The Silencing of Critical Voices in Kazakhistan with Lukpan Akhmedyarov

Lukpan Akhmedyarov, one of Kazakhstan’s most prominent independent journalists, former editor-in-chief, and reporter at Uralskaya Nedelya,  addresses the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Lukpan Akhmedyarov: Good afternoon. I am very sorry, I don’t speak English. I don’t speak  French either. I am going to speak in Russian so please put on your headsets. I am sure that you will understand me thanks to the interpretation. For the next 15-20 minutes I will try to give you interesting information.

My name is Lukpan. I live in Kazakhstan. This is my country’s flag. Kazakhstan is a country located between Russia and China. Perhaps we can show the next slide. […] Here is our territory. Astana is the capital of the Republicof Kazakhstan. You can see on the top that it looks a little bit like Switzerland to scale, but there is a great deal of difference between Switzerland and Kazakhstan. For the past 20 years, Kazakhstan [has been] the main supplier of energy to Switzerland. I learned that 25% of the oil used in Switzerland comes from my country. This is very symbolic for me. This is a very meaningful moment, because everything I would like to tell you today stems from this important issue, that of oil. 

Many consider oil to be a natural resource, but I consider it a curse. Over the past 20 years my country has been governed by Mr. Nazarbayev, our immortal leader. He calls himself a democratically elected leader, although he has been in power for 20 years, and for these past 20 years he has created a political system that perfectly reproduces the totalitarian system that existed during the Soviet era. A one-party parliament, a country where there is no freedom of expression, no guarantee of the fundamental freedoms of its citizens. That means that in 2011, in the West of Kazakhstan, the oil sector workers rose up, police opened fire on them, 16 people allegedly were killed, and 70 wounded. Recent history of Kazakhstan is divided into two parts: before this uprising, before the 16th of December, 2011, and after. 

Till the 16th of December, a large number of people in Kazakhstan and across the world had the illusion that there was hope. They felt that the country might not be perfectly democratic but there might be some stability in the region, allowing Switzerland and other countries to have some guarantees in terms of provisional oil. But since that day, many have understood the real price they would have to pay. 

For the past 20 years, when the cult of personality was set up for the leader, the real situation for the country is as follows. The profession of journalism has become a very dangerous one. I can give you some figures here. Today, we have 9 TV channels, 20 newspapers, and 12 radios. And that sounds very positive, but don’t forget that all of the media belong to the government and are controlled by the government. Between 2011 and 2012, the authorities violently attacked [the] independent press and over the past 2 years, 4 journalists were sent to prison, 3 accused of calumny. These are journalists that published critical views of the President in 2011. More than 150 fines, amounting to 5 million dollars, [were] demanded from the journalists. In 2012, 12 attacks were carried out against journalists, including yours truly as well. In 2012, when I was returning home, 2 young people, who I did not know, wounded me and knifed me and harmed me with their guns. Now I survived, but this is one of many attacks against journalists. This led to a debate [on] the subject in the population about freedom of expression in Kazakhstan. Since 1991, when Kazakhstan became independent and elected Mr. Nazarbayev, people have not really thought about the issue of human rights, or transparency of the public budget or other such issues; all these questions were pushed off because the leader convinced everyone that the country had to be set up and talk about policy and freedoms later on. 

But since 2011, with [the] mass demonstrations things have changed. And then there was the attack on my person and other very violent attacks against the press as of 2012. The most recent stage of this process took place in December 2012, where the public ministry of Kazakhstan addressed the Supreme Court, leading it to close the televisions and newspapers and radio stations. And why? Because of the conflict that took place in Zhanaozen. One of the reasons I was attacked, it is said, because our newspaper spoke of these events very largely. And the image of Kazakhstan as a stable country supposedly for supplying oil the world could lean on, had been tarnished by this publicity. That was the reason for the response and that was why the government has taken such measures against the press, so that nobody sounds like a dissident or challenges what is being done, and nobody can contest; so everyone will think that everything is going very well in Kazakhstan. 

One of the characteristics of the regime is that over the past 10 years in particular, they have been trying to build a democratic façade; a show, façade. And that means that it has all the attributes of the rule of law—there is a parliament, courts, and there is a press that seems to be fine. We have a law on the leader of the nation forbidding the image of the president to be attacked and that is considered tantamount to [a] terrorist attack. And the attacks against journalists take place because the judiciary actually has no independence. Six journalists were arrested last year by the police, [who] had been reporting on the strike. They were accused of inciting hate and social discord. This is a pure invention by Nazarbayev’s regime. Just like the accusation of [inaudible], who was accused of attacking religious sentiment, as we heard. Regimes use such arguments to turn public opinion against the dissidents, and in Kazakhstan, this wording was used, saying that the journalists were inciting public hatred and that the stability of the country was being taken. And I think Putin uses such imagery as well.

In 2012, there were 13 cases of threats against journalists. We have [one] case, where for 24 days [he] was imprisoned and only released after Reporters Without Borders and the European Parliament and Organization for Cooperation in Europe, all of which demanded his release. And these are the independent papers we have in Kazakhstan and take a look at the ones that have been closed after this recent purge. We only have one left, Uralskaya Nedelya, my newspaper which still exists; it is the only independent paper left. In the ranking of Reporters without Borders, you can see how Kazakhstan has gone from 25th to more than the 160th place in terms of press freedom. Our regional press is also being subjected to such pressure in their printed editions. And this is something that takes place every day, There are more than 300 court cases against journalists now. 

And on the 25th of February, Kazakhstan will become a member of the Council of Europe. This is a great honour, and a major coup for the country. But we should understand that this is a great responsibility because being a member of the Council of Human Rights means that it should rethink its political orientation. Many in Kazakhstan see that its status [at] the Human Rights council in the UN is something that is rather unsettling. Until 2010, Kazakhstan presided over the OECD, for security and cooperation in Europe and at the time there was a great deal of hope. It was thought that this would allow Nazarbayev to take democratic measures; that was the illusion. Thanks to this honour, he would undertake reforms. But in reality, what happened was exactly the opposite. 

That is, In 2010, when Kazakhstan presided over [the] OECD, there were the demonstrations that were brutally put down and all the newspapers were then shut down, as we’ve said. And the president, today, has become a caricature of the character in the film, The Dictator; we are not that far from that image, it’s not that wrong. Kazakhstan has a number of fears about its status at the UN Human Rights Council. It is feared that Mr. Nazarbayev and his government will take this as a pretext in some way to undertake phony reforms. He uses gains made in foreign affairs and in 2010, all the TV channels showed the presidency of the OECD as international recognition of the regime. And although there may have been criticism about Kazakhstan, about human rights, I now fear that its status as a member of the Human Rights Council will help the country justify itself.

I would call your attention, that of the international community, to the fact that in all dictatorships, the population hopes that there will be help coming from the international community. It is hope that there will be statements and sanctions adopted and that measures will be taken to force the dictator to become a bit more democratic. And that is why I am launching this appeal to all those who will attend the Human Rights Council next week in the Palais de Nations not to forget that after each litre of oil, of gas, that you will be pumping into your car, that there will be a price to pay. That there are people in prison, that there are people who have been assassinated, whose rights have been flouted, and you must understand that gas has a price to pay; and it’s a very heavy price to pay for each and every one of us. We would be very grateful if in Europe, when new agreements are entered into, that you could understand that there is always a price that must be paid and the price is often paid in a very tragic way.

Thank you.

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