Human Rights Ombudsperson Emphasizes Increased Legal Literacy in Kazakhstan

ASTANA – The latest data from the National Human Rights Center indicates that in 2023, the number of complaints regarding violations of citizens’ rights and freedoms in Kazakhstan exceeded 4,300, twice as much as in 2022 and three times more than in 2021. This increase indicates growing legal literacy in Kazakhstan, said Human Rights Commissioner Artur Lastaev in an interview with The Astana Times. 

Lastaev was appointed to this position in December 2022. Photo credit: the Office of Human Rights Commissioner

When asked about the bottom line of these figures, Lastaev said it demonstrates an increased awareness of citizens about the existing mechanisms for protecting their rights.

People submit complaints on a variety of issues where they disagree with the decisions of government authorities. Complaints are directed to the national center as well as to the representatives of the ombudsperson, who are present in every region of the country.

“At the same time, there is an understanding that it is necessary to take further systematic measures to improve the legal culture of citizens of Kazakhstan, especially in remote and rural areas,” said Lastaev. 

Lastaev reiterated that education on human rights, including for young people, is a priority for him and his office. 

“We are convinced that from an early age, it is necessary to instil legal education to the younger generation not only through the prism of rights but also the obligation to comply with the law,” he said. “Legal education is important because people are looking for justice; they need to know what the opportunities are and how to achieve them. Already at school, we must provide this necessary toolkit for children.”

Lastaev went on to explain that a citizen armed with knowledge about their rights is not only capable of defending those rights personally but can also act to prevent their violation. He stressed that every citizen should be well-informed about the value of their rights and possess comprehensive information about the human rights guaranteed by the government.

“Only in this case will human rights activities be systemic in nature,” he added.

Latest measures undertaken by the Ombudsperson’s Office

Lastaev mentioned the national referendum in June 2022, where 77% of voters gave the go-ahead to the amendments that affected one-third of the country’s Constitution. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed the constitutional amendments into law in November 2022. 

“The citizens of the country supported amendments, including the creation of a Constitutional Court, granting the institution an authorized constitutional status, and finally, abolition of the death penalty,” said Lastaev. 

President Tokayev signed Dec. 8 a new presidential decree setting out the country’s action plan on human rights and the rule of law. According to Lastaev, the document entails measures aimed at strengthening responsibility for domestic violence, promotion of equal rights and opportunities for men and women, and elimination of discrimination against women.

Specific measures include enhancing labor relations legislation by incorporating accountability for workplace sexual harassment. The plan also advocates for implementing legislative measures to support business entities employing individuals with criminal records.

“In addition, our institute will be actively involved in the implementation of measures to develop the government’s action plan on ensuring equal rights and opportunities for men and women and the Concept of Inclusive Policy until 2030, implement national indicators of assessment of the observance of the freedom of opinion and religion,” said Lastaev. 

Prevention of torture and ill-treatment  

Lastaev also spoke about the efforts to address torture and ill-treatment. He said “tremendous work” has been accomplished. 

“The prison medical service has become part of civilian health care. In March 2023, amendments were made to legislation to strengthen responsibility for torture and the criminalization of ill-treatment. The Prosecutor General’s Office has been given exclusive jurisdiction in cases of torture,” he explained. 

A national preventive mechanism (NPM) has been operating in Kazakhstan since 2014 to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

National preventive mechanism (NPM) members include independent experts and civil society representatives who have the right to privately meet detainees and receive complaints.

The responsibilities of NPM experts encompass routine and unexpected visits to institutional administrations and discreet inspections of locations where individuals are secluded from society. Their objective is to ensure the adherence to the rights and freedoms of those in confinement.

“The Ombudsperson’s Office has organized a set of NPM participants, and its composition has changed quantitatively and qualitatively. At the commissioner’s initiative, thematic preventive visits to several institutions on specific issues have been introduced within the framework of the NPM,” he said. 

