Kazakh Authorities Target Rights Groups in Coordinated Attack

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From left to right: the head of Erkindik Kanaty, Elena Shvetsova, with lawyers Olga Enns and Roman Reimer, in the office of the deputy head of the tax department, Erlik Mukanov, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, January 18, 2021.
© 2021 Sonlya Tolken/RFE/RL

The ongoing crackdown on local human rights groups casts serious doubt that Kazakhstan’s leadership is genuinely interested in reforms or improving its rights record.

On January 15, tax officials in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, fined and suspended for three months the operations of elections monitoring group Echo. On January 18, officials in Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital, fined the human rights group Erkindik Kanaty. At least four other groups – Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, International Legal Initiative, Legal Media Center, and MediaNet – have been summoned to local tax offices in the coming days. They too are under threat of fines and having their operations suspended.

Kazakh authorities harassing rights groups is, unfortunately, not new. Authorities have an arsenal of restrictive laws and overbroad charges at their disposal to use against activists and groups who do not toe the government line. For example, officials imposed bogus tax audits on three rights groups in 2017 and have repeatedly denied registration to a feminist group in recent years.

But what’s shocking about this latest attack on freedom of association in Kazakhstan is how many groups are being targeted at once and the blatantly unlawful manner in which the authorities’ are acting.

The tax authorities’ claims pertain solely to regulations around how these organizations report the receipt and expenditure of foreign funding to support their activities.

Tax authorities in cities thousands of kilometers apart brought claims against over a dozen rights groups in November 2020, in some cases, years after alleged reporting violations supposedly took place, despite a provision in the law that limits bringing such claims to two months after the alleged violation.

In 2015, when the draft law introducing these burdensome reporting obligations was under consideration, the then-United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Maina Kiai warned its adoption may “challenge [associations’] very existence.”

Kazakhstan’s international partners – the European Union and its member states, the United States, and international organizations operating in Kazakhstan – should speak out in support of these respected human rights groups and against the coordinated and unlawful actions of the Kazakh authorities against them. Their future existence could depend on it.