Kazakhstan must do more to ensure a safe and free working environment for human rights lawyers, International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHRRL) and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) said in a joint statement today. The organizations raised concerns about increasing state harassment and pressure on human rights lawyers in Kazakhstan, including prominent human rights lawyer Aiman Umarova who is well known for working on the most politically sensitive cases.
This campaign of intimidation and harassment against one the country’s leading human rights lawyers is a shameful smear on Kazakhstan’s human rights reputation.
As part of the ongoing pattern of intimidation against Umarova, her family pet dog was killed by unknown perpetrators who climbed over the fence into her garden on the night to 5 June 2019. Umarova told the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that at around nine a.m. on 5 June, she found the family pet dead as in the garden. This is the latest in a series of acts apparently intended to intimidate her after she started working on cases related to the internment of and crackdown on minority groups, including ethnic Kazakhs, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Recently, several attempts have been made to discredit Umarova’s professional reputation. In another act of intimidation, unknown persons placed a dead cat outside her home.
“This campaign of intimidation and harassment against one the country’s leading human rights lawyers is a shameful smear on Kazakhstan’s human rights reputation. The authorities must launch an effective investigation and bring to justice the criminals who perpetrated this despicable act, along with whoever ordered it”, said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Denied political asylum in Kazakhstan
Two days prior to the killing of her family dog, on June 3, one of Umarova’s clients, Sayragul Sauytbay left Kazakhstan for Sweden with the intention of applying for political asylum. Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh formerly living in Xinjiang, China, fled to Kazakhstan from China in April 2018. In Kazakhstan, authorities detained Sauytbay after discovering that she had entered Kazakhstan on a forged passport. To flee China, Sauytbay had obtained a false passport, as Chinese authorities had earlier confiscated her travel documents, thereby imposing a de-facto travel ban upon her.
Last summer, when the Kazakh authorities prosecuted her for illegally entering the country, Sauytbay spoke out about how Chinese state officials had forced her to work in an internment camp in Xinjiang, where an estimated one million members of ethnic minorities are interned. Following a public outcry, a Zharkent city court gave her a suspended sentence. When she left Kazakhstan for Sweden on June 3, Umarova made a public statement about Sayuytbay’s departure while directing criticism to authorities for the way her client had been treated.
We call on Kazakhstan to ensure Umarova’s safety
“The harassment of Umarova appears related to her representing activists working on minority rights in neighboring China”, said Brigitte Dufour, Director of IPHR. “We call on Kazakhstan to ensure Umarova’s safety and remind them that the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers state that lawyers must be able to perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference and that they shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their professional functions”.
Defense councel to activist
Earlier this year, Aiman Umarova acted as defense counsel to another activist working on the repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. On March 10, Kazakh authorities arrested activist Serikzhan Bilash, head of the group Atajurt, an informal coalition of activists working to document the plight of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. When Bilash was arrested, Umarova immediately moved to represent him as his lawyer, and, acting in her client’s interests, spoke to the press and gave public comments on his case.
“Umarova’s case is just one of many signs of the overall deterioration of the human rights situation in Kazakhstan lately, said Sergey Duvanov, Head of the Information-Monitoring Center at the KIBHRRL. “In recent years, the authorities have cracked down on peaceful assembly, detained numerous peaceful activists, imprisoned critics, persecuted independent lawyers, tightened control over the Internet and constrained freedom of expression. It is time Kazakhstan’s international partners held the government to account for its human rights record.”
On March 19, 2019, former President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation from the presidency. On the following day, Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, then chair of the Senate, ascended to the presidency, as the Constitution requires. Shortly after becoming president, Tokaev called for the renaming of the country’s capital Astana to Nur-Sultan, in honour of his predecessor. On April 9, Tokaev announced snap presidential elections set for June 9; an election he is expected to win comfortably.
Umarova’s case is just one of many signs of the overall deterioration of the human rights situation in Kazakhstan lately
In the months and years leading up to the transition of power, authorities have tightened their grip on society, cracking down on dissent, detaining protesters and going after the political opposition – last year authorities designated one opposition group “extremist” and subsequently banned it.