There are 18 NPM groups involving 136 participants, including human rights activists, professors, social workers, and the representatives of non-governmental organizations. Since its launch, NPM participants have conducted nearly 5,000 visits and sent over 10,000 recommendations to the competent authorities to improve the situation on torture and conditions of detention of citizens. 

“This year, the participants made 427 preventive visits to the closed facilities, 32 of them are special visits to verify reports on torture and cruel treatment and punishment,” said Lastaev. 

As an example, Lastaev mentioned a visit to one of the detention facilities in the Karagandy Region, during which the NPM participants received a complaint from a prisoner about psychological and mental pressure from the staff of the institution. Later, the prosecutor’s office initiated criminal proceedings on the fact of abuse of power.

“NPM participants were directly involved in identifying known facts of beating prisoners in penitentiary institutions of Akmola and West Kazakhstan regions,” he said. 

In Atbasar town in the Kostanai Region, employees of the penitentiary system reportedly physically assaulted convicts using special means, allegedly for violating the detention regime. In Uralsk in western Kazakhstan, military personnel from the National Guard were reportedly involved in similar incidents.

Lastaev stressed the Prosecutor’s Office is conducting a pre-trial investigation on both facts.

“Kazakhstan’s commitment to end this relic is obvious,” said Lastaev. 

The path to addressing this acute issue, however, is a long and thorny one. International experts continue to urge Kazakhstan to intensify efforts in safeguarding detainees against torture and ill-treatment. 

Lastaev said the country has implemented a robust system for preventing torture, noting that the institution of the ombudsperson has been reinforced, with regional representative offices functioning. 

The investigation of torture cases during pre-trial stages has been removed from criminal prosecution authorities, now exclusively falling under the jurisdiction of the prosecutor’s office. The legal landscape has been enhanced with heightened prison sentences for those convicted of torture, and individuals guilty of such offenses are ineligible for parole or other related privileges.

“An important role is assigned to the Coordinating Council under the Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan, whose tasks include the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, interaction with the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of the United Nations,” said Lastaev. 

Efforts to combat gender-based violence

Gender-based violence is a significant issue in Kazakhstan, as it is in many parts of the world. Public discourse is growing, fueled by advocacy groups and media campaigns. But it had gained momentum after several recent incidents that shocked the entire nation, including the one when former minister of national economy Kuandyk Bishimbayev was arrested on suspicion of having murdered his wife, Saltanat Nukenova.

“The President of our country has repeatedly pointed out that it is impossible to turn a blind eye to numerous cases of domestic violence, that the impunity of rowdies unleashes their hands, leaving their victims defenseless,” said Lastaev. 

Just a few days after the incident, President Tokayev convened heads of law enforcement agencies and profile ministries, stressing that “law must be equal for all.” 

“I firmly believe that the focus of our common efforts should be not so much on tightening sanctions but on prevention and elimination conditions for domestic violence. The main ones among them are socio-economic risk factors related to employment, decent wages, and housing conditions,” said Lastaev. 

The level of education, including legal education, the elimination of gender stereotypes, the promotion of a healthy lifestyle, and household habits are no less important aspects of influence. 

“Zero tolerance should be formed in society towards rapists and abusers,” he said. 

Lastaev said the draft law has been developed to improve the legal, economic, social, institutional, and organizational foundations of state policy to ensure equality between women and men and the prevention of domestic violence.

While the details of the draft law were not disclosed, one of the important proposals of the bill is to take measures to tighten responsibility for kidnapping for the purpose of marriage. 

“Kidnapping for the purpose of marriage is a violation of fundamental human rights to freedom and personal integrity,” said Lastaev. 

Emotional toll of serving as human rights ombudsperson

Serving as a human rights ombudsperson can be emotionally challenging due to the nature of the work. Ombudspersons often deal with individuals who have experienced human rights violations, including violence, discrimination, and injustice. Listening to these traumatic stories can take an emotional toll.

Facing people’s experiences on a daily basis, listening to their problems, it is impossible to remain an impassive contemplator. Each appeal requires an investment of emotions that encourages action to consider the appeal with maximum impact,” said Lastaev. 

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