According to the U.S. Department of State: “The Republic of Kazakhstan has a government system dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the ruling Nur Otan Party. The constitution concentrates power in the presidency. The president controls the legislature and the judiciary as well as regional and local governments. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. The 2012 national elections for the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament) fell short of international standards, as did the 2011 presidential election, in which President Nazarbayev received 95 percent of the vote. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kazakhstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

Expression of political opposition is limited by improper electoral procedures (as noted by international monitors in each of the most recent four national elections) and restrictions on party registration. Prosecutors have very broad authority that negates the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial and has resulted in reversal of some trial verdicts. Police brutality is reported in prisons and in dealing with suspects. Prison conditions are very harsh. The constitution guarantees the right of assembly, but the Law on National Security has been used widely to label demonstrations and meetings as security threats. All public organizations must register with the Ministry of Justice. The vagueness of laws on nongovernmental organizations has been used to restrict the activity of such groups, and police harassment has been frequent. Kazakhstan has been the source, destination, and transit country for trafficking in people. According to estimates, in 2005 such incidents involved several thousand victims, mainly young women. Convictions for trafficking have been rare, and some involvement by corrupt law enforcement officials is assumed. Some 20,000 crimes against women, mainly in rural areas, were reported in 2005. Freedom of religion generally is protected, and religious organizations are not required to register. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna members have met local persecution, however [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **].

Free movement about the country is permitted, although residence is still controlled by the Soviet-era registration system, which requires citizens to have official permission to live in a particular city. In practice, this system has made it almost impossible for outsiders to move into Almaty. The exercise of political rights in Kazakhstan is closely controlled, and the number of parties is limited by registration restrictions. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The most significant human rights problems are severe limits on citizens’ ability to change the government through the right to vote in free and fair elections; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and association; and lack of an independent judiciary and due process, especially in dealing with pervasive corruption and abuses by law enforcement and judicial officials. During 2014 the parliament passed new criminal and administrative offenses codes as well as a new labor law, that have the potential to further limit freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion. *\

Other reported abuses have included: arbitrary or unlawful killings; military hazing that led to deaths; detainee and prisoner torture and other abuse; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; prohibitive political party registration requirements; restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); violence and discrimination against women; abuse of children; sex and labor trafficking; discrimination against persons with disabilities; societal discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons; discrimination again those with HIV/AIDS; and child labor. *\

The government took some steps to prosecute officials who committed abuses, especially in high-profile corruption cases, including several deputy ministers, a regional governor, and the chair of the Agency for Regulating Natural Monopolies; however, corruption was widespread, and impunity existed for those in positions of authority as well as for those with connections to government or law enforcement officials. While the law prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, disability, language, or social status, the government did not effectively enforce the law. Violence against women, trafficking in persons, and discrimination against persons with disabilities and LGBT persons were reported. *\

Human Rights in the 1990s

Considering the power available to the Nazarbayev regime, Kazakhstan's observation of international human-rights standards in the mid-1990s was given a relatively high rating. There were no reported political killings. The only political prisoner was allowed to leave prison and run the main opposition from house arrest. In one celebrated case of attempted censorship, historian Karishal Asanov was tried three times before being acquitted on a charge of defaming the president for an article he published in a Moscow newspaper. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Although antigovernment activities of the nationalist-religious group Alash was actively discouraged, there were no recorded instances of extrajudicial killings or disappearances, or of unsubstantiated grounds for arrest. Prisons were generally overcrowded because of the eruption of crime in the republic, but international organizations recorded no instances of torture or of deliberately degrading treatment. *

The state security organs continued some of their Soviet-era ways; there were complaints that proper procedures for search warrants were not always followed, and some credible accusations were made about tampering with or planting evidence in criminal proceedings. In general, however, the republic's investigative and security organs seemed to be making an effort to follow the constitution's guidance on the inviolability of person, property, and dwelling. *

Imposition of presidential rule and the general strengthening of the president's role limited popular political participation. The Russian population has attempted to depict the imposition of language laws and the refusal to grant dual citizenship as violations of human rights, but these claims generally have not been accepted by the international community. Several Russian political groups and human rights alleged that irregularities in the August 1995 constitutional referendum invalidated the document's ratification on human rights grounds. The nine official foreign observers reported no major irregularities, however. *

According to the U.S. Department of State: “While the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government limited freedom of expression and exerted influence on the media through a variety of means, including laws, harassment, licensing regulations, internet restrictions, and criminal and administrative charges. Judicial actions against journalists and media outlets, including civil and criminal libel suits filed by government officials, led to the suspension of several media outlets and encouraged self-censorship. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kazakhstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

According to official statistics, the government owned 16 percent of the country’s media outlets in 2013. Many privately owned newspapers and television stations received government subsidies. Companies allegedly controlled by members of the president’s family or loyal associates owned the majority of those broadcast media outlets that the government did not control outright. According to media observers, the government wholly or partly owned most of the seven nationwide television broadcasters. Regional governments owned several frequencies, and the Ministry of Investment and Development distributed those frequencies to independent broadcasters via a tender system. *\

All media are required to register with the Ministry of Investment and Development, although websites are exempt from this requirement. The law limits the simultaneous broadcast of foreign-produced programming to 20 percent of a station’s weekly airtime. This provision burdened smaller, less-developed regional television stations that lacked resources to develop programs, although the government did not sanction any media outlet under this provision. *\

In January 2014, the prime minister signed a decree establishing rules on additional measures and restrictions during “social emergencies,” defined as “an emergency on a certain territory caused by contradictions and conflicts in social relations that may cause or have caused loss of life, personal injury, significant property damage, or violation of conditions of the population.” In these situations the government can censor media sources by requiring them to provide their print, audio, and video information to the authorities 24 hours before issuance/broadcasting for approval. Political parties and public associations can be suspended or closed should they obstruct the efforts of security forces. The regulations also allow the government to restrict or ban copying equipment, radio and broadcasting equipment, and audio and video recording devices and temporarily seize sound-enhancing equipment. *\

Repression of the Media in Kazakhstan

The government pays lip service to freedom of the press while harassing journalists using tax officials to investigate their finances and other means. Journalists who wrote Internet reports critical of the government have felt compelled to leave the country before their reports were published.

Government control of the media increased in the early 2000s. Newspaper and broadcast reporters have been beaten and imprisoned when government corruption became a major focus of reporting. As an additional control, the government has restricted access to printing and distribution facilities. In 2004 President Nazarbayev approved a law restricting press coverage of elections, and media coverage of the Majlis elections of September 2004 was severely restricted. Monitors noted some improvement in press coverage of the 2005 presidential election. In 2005 incidents of harassment and violence toward the press remained common, however. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

Publications that have dared to criticize the president have been sued and had their equipment confiscated. In 2002, one newspaper that was critical of Nazarbayev had its offices firebombed and the daughter of newspaper editor died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. Journalist that have spoken out against the government have been arrested.

Text Sources: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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