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When Kazakhstan Will Stop Making “Extremists” of Ordinary People?

With the new president Kassym Zhomart-Tokayev, Kazakhstan shows little progress regarding people persecuted for political and religious beliefs. The global community tries to contribute to this process. Nevertheless, “religious” trials come one after another and it is impossible to secure an acquittal of “extremist” and “terrorist” charges.


For the first time ever, the Supreme Court reversed the sentence of a person accused on two articles of the Criminal Code, namely crimes “against peace and safety of the humanity” and “against public security and public order”.

His case stands out from a hundred of other cases, whose subjects are imprisoned now.

“A resident of Akmola region on his own studied various religious books, including the ones on the internet, and began to practice the non-traditional movement of Islam. The suspect wanted to spread his knowledge and joined social media, and then posted materials and audio records on his accounts that contained the propaganda of terrorism, calls for terror attacks, and incitement of religious hatred and discord.

His accounts were available in social media for all users,” according to the message of the press service of the Interior Affairs Department of Akmola region distributed by regional media.

It emerged that Ramazan (not his real name) in 2014 posted in his social media account a few nasheeds (Arabic religious chants) and quite controversial publications. When his relatives found them, they not just made Ramazan delete them, but also blocked his access to the internet.

However, intelligence services found a screenshot and initiated the case in 2017, when the man was already interested in Christianity, not Islam.

In the same year, the trial was held and he was accused of two articles of the Criminal Code – “incitement of religious hatred” and “propaganda of terrorism”.

In cases when there is no affected party, prosecution is always based on the results of expert examination.

The same happened in this case. But the investigation involved a specialist who did not have an expert license. So, the expert opinion was found invalid.

Then the investigation and the court grasped the opportunity: the suspect was followed up by a psychiatrist and the man was found “very dangerous” for the society and was sent to compulsory treatment.

The Supreme Court of Kazakhstan. Photo: matritca.kz

While he was on compulsory treatment, his relatives were writing complaints to the Supreme Court and it made its decision immediately: the sentenced was cancelled and the case was re-examined with the involvement of a profile expert.

The second case that stands out of all cases was reported on November 12, 2019 by lawyer Bauyrzhan Azanov, who regularly defended the persons convicted of “religious” charges.

In the administrative court of the capital, he managed to win the case of a religious person who was convicted of storing religious materials that were found extremist ones in the territory of Kazakhstan.

The acquitted Sakhim Yerkebulan could face a criminal case, instead of an administrative one, and the resulting long-term imprisonment.

According to the lawyer, “this is the first case on this charge won in the history of the country”.

Although, these two cases are a drop in the bucket.

“16 acts of violent extremism” and over a thousand convicted of extremism and terrorism 

“In the last 9 years, 16 acts of violent extremism were committed in Kazakhstan, over 500 citizens joined terrorist movements in Syria and Iraq, nearly 100 of them died, over 1 thousand of Kazakhstanis were imprisoned for terrorism and extremism.  The last indicator is steadily growing in the last five years,” according to sociologist Serik Beisembaev, the expert of the Institute of World Economy and Politics, as cited by EurAsia Daily.

In fact, the number of Kazakhstanis convicted of “extremism” and “terrorism” is much higher, and the majority of them were imprisoned only for publications and reposts of religious materials, which were found by experts as having signs of the propaganda of extremism and terrorism.

According to the Committee of Legal Statistics and Special Records of the General Prosecutor’s Office, in nine months of 2019 265 criminal cases were initiated on six articles of the Criminal Code, including charges of “extremism” and “terrorism” (which are also used to make “improper” believers liable), and 169 cases came to trial.

Given than every case involves up to 5-6 persons, the number of those held liable can be well increased threefold.

Up to 200 participants of military actions returned from Syria and Iraq to the country, and almost half of them were convicted.

There are also a few dozens of political opponents and people convicted of incitement of ethnic hatred. However, “religious” people are the ones who are often convicted.

