Washington, D.C. – The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found the Government of Kazakhstan violated international human rights law by imprisoning labor rights activist Erzhan Elshibayev. Responding to a legal petition filed by Freedom Now, the UN concluded that “the detention of Mr. Elshibayev resulted from his legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and the right to participate in public life.”

“We welcome the decision by the Working Group,” said Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat. “Erzhan Elshibayev has spent more than two years wrongfully detained on fabricated charges intended to impede his peaceful activism. We are deeply disturbed that Erzhan has faced continued harassment and ill-treatment while in prison, including prolonged solitary confinement and an unannounced transfer to a prison thousands of miles away from his family. We call on the Kazakh government to comply with the United Nations and immediately and unconditionally release Erzhan.”

Erzhan Elshibayev is a resident of Zhanaozen, a city in western Kazakhstan that is the epicenter of a thriving oil industry. However, unemployment in Zhanaozen remains high. Responding to this discontent, Elshibayev organized and lead several peaceful rallies in February and March 2019 to demand the city provide jobs for unemployed residents, especially youth, and increase wages for workers.  During the protests Elshibayev publicly criticized then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, accusing him of corruption and mismanagement of the state budget.

After his criticisms of Nazarbayev were posted on YouTube, local police targeted Elshibayev by investigating him for a series of baseless crimes. In March 2019, police officers arrived at Elshibayev’s home and briefly detained him, alleging that he was involved in the theft of government computers.   Despite assurances from authorities that harassment would end, subsequent investigations were opened, all of which were dropped due to a lack of evidence.

After three unsuccessful investigations, police learned of an incident from 2017 in which Elshibayev was in an altercation with four young men. While defending himself from an assault, Elshibayev hit one of the men in the head with a bottle. At the time, the police opened an investigation into the incident, but it was quickly closed after both Elshibayev and the four men agreed that neither side wanted to press charges. However, after pressuring the four men to reverse their position, police re-opened the investigation.

On March 24, 2019, Elshibayev was summoned to the police station under the pretense of investigating the 2017 incident.  However, the questioning largely pertained to his advocacy activities. While at the station, police attempted to coerce Elshibayev to refuse an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and to coerce him into testifying that exiled opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov had financed the protests he had organized. Elshibayev refused to agree to the officers’ demands and was officially arrested.  Two days later, he was formally charged with “intentional infliction of grievous bodily harm from hooligan motives” and “hooliganism.”

Elshibayev’s trial began in early October 2019 and was replete with procedural violations.  He was not permitted to physically attend the beginning of his trial and could only watch via a dysfunctional, online broadcasting system. Serious discrepancies arose between witness testimony obtained during the pre-trial and trial stages, including the victim claiming he had no complaint against Elshibayev.  Ultimately, the judge refused to accept a self-defense claim, convicted Elshibayev on both counts, and sentenced him to five years in prison. A subsequent appeal was denied. None of the other four men involved in the altercation were charged or tried for their role in the events for which Elshibayev was convicted.

Following his conviction, Elshibayev was transferred to penal colony ICH-167/9 in Lenger. After visiting Elshibayev in prison in March 2020, his wife and a friend observed severe bruising on Elshibayev’s body from beatings received in prison.  However, after photos of his bruising were shared on the internet and news of the beatings spread, prison officials forced Elshibayev to sign a statement denying that the beatings took place.  In August 2020, after Elshibayev submitted an official complaint regarding his mistreatment, officials placed Elshibayev in solitary confinement for two weeks. In October 2020, Elshibayev was transferred to another prison, penal colony NEK-169/5 in the city of Kyzylorda, approximately a 31-hour car ride from his hometown.