What is the situation like for human rights defenders, working on business-related human rights issues in Kazakhstan? Are there sufficient protections for HRDs?

If we assess the situation as a whole, I believe it has worsened to some extent. While human rights defenders were ignored before when they were doing their work, now an active phase of opposition from the authorities has begun. At least this is the case in the field of media, political human rights, judging by the latest events in the country. On the other hand, information about activities of human rights defenders has become more accessible in social networks and the media. People today begin to actively understand that something needs to be changed in the country. Therefore, their attention to the activities of human rights organizations has increased, as expectations for assistance from the state are decreasing. Citizens are looking for ways to solve problems themselves, to unite their efforts, including with the help of human rights organizations.

If we talk about some kind of effective protection, mechanisms, for example, the provisions of international conventions, special bodies that protect human rights defenders, I would not say that they are working inside the country.

In Kazakhstan, of course, the situation is better than in Turkmenistan or a number of other Central Asian countries. It is even better on a number of indicators compared to Russia. But I would not say that human rights defenders are protected in Kazakhstan.

What are the greatest risks human rights defenders are currently facing? Has the situation improved or worsened over the last five years? Has it changed during COVID-19, and if so how?

These are accusations of disseminating deliberately false information (Article 274 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan), which I personally encountered, accusations of inciting social hatred. There are also a number of other articles that can be used against human rights defenders.

For example, journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov is charged with violation of Article 423 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan “Disclosure of data from pre-trial proceedings” for his professional activities.

I think that over the past five years, the activities of human rights defenders have become more known and discussed in society. The authorities even seem to enter into dialogue with human rights defenders. However, on the other hand, the space for their activities is shrinking and there is pressure. My colleagues may disagree with me, but I think the pressure is growing, especially in the light of recent events.

The coronavirus pandemic has to a certain extent complicated their work, as the authorities began, under the guise of quarantine measures, to suppress open speeches of citizens and human rights defenders.

Can you tell us more about your work on business and human rights?

Our organization has been operating for almost 20 years. We monitor the activities of oil and gas companies in the Caspian region, how their activities affect the rights of people who live near such enterprises, and the state of the environment. We try to closely interact both with local residents who are negatively affected if they have a request for assistance, as well as with environmental organizations in these countries.

Can you share the kinds of threats and attacks you have experienced as a result of it? How were companies involved in this?

On May 7, 2019, my wife and I decided to visit the village of Berezovka as part of monitoring the situation after the resettlement of residents. Over the years, our organization, together with local activists and NGOs, has campaigned to relocate people from dangerous proximity to the Karachaganak oil and gas condensate field. Upon arrival, we began to photograph the village, or rather what was left of it. The settlement, now a former one, is located in the sanitary protection zone of Karachaganak. According to the legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan, it is not prohibited to visit or be in this zone. However, after 15 minutes a car drove up to us, a man came out and began to ask what we were doing there. When I asked who he was, he briefly showed the badge of the Karachaganak Petroleum Operating Company (KPO). I told him that we have legal grounds to be here and are not violating anything. After meeting with him, another 15-20 minutes passed and in another part of the village, a police car drove up to us and we were detained. The reason for the detention, according to the police, was allegedly being in an “ecological zone where photography is prohibited.” In the Burlinsky District Department of Internal Affairs of the city of Aksai, I learned that I was brought in for interrogation in a criminal case, which I had never heard of before. The arrest and transportation to the police station occurred in violation of Articles 208 and 157 of the Criminal Procedure Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Already in the investigator’s office, I found out that the criminal case, in which they decided to interrogate me, was initiated at the beginning of 2017 under Article 274 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan on the dissemination of deliberately false information. I refused to answer questions without a lawyer, and was given an official summons to appear for interrogation the next day, that is, to come back to Aksai from Uralsk 150 km away. Apart from me, the police questioned my wife in order to establish what we were doing in Berezovka that day. Immediately after leaving the police station, I visited the Burlinsky District Prosecutor’s Office, where I filed a complaint about the illegal actions of the police officers. On May 8, I again came to Aksai together with my lawyer for interrogation, the essence of which concerned public participation in providing assistance to the affected children of Berezovka. At the end of May, I received a notification from the investigator that my guilt in involvement in the “crime” had not been proven, and the investigation of the criminal case had been suspended. Nevertheless, I believe that the criminal case itself and my illegal detention on May 7, as well as interrogations on May 7 and 8, are a form of pressure and intimidation from the local authorities and KPO of me and my colleagues for their activities to protect the rights of Berezovka residents to healthy environment.

