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Alt-Right groups in Kazakhstan: How they succeeded in cancelling a Bill against domestic violence

Article by Foreign Policy Centre

July 22, 2021

Alt-Right groups in Kazakhstan: How they succeeded in cancelling a Bill against domestic violence

The scope of domestic violence in Kazakhstan

Domestic violence has been a serious long-standing problem in Kazakhstan. The official statistics of the Ministry of Interior and the General Prosecutor’s Office, safe for certain discrepancies, demonstrate that there has been a steady increase in registered domestic violence criminal offenses since 2017.[1] [See: Table 1 at the end of this essay]

 

The problem has become even more acute during the pandemic. According to the data of the Ministry of Interior, during a two month lockdown in 2020, the level of domestic violence increased by 41.7 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.[2] During eight months of 2020, the police received about 130,000 reports of domestic violence. Yet, administrative proceedings were initiated only for 30,000 cases and criminal proceedings were initiated in 2,500 cases.[3] That is, only 25 per cent of cases of domestic violence reached the court.

 

The low percentage of cases brought to court can be explained by the fact that the majority of the population generally share a patriarchal view on domestic violence as a private family issue rather than a human rights violation. For this reason, survivors of domestic violence are often found under pressure from their relatives to refuse to report or file personal applications with police to initiate proceedings. Even if an application has been made, survivors are often forced to withdraw their applications and reconcile with their abusers.

 

The official domestic violence statistics are not gender and age disaggregated. Yet, the analysis of the media reports indicates that women and children fall victim of the most serious domestic violence cases. For example, in 2020 alone the following incidents shocked the public: in Western Kazakhstan, a husband killed his wife and two daughters and then burned down the house;[4] in Southern Kazakhstan, a husband brutally attacked his wife with an axe;[5] in Northern Kazakhstan, a husband beat and brutally killed his wife in front of their children; and in the capital city of Nur-Sultan, a husband had been stalking his ex-wife and then stabbed her multiple times to death.[6] In all incidents, the investigation showed that the murders had been preceded by a series of domestic violence incidents. Moreover, it turned out that the victims’ relatives and neighbours were aware of the violence but did not report to police either because of fear of retaliation or because they did not want to interfere in a ‘family conflict’.

 

Moreover, according to 2017 UNICEF research, 75 per cent of Kazakhstani parents support corporal punishment for their children to control their behaviour, and 50 per cent of children aged between two and 14 were subjected to domestic violence.[7]

 

Advocacy campaign for reform of the domestic violence legislation[8]

One of the main reasons for the prevalence and increase in domestic violence in Kazakhstan is the lack of efficient legislation. Since as early as 2013, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), international organisations and local human rights NGOs have been appealing to the authorities of Kazakhstan to improve domestic legislation on prevention and response to domestic violence.[9] Eventually, at the beginning 2020, Members of Parliament (MPs) initiated a Bill on Countering Domestic Violence which was to supersede the 2009 Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence.

 

Three main legal acts that currently regulate domestic violence issues in Kazakhstan are the 2009 Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence (2009 DV Law), the 2014 Administrative Offences Code and the 2014 Criminal Code, both of which establish legal liability for different types of domestic violence depending on their gravity.

 

The adoption of the 2009 DV Law related to an image-building project and political ambition of Kazakhstan – to become a chairperson of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Having been OSCE’s member since 1992, in 2001, Kazakhstan made an application to become its chairperson. However, the US and the UK blocked this application and demanded that Kazakhstan first engage in human rights and democratisation reforms. As a result of these reforms, the DV Law was adopted in December 2009 before Kazakhstan assumed chairpersonship in January 2010.[10]

 

The 2009 DV Law contained a few progressive novelties for that time: it defined domestic violence and its forms; introduced a protective order against domestic abusers; established competence of various governmental bodies to prevent and respond to domestic violence (e.g., police, education, health, local state bodies); established competence of shelters for survivors; and listed various preventive measures.

 

However, over time the practical application of the Law exposed the following gaps:

  1. First, the Law lacked an efficient coordinating mechanism among relevant governmental bodies and NGOs. In practice, the Ministry of Interior with its police departments has been the only governmental body that dealt with domestic violence daily, but only when incidents have already occurred. Other Ministries and local municipal bodies have been barely involved in the prevention of domestic violence.

 

  1. Second, the measures provided by the Law in effect did not help prevent and restrain domestic violence. The Law lacked a comprehensive approach in prevention, response, and restraint of domestic violence. Also, up until now the Government has not adopted any national plan on educating the population to zero tolerance to any type of violence, which could have helped gradually change the local social norms.

