This week marks one year since peaceful protests in western Kazakhstan were transformed into a nationwide crisis now known as the January Events. Freedom Now recalls the tragedy of the violence and human rights violations which ensued in early January 2022, and reiterates calls for accountability for all abuses.
The peaceful protests began in western Kazakhstan on January 2, 2022, following a significant increase in transportation fuel prices. As the protests grew, quickly spreading to cities and towns across the country, so did protesters’ demands. Calls to cut fuel prices quickly turned to the demand “Old man, go!” calling on former President Nazarbayev to withdraw from public life. The call, once unthinkable given widespread reverence for the former president and the serious penalties imposed on his critics, jolted the system. A few days into the protests, the hammer began to fall on the largely peaceful protesters and people who dared to go into public, even if only to run to the pharmacy. Reports of people being picked up off the street and stun grenades used against peaceful protesters, indiscriminately labeled bandits and terrorists by the authorities, soon proliferated.
On January 5, the hammer came crashing down. Over the next several days, chaos reigned in several cities as the authorities battled violent marauders, who mysteriously appeared on the streets around January 5, and peaceful protesters, apparently using lethal force indiscriminately. President Tokayev asked Russia and other neighbors to send troops via a peacekeeping mission of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Kazakhstan’s leaders were responding to what they viewed as an existential threat to the political and economic system nurtured by the former president and his acolytes for nearly 30 years. As detention facilities filled up, claims of horrible abuse – torture with hot irons and electric shock, bullet wounds left uncared for, beatings – began to emerge. On January 7, President Tokayev ordered security forces to “shoot to kill without warning” amid claims that 20,000 bandits and foreign terrorists had plotted and executed the unrest and attempted coup. By January 11, the government had largely regained control of the streets.
As the dust settled, the tragedy of the January events, now called Bloody January by many after so much blood was spilled, began coming into focus: more than 10,000 people detained, untold destruction of property, hundreds of deaths – among them security officials – and numerous credible claims of torture and abuse by security forces. Yet many questions remained, chief among them who was responsible for the violence, would they be held accountable, and would protesters’ demand for change in Kazakhstan be heard and acted upon? One year later, these questions are still largely unanswered.
Investigators and prosecutors began investigating crimes that allegedly took place during the 9 days of protests and unrest on January 16. While investigators’ focus on civilians and their alleged wrongdoings became abundantly clear, their work was shrouded in secrecy as calls for investigating the killings and claims of torture went unheeded. Rather than investigate all crimes to their logical conclusion – a monumental task to be sure – the authorities aggressively pursued peaceful protesters for organizing or participating in an unsanctioned protest and marauders for destruction of property and participating in riots. The security officials implicated in killings, torture, and other abuse, or their superiors, were apparently not the focus of the investigations, still largely shrouded in secrecy. Until August 2022, the government had not even acknowledged the names of those killed.
As investigations continued, their focus on the protesters and those who exploited the chaos for personal gain or kicks remained. Calls for an independent international investigation grew louder as it became increasingly clear that officials responsible for abuses, many from among law enforcement and security forces, would for the most part not be investigated or charged by their peers. At the same time, Kazakhstani officials repeatedly pointed to two unofficial inquiries led by the prominent lawyers Abzal Kuspan and Aiman Umarova as proof that independent investigations were under way. Yet their inquiries appear to have soon sputtered out.
Selective Investigations and Prosecutions
One year later, nearly 1,000 people, protesters and others, have been convicted, many apparently because they chose to protest peacefully or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Take Daulet Zhabarbekov, a young security guard who went to a protest in Almaty because he “just wanted to see why people had gone out to a peaceful rally.” Not long after arriving at the protest, he was shot without warning, later ending up in the hospital. After being hospitalized, Zhabarbekov told journalists he was assaulted by security officials who took him to a detention facility and beat him in the head and hands with truncheons. He was later charged with mass unrest, and forced to sign a confession. Many other people have shared similar stories of being caught up in a brutal dragnet, experiencing heinous abuse, and being forced under duress to confess to crimes they did not commit.
One year later, there is no justice for the 238 people who died or the hundreds who were likely tortured or abused during the chaos and mass detentions, and there is little accountability for those responsible. The deaths of the 20 civilians who “accidentally” came under fire and the torture – more severe and widespread than ever seen in Kazakhstan – have not been effectively investigated and only one official has been convicted, albeit for a lesser crime. While 329 investigations of torture and abuse are reportedly underway, the real test will be in the number of convictions secured of those responsible for the abuse.
One year later, the reforms that the authorities pledged to implement to address the political and social grievances which motivated many protesters are still largely pledges awaiting implementation. Some officials and their family members, responsible for or beneficiaries of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian kleptocracy, have indeed experienced a fall from grace in response to the enormous public pressure. First among them is former President Nazarbayev, whose name was stripped from Kazakhstan’s capital and who lost several privileges in the aftermath of the January Events. As some officials and political leaders were pushed aside, space for new ones to emerge is still largely absent. Promises to ease political party registration procedures have largely yet to materialize while a snap presidential election after the January tumult once again shut out alternative choices. It remains to be seen if opposition parties will be able to register and participate in early parliamentary elections, expected in the middle of 2023. Yet the experience of Zhanbolat Mamay, a Kazakhstani journalist, civic activist, and political opposition leader suggests that the authorities will to suppress opposition political organizing remains strong. Since January 2022 Mamay has been charged with insulting a government representative, spreading false information, and organizing mass disorder in connection with peaceful protests he organized or participated in in January and February 2022. Mamay is under house arrest as these charges are heard by a court, though prosecutors have so far failed to substantiate the claims against him. Mamay has been declared a political prisoner by leading Kazakhstani human rights defenders, international political leaders, and human rights groups.
Bringing Accountability and Justice
The January Events were a major turning point in Kazakhstan’s political development, though the direction that Kazakhstan’s leaders will lead the country out of the crisis remains unclear one year later. The one-sided investigation of the tragic events, the absence of accountability for the killings and torture, and the failure to publicly account for the roots of the violence will likely fester like open wounds on the public psyche until justice is delivered. Anticipated parliamentary elections may offer an opportunity to invite more people and political movements into the decision-making structures of the country, but the authorities must move quickly and decisively to make it possible for real political competition to occur and take advantage of this opportunity.
While Kazakhstani officials have shown a disturbing willingness to brush the human rights abuses of the January Events under the rug, Kazakhstan’s international partners should not. There should be no business as usual when hundreds of deaths, many likely at the hands of government officials, remain unsolved or unaccounted for. The United States, European Union and European governments, and others interested in engaging Kazakhstan and encouraging its development must push at every turn for Kazakhstan to make good on its pledges to democratize, strengthen the rule of law, and adhere to its human rights commitments. A credible and effective investigation of the January Events, and accountability for those responsible for crimes and abuses, can be a meaningful steppingstone in this reform agenda.