KPO was involved in my arrest. It should be understood that companies in the Republic of Kazakhstan treat human rights defenders the way the authorities treat them. When companies see that the authorities allow themselves to break the law and trample on the rights of citizens, then companies also behave accordingly. Of course, there is rhetoric at the official level that companies in the country adhere to and respect human rights. However, what is declared in words is not being implemented in practice.

What has been the response of other NGOs to the attacks you have been experiencing? How about the general public? The international community, including buyers from and investors in Kazakhstan?

In my case, support of human rights organizations and the media, among which were Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper and Radio Azattyk, helped me. Colleagues from the Human Rights Bureau, E.A. Zhovtis and P.M. Kochetkov, were actively helping. NGO “Kadyr-Kasiet” also provided support to me. There was support from colleagues at the international level, from members of the Solidarity public platform.

Upon returning home to Almaty, in early June 2019, I sent a formal complaint to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. A complaint was also sent to the Secretariat of the Aarhus Convention on violation of Article 3.8 in connection with harassment by the state bodies of the Republic of Kazakhstan for my activities to protect the rights to a healthy environment. Both complaints were accepted for consideration. Additionally, I sent complaints to the prosecutor’s office of the West Kazakhstan region and the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Are businesses cooperating with civil society when concerns are raised about their operations? Can you share some positive examples, if there are any?

Formally, a number of Western companies operating in the country have complaint mechanisms that local residents can turn to if problems arise. But the effectiveness of their activities raises questions, judging by the fact that the problems are not being solved.

Have any investors or companies supported human rights defenders beyond their operations?

I have not encountered this in Kazakhstan.

What role does the government play? Is it supportive of human rights defenders? Or do you feel pressure from the government?

The government has a key role to play, as it is the government that signs international instruments to protect human rights defenders, but in reality, it is not the case. There is no political will. Yes, there are dialogue platforms, a lot of things are sometimes said at the official level, but when people face problems, the authorities often support perpetrators (companies), and not their own citizens and human rights defenders who raise these problems.

And the case of pressure on public campaign participants in Berezovka is a vivid example of this.

What do you think the government or investors/companies can do to improve the protection of human rights defenders?

First, let government bodies and companies begin to comply with the norms of legislation already adopted in the country and the provisions of international documents signed by Kazakhstan.

Under our legislation, which is far from perfect, the huge problem of human rights violations lies not in the quality of laws, but in the systemic failure to comply with or ignore the provisions of the current legislation.

A number of international documents have clearly defined norms, like the Aarhus Convention. Follow the provisions of the conventions directly and many problems will be solved. Now at the state level there are more words than real activity.

What can international organizations and community do to help protect human rights defenders on the ground?

First of all, to attract attention, raise issues and keep the state bodies of the Republic of Kazakhstan in good shape, stimulate them to solve problems. At the same time, it is very important that attention from international organizations helps specific citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan to solve specific problems, and not just be limited to another report “how bad everything is” in the country. This also applies to human rights defenders who are at the forefront of protecting the rights of citizens.

What drives you to do your work? How do you think it contributes to achieving corporate accountability for human rights abuses?

A sense of justice and human dignity. This applies not only to my activities within the organization. This is the protection of rights and human dignity in the place where I live. I am actively involved in solving the problems of my street, city, protection of national parks near Almaty. Probably, self-esteem is an important motivation to engage in human rights work.

As one oilman, whom I highly respect, said: “At least you are not silent.” Any violations begin with silence. At least in this I see something positive from our activities, that we are not silent and convey the voice of ordinary people, especially those who live in the provinces, to the broad masses, and raise the problem of violation of their rights. A drop wears away the stone.