The list of organisations and persons “related to the financing of terrorism and extremism” (which automatically includes all those sentenced for “extremism” and “terrorism”) compiled by the ministry of finance contains 1,565 persons. This list is apparently the most approximate picture of the number of people accused of such charges who are now in prisons or were recently released. It is easy to get on this list.

One of the recent known examples is the court over eight Muslims in Almaty.

On November 20, 2019, the court of appeals upheld the verdicts – from 5.5 to 7.5 years in prison – against eight convicted Muslims (the ninth participant’s verdict is pending due to his severe disease).

On August 5, they were accused of theological discussions in a closed WhatsApp chat. They were charged of citing the Saudi theologian Al Fauzan and critical phrases against Sururites who are not known in Kazakhstan (a branch of Salafists in Saudi Arabia).

They criticised even more the ISIS and other radical Islamic movements in their chat. In the absence of the aggrieved party, the court had the expert opinion only (as it was found out, the expert was far from religion and did not have the required license).

“As far as I can see, there are puppet experts, too. He does whatever police tells him to do,” lawyer Shamiyan Zhaylkhanov said.

Together with the relatives of the convicts, he asked the St. Petersburg Institute of Independent Examination and Assessment to review “expert” opinions of Mukhataeva and Akbarova involved by investigator Rustemov of the National Security Committee.

Two prominent Russian professors Alla Melnikova and Vasily Belov doubted the opinions of Mukhataeva and Akbarova, one of which was sealed by a stamp of a sole proprietor. 

“The opinions stated therein are of probabilistic nature and are based on the expert’s subjective opinion and the likelihood of the error is 90 per cent as the issues were not deeply studied given all specified circumstances based on reliable and valid methods recommended for forensic linguistic examination,” this is the point of almost 40-page analysis of what the National Security Committee took as a scientific opinion. 

In the court of appeal, the defendant party was simply deceived as it was told that any documents supporting the innocence of the defendants would be accepted. However, when it came to the court of appeal, the opinions of Russian experts were not even planned to be accepted. 

“According to the Criminal Procedure Code, this is called newly discovered facts,” the lawyer said. It is obvious that no one in the judicial system is going to let fallacious findings of the lower court and NSC raise doubts.

Currently, another trial is taking place in Almaty. Bekzhon Shalabaev, whose both kidneys are not functioning, is being accused of “propaganda of terrorism” and “participation in the organisation banned in Kazakhstan” for the fact that he did not hide his membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

“The resource of the command”

In the meantime, another call was received from Nur-Sultan, which lets us hope for partial cancellation of some criminal cases initiated on political and religious charges.

Marat Shibutov. Photo: kursiv.kz

On October 30 this year, the large-circulation newspaper “Vremya” published the opinion of Marat Shibutov, a political analyst, chairman of the supervisory board of Transparency International and analyst of the Russian Association of Border Cooperation, regarding article 174 of the Criminal Code “Incitement of social, national, tribal, racial, estate or religious hatred” (98 criminal cases on this article were initiated in 2019).

“It makes no sense, but now opinions of experts – linguists, philologists, political analysts, religious scholars – play a key role in trials when ascertaining the guilt, although this is incorrect. Moreover, the content of this article has no detailed explanation for so many years of its enforcement. This responsibility lies with the investigator and their findings, and then the case goes to court. As a result, many people convicted under article 174 are classified by Kazakhstan-based and international human rights defenders as “political prisoners” and this situation is unacceptable for a law-bound state,” he wrote.

This article and some other “political” articles have caused discontent of Kazakhstan-based human rights activists and international organisations since 2015, when the new criminal code was adopted. However, the difference is that Marat Shibutov in July this year became a member of the National Board of Public Trust initiated by President Tokayev.

The board itself was dubiously taken by the Kazakhstan society, but one might assume that its members can voice the opinions of Akorda. However, it is impossible to imagine that a critic of actions taken by the authorities would be speaking from the pages of a large newspaper.