 

  1. Finally, current domestic legislation provides for inadequate punishment for domestic violence that is quite lenient to perpetrators but fails to protect survivors from the first or repetitive incidents.

 

Since 1997, the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan contained five articles that established criminal liability for various forms of domestic violence: grievous bodily harm, moderate bodily harm, minor bodily harm, assault and battery, and cruel treatment (which applied in case of at least three episodes of physical abuse within one year).[11]

 

However, in 2017 the Ministry of Interior pushed for decriminalisation of the two most often applied articles: assault and battery and minor bodily harm, and they were introduced to the Administrative Offences Code. Thus, since 2017 a perpetrator of these offences could face either a fine (an equivalent of 100 USD) or ad administrative arrest of up to 15 days. However, in 2019 the Ministry of Interior convinced Parliament to replace a fine with a written warning by the court for a first time offence, claiming that fines created a burden on a family’s budget.

 

Such changes have led to an absurd situation: a domestic abuser can break limbs, ribs, a jaw, or inflict a head injury to a family member, but if the injured person is hospitalised for less than 21 days, then these injuries are considered minor bodily harm, and a perpetrator will get only a warning. Such punishment is much milder than the punishment for littering, noise nuisance or breaking speed limit. Moreover, the Ministry of Interior managed to pass a legal norm that the same penalty applies to former spouses. That is, a woman can be divorced, but her ex-husband can pursue her and beat her while facing only a written warning.

 

It is to address these gaps that the Bill was developed. Its first draft was published on the website of Parliament on March 2nd 2020. Over the next six months before the Bill entered Parliament, discussions on each norm took place in a Parliamentary working group which comprised of several MPs, representatives of concerned Ministries, the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Supreme Court, the Human Rights Commissioner, and human rights NGOs and scholars. Discussions were often heated as the Ministry of Interior and the General Prosecutor’s Office strongly opposed NGOs’ proposal to criminalise assault and battery and minor bodily harm, while other Ministries opposed new functions, meaning additional obligations and workload, to identify and prevent domestic violence.

 

Advocacy campaign against the 2020 Bill on Countering Domestic Violence

On September 23rd 2020, Mazhilis, the lower chamber of Parliament, approved the general concept of the Bill during the first reading.[12] The second reading with article-by-article voting was planned in a few weeks to be followed by the adoption of the new law by the end of the year. However, the new law was never adopted due to a successful anti-bill campaign by newly emerged alt-rights groups.

 

The anti-bill campaign started in October 2020, when a small group of independent lawyers, bloggers and members of little known groups started spreading false and manipulative information about the Bill, its alleged consequences for Kazakhstani families, and calling for the entire cancellation of the Bill.[13] According to an independent journalist inquiry, the same group of people had been earlier spotted advocating against a new Code of Health, vaccination and COVID-related rules, such as wearing a mask in public places, and was also involved in spreading various conspiracy theories and false information about the COVID-19 pandemic.[14]

 

Their main claims against the Bill copied the rhetoric of the Russian alt-right NGOs who attacked a similar domestic violence bill in Russia in December 2019:

  • ‘The Bill promotes so-called ‘Western’ values and gender equality, which is against our traditional values, according to which a wife must obey her husband and children must obey their parents’
  • ‘The Bill interferes with family life and aims to destroy our families’
  • ‘If you spank your child, the juvenile police will take her/him away, like in Europe. Your child will then be sent to Europe for adoption by LGBTQ+ people or for organ harvesting’
  • ‘The Bill will allow to put alleged abusers to mental health facilities for mandatory psychiatric treatment’
  • ‘If a parent refuses to vaccinate their children or buy a smartphone or chocolate to their child, he/she will commit domestic violence, and the child will be taken away by juvenile police.’

 

On October 6th, an anti-bill petition with above-mentioned arguments was launched on a website Citizengo.org, which according to an independent journalist inquiry belonged and was supported by alt-right groups based in Russia and Europe.[15]

 

Initially, the MPs who initiated the Bill and governmental bodies did not comment on the petition. However, the campaign was getting more and more widespread. The appeal to sign the petition was actively shared through social media and parents’ chats in messengers. Campaigners organised regular social media streams and press conferences for journalists, worked with local opinion leaders, celebrities and Instagram influencers in regions who then called upon their followers to support the cancellation of the bill. As a result, moral panic was created and grew stronger.

 

Leaders of the anti-bill movement claimed to speak on behalf of the People of Kazakhstan and sent hundreds of emails to the Speaker of Parliament and to the President to cancel the Bill. Simultaneously, MPs who initiated the Bill fell victim to a cyber-bullying campaign: their images were used to insult them and damage their reputations by calling them ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘fascists’. Again, these are the types of insults which are mainly used in Russia, but not in Kazakhstan.

