDonald has written to the Kazakh government to seek an explanation for Mamai’s continued detention, and has already opened a dialogue with officials about the possibility of a visit. The commission has reportedly been told that some of the more serious charges against Mamai may be dropped.
The letter was originally sent jointly by the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell and Labour MP Rushanara Ali but Mitchell was subsequently asked to join the UK government as aid minister and is to be replaced on the commission. Lord MacDonald told a press conference in London: “We are approaching the issue with an open mind”, adding: “We shall take a legal, rational and serious approach, all of which is justified by the gravity of the issues we have been asked to address.”
At the time of the January unrest, the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, denounced the protesters as terrorists and authorised a shoot to kill policy for anyone that did not surrender to state forces. As many as 10,000 were detained, mainly in the capital, Astana. Russian troops operating under the banner of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation were sent to Astana to protect government buildings and, in the words of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, prevent foreign-inspired “colour revolutions”.
The country has presidential elections on 22 November, where Tokayev will seek a second term and face one opponent. Parliamentary elections are due next year, but many opposition parties cannot register.
Tokayev’s critics say that, in his address to the UN general assembly in September, he confirmed his country’s allegiance to the UN charter, but does little to abide by its true values. Mamai has previously been arrested for his journalism, and claims he was beaten severely in prison. In 2017, he was banned from journalism for three years.
The central Asian republic never held an internal inquiry into the events that led to the protests or the way they were handled, partly due to the fact they may have revealed an internal power struggle inside the government.
At a recent press conference, Mamai’s lawyer, Yemar Kenzhebayev, said his client had been charged with a series of offences under the country’s constitution, including using mass media to distribute false information.
A prominent Kazakh human rights lawyer, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, said the January protests spread from dissent about price rises to more general political demands including the release of political prisoners and stronger civil freedoms. He said some of the protests turned violent, leading to 229 deaths, including 19 law enforcement officers.
But Zhovtis pointed out laws in the country have effectively banned the registration of opposition parties and targeted individuals by barring them from political activity or arbitrary detention. He described Kazakhstan as “an imitation democracy”. The Kazak embassy informallytold the inquiry officials that the threshold for political parties to be registered was being lowered. © 2022 Guardian News & Media Ltd.