Kazakhstan

Last Updated 13 August 2020

Kazakhstan is the largest state in Central Asia. It is a member state of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). President Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled the country from 1990 to 19 March 2019, when he announced his surprise resignation following a deepening economic crisis in the country.1https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-47628854

Kazakhstani purports to follow a model of secularism in public policy and its legislation guarantees equal treatment of all religions. Nonetheless, the preamble to the 2011 religion law acknowledges the historical role of Hanafi Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church, regarded as ‘traditional’ religions that have been present on Kazakh territory for many centuries. This is in contrast to the ‘new’ religions and denominations in Kazakhstan that have gained followers in recent years, which authorities continue to discriminate against and treat with suspicion.2https://eurasianet.org/examining-kazakhstans-religious-contradiction Kazakhstan witnessed two religiously motivated terrorist attacks in 2011 and another in 2016.3https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/kazakhstan-17-killed-series-extremist-attacks-160606105755961.html The government’s line is that the attackers follow “radical, non-traditional religious movements”, and it has since used the threat of religious extremism to pass laws restricting freedom of religion or belief.

 
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Constitution and government

The Constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of opinion and expression.4https://www.akorda.kz/en/official_documents/constitution However, the Law ‘On Religious Activity and Religious Associations’ passed in 2011, 6 months after the Aktobe terrorist attack, is widely seen to have undermined its claim to respect freedom of religion or belief and marked a shift towards the country viewing ‘non-mainstream’ religion with suspicion.

The 2011 religion law created stringent registration requirements for religious organizations, banned or restricted unregistered religious activities and enabled the state to punish most unauthorized religious or political activity. Pursuant to the law, some religious communities are subject to police and secret police surveillance, and criminal charges of extremism are brought against individuals for engaging in ostensibly peaceful religious activity.5https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier2_KAZAKHSTAN_2019.pdf

The government dislikes discussions of its human rights records. It warned religious communities against participating in the 2014 UN Human Rights Council Periodic Review of the country and against meeting the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association on country visits in 2015.6forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2409

Education and children’s rights

Kazakhstan’s education system is strictly secular. In 2016, by Order 281 of The Ministry of Education and Science, a course titled “Secularism and Foundations of Religious Studies” became compulsory for 9th grade students. According to the Order, the goals of the course include “bringing the principle of secularism to students and teaching it as an important factor of stability in the government” and “teaching students to not accept ideologies of extremism, terrorism, and religious radicalism and to educate them a sense of tolerance and how to form a humanistic worldview on the basis of spiritual and moral values”.7https://silkroadstudies.org/resources/pdf/SilkRoadPapers/2018-04-Kazakhstan-Secularism.pdf

In January 2017, the Ministry of Education passed a decree banning the wearing of the hijab in schools below university level. Between October and December 2017, parents of girls who had been denied their education for refusing to remove their headscarves on grounds of it being a breach of the right freedom of religion or belief brought legal challenges against the State, but none have been successful so far.8https://www.refworld.org/docid/5af009144.html

In 2018, a further amendment to the 2011 religion law limited the ability of minors to attend religious services without parental permission, and tightened restrictions on obtaining religious education abroad.9https://silkroadstudies.org/resources/pdf/SilkRoadPapers/2018-04-Kazakhstan-Secularism.pdf

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Media freedom

The government severely limits freedom of expression. Major broadcast media, especially national television networks, are at least partly owned by the state or by members or associates of the president’s family. The same is true for major newspapers. The independent media that does survive is heavily regulated, and frequently censored and harassed.

A 2009 law classified websites as mass media outlets, giving the authorities more powers to arbitrarily shut them down under vaguely worded extremism statutes or in the interests of state security. Since the introduction of this law, dozens of websites have been closed every year.

