June 10 marked the official opening of the Expo 2017 in Astana. The expo, dedicated to energy of the future, is the first world exposition to be held in Central Asia, and is estimated to have cost between $3 and $5 billion. According to local news, at least 17 heads of state will visit the expo before it closes at September 10.
In the years and months leading up to the expo, Kazakhstan has seen an alarming worsening of the overall human rights situation. The authorities have cracked down on freedom of expression, the right to peaceful assembly and association, as well as on media freedom and labour rights. In the letters to the president and foreign councillor of Switzerland and to the president of Finland, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Watch urge the visiting officials to make human rights issues a meaningful part of the visits’ agendas.
In the letters, the groups drew particular attention to the cases of imprisoned civil society activists Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan and imprisoned union leaders Amin Yeleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev. Authorities arrested Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan in May last year, after the two played leading roles in organizing and calling for peaceful protests against a controversial proposed amendment to the country’s land code. On November 28 they were sentenced to five years imprisonment on trumped-up charges, seemingly in retaliation for their legitimate and peaceful activities. In a violent of domestic law, Kazakhstani authorities on January 27 transferred them to a penal colony in Petropavlovsk known for its harsh conditions. As of early June, Max Bokayev is on a hunger-strike, protesting the transfer to the Petropavlovsk penal colony.
In January authorities arrested union leaders Nurbek Kushakbaev and Amin Yeleusinov after oil workers in western Kazakhstan had launched a hunger-strike, protesting the forced closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Kazakhstan. Kushakbaev and Yeleusinov were later sentenced to respectively two and a half and two years imprisonment.
“The imprisonment of Bokayev and Ayan, as well as union leaders Yeleusinov and Kushakbaev, represents a near-fatal blow to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association in Kazakhstan”, said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “We urge all officials visiting the expo to raise these and other cases and make human rights a meaningful part of the agenda”.
Our Central Asia respresentatie Marius Fossum has also written an op-ed in Swiss Info. Read it here.