 

Surprisingly, the Ministry of Interior, the General Prosecutor’s Office and other governmental bodies that participated in drafting of the Bill refused to engage in a dialogue with alt-right groups to refute their false claims and expose manipulative information to protect the Bill. They chose a role of by-standers leaving human rights NGOs alone to cope with attacks of alt-right groups. Yet, all attempts to defend the Bill failed. Anyone who supported the Bill was immediately attacked by cyber-bullies in the form of insults and threats to personal safety. Again, the Ministry of Interior did not interfere to stop cyber-bullying against human rights NGOs.

 

In December 2020, a women’s rights NGO ‘NeMolchi.KZ’ launched a petition in support of the Bill. In two weeks, the petition collected over 80,000 votes, while the anti-Bill petition collected some 22,000 votes.[16] Nonetheless, on December 11th 2020, the aide to the President, Tamara Duisenova, announced on her Facebook page that Parliamentary deliberations on the Bill would resume on January 15th 2021 after the upcoming elections to Parliament. She further added that the deadline for voting on the Bill was extended till May 2021.

 

However, the anti-bill activists continued their campaign. In the absence of any official communication from authorities, the moral panic grew stronger and ended up in protests by mothers in major cities of Kazakhstan in January 2021.[17] The reaction of the President was immediate at this time. On 21 January 2021, the President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev called for more thorough examination of the Bill’s norms and account of all opinions, while the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Social and Cultural Development Jamilya Nurmanbetova announced that the current draft of the Bill would be recalled for revision.[18] However, by the end of January the bill disappeared from the website of Parliament and never returned to Parliament. Thus, it took alt-right groups less than four months to cancel the bill that had been advocated for by human rights NGOs since 2013.

 

Conclusion and Recommendations

The emergence of alt-right groups in Kazakhstan during the 2020 pandemic has become a new and unexpected political phenomenon for both authorities and human rights NGOs. It can be argued that the Government and Parliament of Kazakhstan were caught by surprise by the fast-developing anti-bill campaign and were not prepared to deal with the situation erroneously choosing to ignore it. However, the lack of official communication and explanation by the Government only exacerbated the situation leading to the growth of moral panic and people’s mistrust in authorities.

 

In February 2021, the alt-right activists registered an official NGO – ‘Kazakhstani Union of Parents’ – and continue to advocate against every bill and governmental decision which they view as interfering with their right to privacy, family life and traditional upbringing of their children. Under this pretext, they launched a campaign against COVID-19 vaccination, which now seriously undermines Governmental efforts to contain the spread of infection. Thus, the Government first let the alt-right groups become influential, but now suffers losses from their campaigns. To counterbalance this influence, the Government needs to gain the trust of the population. This can be achieved only if the Government engages in real democratisation reforms.

 

Table 1 – 2009-2020 Statistics for registered domestic violence offences in Kazakhstan provided by the Ministry of Interior of Kazakhstan


*
Data provided by the Prosecutor’s General Office of Kazakhstan 

** Data provided for 11 months of 2020 by the Ministry of Interior

 

 

Dr Khalida Azhigulova holds a PhD in Law from the University of Leicester, UK, and a Master’s degree in Law (Magister Juris) from the University of Oxford, UK. She is a socio-legal researcher in public international law and human rights, Associate Professor and the Director of the Centre for Research of Human Rights, Inclusion and Civil Society at the Eurasian Technological University in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

 

Image by UN Women under (CC).

 

[1] The official statistics on domestic violence cases are not publicly available and can be provided only upon request.

[2] Diana Abdullayeva, В Казахстане в период карантина уровень бытового насилия вырос на 41,7%, Informburo, August 2020, https://informburo.kz/novosti/v-kazahstane-v-period-karantina-uroven-bytovogo-nasiliya-vyros-na-417-.html

[3] KazInform, Около 130 тысяч обращений по признакам бытового насилия поступили от казахстанцев, September 2020, https://www.inform.kz/ru/okolo-130-tysyach-obrascheniy-po-priznakam-bytovogo-nasiliya-postupili-ot-kazahstancev_a3697861

[4] Roza Nurgaliyeva, Осужден пожизненно заживо сжегший жену и двоих дочерей житель ЗКО, Newtimes, July 2020, https://newtimes.kz/obshchestvo/114554-osuzhden-pozhiznenno-zazhivo-szhegshii-zhenu-i-dvoikh-docherei-zhitel-zko

[5] KazInform, Житель Туркестанской области осужден к 11 годам за попытку зарубить топором жену, August 2020, https://www.inform.kz/ru/zhitel-turkestanskoy-oblasti-osuzhden-k-11-godam-za-popytku-zarubit-toporom-zhenu_a3686120