The government censors all religious texts and routinely prosecutes citizens for possessing or distributing religious literature. Between February 2009 and May 2018, the government banned 815 items on the basis that they were promoting “extremism.”10https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier2_KAZAKHSTAN_2019.pdf

Laws against incitement of religious hatred

Freedom of speech on religious issues is limited by Article 174 of Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code (amended in 2014), which bans, in terms that are vague and wide-ranging:

“Incitement of social, national, clan, racial, or religious hatred or discord, insult to the national honour and dignity or religious feelings of citizens, as well as propaganda of exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens on grounds of their religion, class, national, generic or racial identity, committed publicly or with the use of mass media or information and communication networks, as well as by production or distribution of literature or other information media, promoting social, national, clan, racial, or religious hatred or discord”.11https://www.unodc.org/res/cld/document/penal-code_html/New_penal_code.pdf

Punishments for violating Article 174 range from a fine to imprisonment of up to seven years. Article 174 has  been used in practice to prosecute the non-religious ostensibly for “religious hatred” (see Highlighted cases below). Secrecy surrounds many of these prosecutions, with hearings often being closed to the public and cases being brought by or being closely connected to the KNB secret police.12https://www.refworld.org/docid/58bfbe4c4.html

Highlighted cases

On 14 March 2013, atheist writer and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksandr Kharlamov was arrested for “inciting religious hatred”. The indictment against him claimed that Kharlamov “in his articles on newspapers and the internet put his personal opinions above the opinions and faith of the majority of the public and thus incited religious animosity”. Kharlamov states that “the principle of freedom of conscience has been violated. “I have the right to believe, and I have the right not to believe. They’re making me believe, show respect toward religion, respect God. What is this, a theocratic state? No. So [it is] violating my rights.”

In a step reminiscent of Soviet-era abuses of the psychiatric system, Kharlamov was confined to a psychiatric hospital for “psychiatric evaluation” of his opinions and writings on religion. Kharlamov reportedly lost 20 kgs during just the first three months of his incarceration. He was detained for five months including one month of forced psychiatric examination. He has since been released on bail, Kharlamov himself believes due to international pressure on the Kazakhstani government.13eurasianet.org/node/68375; odfoundation.eu/en/publications/1222/kazakhstan_civic_activist_prosecuted_for_his_religious_beliefs

After five years his case was finally closed in 2018. Kharlamov lodged a suit against the police and the Finance Ministry seeking recompense for the long-running criminal case against him and the abuse he had suffered during pre-trial detention. He won a million tenge ($2,578) from the state for unlawful prosecution.14https://cabar.asia/en/people-without-religion-number-of-atheists-grows-in-kazakhstan/

In January 2016, two activists, Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin, were convicted for violating the vague provisions of Article 174 and sentenced to three years and two years in prison, respectively, after they posted excerpts from an unpublished book written by religious figure Murat Telibekov on their Facebook pages. There are clear indications that they were in reality targeted for their vocal criticism of the government and participation in peaceful protests.15https://www.iphronline.org/kazakhstan-activists-on-trial-over-social-media-posts-20160121.html

Human rights defender Bolatbek Blyalov was similarly charged under Article 174 for “inciting” both “national” and “social discord” based on videos posted on YouTube, in which he expresses his views on contentious matters such as nationalism and the rights of individuals whose houses are up for demolition. Blyalov ‘confessed’ and was released, but the court imposed restrictions on his freedom of movement for three years, including prohibiting him from changing his place of residence or work, or from spending time in public areas.16https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/22/kazakhstan-prison-time-facebook-posts

Testimonials

“In modern Kazakhstan, under the current political and legal regime, there is no true freedom of religion, and the situation is getting worse and worse. It is evident that most Kazakh authorities support the religion of Islam and persecute non-Muslims, including atheists. However, religious Islamists create organized crime and extremist militias, religious Kazakhstans commit crimes, and participate in armed religious conflict, like in Syria. Fanatics from the religion of Islam believe that their religion is the one true one and should become the only religion on the planet.”
— Aleksandr Kharlamov 

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