Evgeny Zhovtis. Photo: tengrinews.kz

This is how a prominent human rights defender, Evgeny Zhovtis, the head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, explains this situation to CABAR.asia:

“The national board of public trust is not trying to demonstrate certain positive intentions regarding the amendment of some articles in law and practice that cause discontent of the active part of the society and are constantly criticised by human rights activists within the country and by international organisations. The point is that it is not very clear how it will be implemented as this article along with some other laws is a kind of resource of the command that will be used in cases when the authorities in power see the threat in mobilisation or in some certain persons who stir up the public opinion,” he said.

For this reason, according to Zhovtis, it is unlikely that force authorities will let the “proper initiative” deprive them of “unlimited resources in their struggle against the dissent and political opposition.” 

Lawyer Bauyrzhan Azanov in his comment to CABAR.asia doubted that few cases mean the beginning of some changes.

“This was the first case regarding the storage of prohibited literature in my practice. I used to have cases initiated under other “religious” articles, and termination in our case is equal to acquittal. But I don’t think it was done due to some calls, it was rather an exception to the rule. I had a call from Kustanai just recently. They said another case was initiated under article 174 (“incitement of hatred” – author’s note),” he said.

All together

In May this year, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, special UN rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, visited Kazakhstan. Her preliminary findings turned to be rather harsh:

“The Special Rapporteur is particularly concerned about the term “extremism”, which had been used in the national legislation and law enforcement practice. (…) 

The agency of the Special Rapporteur was earlier concerned about the term “extremism”, which had been used not as part of a strategy to counter violent extremism, but as an offence in itself. 

The Special Rapporteur thinks that the same concern is caused by articles 174, 179, 405 and some other articles of the Criminal Code. 

The Special Rapporteur, although assured that no tacit measures can be applied without a court-approved warrant, was still concerned about the statements about special investigation measures, including “provocative” ones, in terrorism and extremism cases.”

In particular, the Special Rapporteur stopped on article 174. “Article 174 of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan about incitement of “social, national, tribal, racial, estate or religious hatred” is most often used against civil society activists and especially against religious organisations. The article generally criminalises incitement of hatred based on rather vague grounds and does not ensure real protection to people belonging to minority groups.”

The UN spoke about the lack of religious freedom in the republic back on November 7 this year, when Kazakhstan submitted its report in the framework of the Universal Periodic Review. 

Representatives of Denmark, United Kingdom and United States again spoke about unfulfilled promises of the now Nur-Sultan. Following the previous report, UN experts provided four recommendations, among others, to the Republic of Kazakhstan related to the observation of rights to freedom of conscience.  In their reply, the authorities of Kazakhstan said many things about religious tolerance in the society and about the meetings of the leaders of world and traditional religions in the capital, yet said nothing about making the legislation compliant with international requirements.

In general, the United Nations may have a series of complaints to Kazakhstan concerning the observation of human rights.

The UN committees on human rights and against torture received almost a dozen complaints about the violation of religious rights by the state. In fact, when it comes to Christians or Krishnaits, Nur-Sultan can depart from its practice of fundamental non-compliance with resolutions taken by convention bodies of the UN, despite ratified obligations.

First of all, it could be due to the pressure coming from the Western countries; secondly, the state doesn’t consider the violations serious (for example, deportation from the country or imposition of fines). 

These were the reasons why two convicted Protestants were released under plausible excuses after the UN Committee on human rights and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted relevant resolutions regarding voluntary detentions.

And the opposite example is the only decision of the UN Committee on human rights regarding Zhaslan Suleimenov, a wheelchair user, who served eight years in prison on a charge of running a terrorist organisation.

The UN recognised all his reasons that he was tortured after arrest and maltreated in prison. 

However, the Republic of Kazakhstan refused to pay compensation to him for his sufferings because they allegedly did not receive any proof of torture that would be mentioned in the judgement.

“I don’t believe there could be serious changes in human rights protection, including religious freedom, in this regime. Just look at the reaction of the global community to the situation in the country, with everyday pressure and framing up of cases against people who stand against the legal mayhem. There were people who were far from this and yet they found themselves inside this punitive system,” ex-prisoner Zhaslan Suleimenov said to CABAR.asia.

After he was released from this punitive system, he started dealing with human rights protection issues and has an idea of the situation from all sides.


This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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