[6] Tengrinews, Астанчанин из-за ревности зарезал свою жену, April 2020, https://tengrinews.kz/news/astanchanin-iz-za-revnosti-zarezal-svoyu-jenu-400532/

[7] Kazakhstan Today, Почти 75% взрослых казахстанцев одобряют телесное наказание при воспитании детей, January 2018, https://www.kt.kz/rus/society/pochti_75_vzroslih_kazahstancev_odobrjajut_telesnoe_nakazanie_pri_vospitanii_detej_1153651781.html

[8] The discussion of the pro-Bill campaign is based on the following analytical articles: Masa Media, Что не так с Законом о бытовом насилии в Казахстане? Часть первая, November 2020, https://masa.media/ru/site/chto-ne-tak-s-zakonom-o-bytovom-nasilii-v-kazakhstane-chast-pervaya; Masa Media, Что не так с Законом о бытовом насилии в Казахстане? Часть вторая, November 2021, https://masa.media/ru/site/chto-netak-szakonom-obytovom-nasilii-vkazakhstane-chast-vtoraya; KazInform, Семейно-бытовое насилие: депутаты и эксперты рассказали о новом законе, October 2020, https://www.inform.kz/ru/semeyno-bytovoe-nasilie-deputaty-i-eksperty-rasskazali-o-novom-zakone_a3710389; Aigul Tulebayeva, Семейно-бытовое насилие: вся правда о новом законе, Inbusiness.kz, October 2020, https://inbusiness.kz/ru/news/semejno-bytovoe-nasilie-vsya-pravda-o-novom-zakone

[9] CEDAW, Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Kazakhstan Adopted by the Committee at its seventy-fourth session, 21 October–8 November 2019, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW/C/KAZ/CO/5%20&Lang=En; CEDAW, Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Kazakhstan, Adopted by the Committee at its fifty-seventh session, 10 – 28 February 2014, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fKAZ%2fCO%2f3-4&Lang=en

[10] Adam Hug, Kazakhstan at a Crossroads, The Foreign Policy Centre, April 2011, https://fpc.org.uk/publications/kazakhstanatacrossroads/

[11] 1997 Criminal Code of Kazakhstan (unofficial English translation provided by the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Kazakhstan), https://adilet.zan.kz/eng/docs/K970000167_

[12] Website of Parliament of Kazakhstan, ‘Мажилис одобрил депутатский законопроект о противодействии семейно-бытовому насилию’, September 2020, https://www.parlam.kz/ru/mazhilis/news-details/id48134/1/15

[13] Summary of the anti-bill campaign and its claims is based on the analysis of related public social media posts and the following analytical articles: Yuna Korosteleva, Ювенальное спасение, Vlast.kz, December 2020, https://vlast.kz/obsshestvo/42682-uvenalnoe-spasenie.html; Aiguzel Kadir, Законопроект против насилия в семье: спасение или капкан для родителей?, Sputnik.kz, November 2020, https://ru.sputnik.kz/society/20201106/15412461/zakonoproekte-po-semeyno-bytovomu-nasiliyu.html; «Победившее насилие», Vlast.kz, 22 февраля 2021 года,  https://vlast.kz/obsshestvo/43869-pobedivsee-nasilie.html

[14] Medet Yessimkhanov, Pavel Bannikov, Assem Zhapisheva, Досье: Кто стоит за лоббированием отмены законов и распространением конспирологии в Казахстане, Factcheck.kz, February 2021, https://factcheck.kz/socium/dose-kto-stoit-za-lobbirovaniem-otmeny-zakonov-i-rasprostraneniem-konspirologii-v-kazaxstane/

[15] Medet Yessimkhanov, Досье: CitizenGO — ультраконсервативное лобби под видом площадки для петиций, Factcheck.kz, August 2020, https://factcheck.kz/v-mire/dose-citizengo-ultrakonservativnoe-lobbi-pod-vidom-ploshhadki-dlya-peticij/

[16] Data provided by Dinara Smailova, the President of the ‘NeMolchi’ Public Foundation, December 2020; Alexandra Alyokhova, Что полезного было в скандальном законопроекте «О бытовом насилии»?, 365info,

Что полезного было в скандальном законопроекте «О бытовом насилии»?

[17] Radio Azattyk, В Нур-Султане группа матерей потребовала «разъяснить» законопроект о бытовом насилии, January 2021,  https://rus.azattyq.org/a/31050272.html

[18] Sputnik, Токаев прокомментировал нашумевший проект закона о семейно-бытовом насилии, https://ru.sputnik.kz/society/20210121/16095219/tokaev-proekt-zakon-o-semeyno-bytovom-nasilii.html

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