UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile; JURIST news archive] on Thursday urged the government of Kazakhstan [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive] to allow an independent international investigation [press release] into the unrest last December that resulted in at least 15 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The violence occurred in a remote desert oil town of Zhanaozen when oil workers demanded higher pay and better conditions, but the oil company refused and responded by terminating their employment. Pillay stressed that most of the facts and evidence surrounding the incident are still undisclosed, causing a detrimental effect on the country's reputation. She noted that a thorough investigation would help the country to learn from the incident and address issues prevalent in the country such as torture, infringement of individuals' freedom of expression and assembly, and failure to guarantee fair trial and due process. Pillay pointed out that the country has failed to protect the freedom of assembly of its citizens:
Fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly lie at the heart of the Zhanaozen events, and I have heard much concern expressed that the space for public criticismsuch an essential part of the democratic processis now shrinking rather than expanding. Media are only partially reporting difficult stories such as Zhanaozen, which suggests a stifling form of self-censorship brought on by legislation and practices such as the current draconian libel law. I believe a new or amended media law that decriminalizes libel is needed. Freedom of assembly is far too restricted in Kazakhstan, with the organizers held responsiblewith heavy penaltiesfor security which they are powerless to provide, and which should be the responsibility of the police. Such a provision is wide open to abuse, since it gives protestors' opponents an incentive to deliberately create disruptions in order to put them out of action. Groups wishing to make public protests are also subjected to a range of excessively complex or easily abused bureaucratic requirements and restrictions that severely undermine this important fundamental human right. I believe the 1995 law on freedom of assembly should be replaced by a new law that is in accordance with international standards.With the visit to Kazakhstan, Pillay ended her mission to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. She began [UNOG report] her visit when she arrived in Kyrgyzstan last Sunday.
In June Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] demanded [JURIST report] that the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan [official website] publicly disclose the reason for bringing new charges against a group of labor activists and an oil worker who participated in the December unrest. The committee charged them with "calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order." Earlier that month a court in the country sentenced [JURIST report] 13 out of 37 defendants to between three and seven years of imprisonment for their participation in the December unrest. Sixteen of the remaining defendants faced conditional sentences [BBC report] while five defendants were given amnesty and three were acquitted. During the trial, relatives of defendants threw bottles at the judge, claiming that the defendants were subject to torture during the investigation. Five police officers were sentenced for abuse of power for using excessive force and violence against defendants. Officials, however, claim that they acted out of self-defense. Kazakhstan has been criticized for its failure to comply with international human rights standards. In April, 47 individuals were sentenced [JURIST report] to 15 years imprisonment for their involvement in terrorist attacks and financing extremist activities. However, the trial and information pertaining to it were not entirely accessible to the public, and the lack of transparency has raised concerns of possible human rights violations. In October, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev [official website, in Kazakh; BBC profile] signed [JURIST report] into law a bill dissolving religious organizations and requiring re-registration. This new bill and its endorsement by the president drew a number of criticisms that the law unnecessarily limits the freedom of religion. The president's signing came after the country's parliament approved [JURIST report] the bill few weeks earlier. In April of last year, the president also fired [JURIST report] six supreme court justices for corruption.