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Police kettling in Kazakhstan

Article by Tatiana Chernobil

July 22, 2021

Police kettling in Kazakhstan

As recently as July 6th 2021, a couple of dozens of peaceful protesters were kettled by police in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The protest was held in breach of the legal requirement to inform city authorities of the intent to hold an assembly. The protesters were supporters and members of the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan (DPK), and on July 6th, the Capital City Day in Kazakhstan, they were opposing the expansion of Chinese businesses in Kazakhstan and protesting against the personality cult of the former President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose birthday was chosen for Capital City Day.


Many previous attempts by the DPK and other political movements in Kazakhstan to hold rallies during the past year were met with the same response – police kettling. On July 6th, the protesters, including a woman in a wheelchair, shortly after the beginning of the rally were trapped in by a squad of athletic men in black T-shirts, balaclavas covering their faces and bulletproof vests marked ‘Police’ on them. These men in black would not say a word during the entire operation. Before asking the police to “take measures”, a representative of the City Office routinely reminded the protesters that their rally was illegal because they had not filed a notification with the city administration about it and because of the pandemic restrictions.


Kazakhstan-style kettling typically lasts between three to ten hours. The one on July 6th lasted for around ten hours. Throughout it the peaceful protesters were not allowed out of the blockade unless they agreed to immediately go home one by one. Many chose to stay.


Half-a-year before, on January 10th 2021, the parliamentary elections day, two groups of protesters were kettled in Almaty outdoors at the temperature of below zero Celsius, for up to six and eight hours respectively. They were a small group of DPK supporters and an even smaller group of young protesters from Oyan, Qazaqstan (Kazakh for Wake-up, Kazakhstan) youth movement. No food or drinks were allowed to be passed in for the group of DPK supporters. During the eight hours of their blockade all their friends or family could smuggle them were several small bottles of water and a few paper cups of hot tea. The Oyan, Qazaqstan group were luckier, their friends could pass them some street food and hot drinks. Despite their numerous requests to let them out, people from neither of the groups could even go use the restroom. Unable to stand it any longer, several women in the DPK circle and men from the Oyan, Qazaqstan urinated right there in front of everyone. The police saw that but did not react.


Police in Kazakhstan started using this tactic relatively recently, testing it for the first time also on DPK supporters in June 2020. Before the usual police response in the cases of unauthorised peaceful gatherings was to brutally pack up everyone in police cars and take them to police stations to then either let the people go in a few hours or to start administrative cases against them for violation of the law on peaceful assemblies. Kettling, on the other hand, is used without any legal formalities: the police do not follow the regular procedure for stopping and arresting people and the exhausted protesters are allowed to leave at the end without charges. Officials consider kettling a more humane tactic than forceful dispersals of public rallies. Indeed, no known cases have been brought so far against the contained protesters, but the tactic itself is hardly any more humane or lawful.


This new tactic from the start violated the national legislation and international human rights law. In Kazakhstan, under the law, any restrictions on personal liberty by police are considered a de facto arrest and shall only be allowed to prevent or stop a crime or public disorder under way.[1] However, in all the cases of police kettling in Kazakhstan so far there was no crime, public violence, or disorder to be prevented. The only violation on the part of the protesters each time was that they had broken the law by not informing the authorities of their small and peaceful rallies.


At the end of December 2020, after a three-hour long kettling of political activists in Almaty on December 16th, Independence Day, the Minister of Internal Affairs said that the protesters themselves did not want to disperse. He could not say what law or ruling the police based their detention of peaceful protesters on by keeping them captive in the street for hours without information on the legal grounds for such arrest nor about their rights, without food or water, or access to a lawyer. The Minister said that such a tactic was prompted by the illegal behaviour of the protesters themselves who had failed to notify the city authorities of their rally. The Minister advised those who thought to have been affected to complain to supervising authorities.


Commenting to a journalist on two other cases of police kettling on February 28th 2021, one in Nur-Sultan and one in Almaty (where in the Almaty case the activists were kettled for ten-and-a-half hours), the country’s Ombudswoman said that it was a lawful measure used to prevent public disorder, and that such a tactic was commonly used in other countries and that it was permitted by the OSCE standards:


“There are OSCE recommendations about it. This is a measure to promote security. After an open discussion with public activists it should be approved as a legal provision.”[2]


Indeed, kettling is mentioned in the recently updated edition of the OSCE Manual on Monitoring Freedom of Peaceful Assembly.[3] It is described as a “strateg[y] of crowd control that rel[ies] on containment (“kettling or “corralling”), where law enforcement officials encircle and enclose a section of assembly participants.”[4]


However, what Kazakhstani officials keep failing to notice is that this manual strongly advises against using kettling as a norm but only “on an exceptional basis, where it is necessary and proportionate to do so in order to prevent violence during an assembly.” More often than not used indiscriminately, this tactic, in the OSCE’s assessment, may result in a violation of the rights to liberty and freedom of movement. The manual cites the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association who noted in 2013 “that kettling is “intrinsically detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, due to its indiscriminate and disproportionate nature” and has opposed this practice.”[5]


In another OSCE manual, the Human Rights Handbook on Policing Assemblies, it is explicitly said that “force should never be used on an assembly just because of a failure to comply with a notification requirement” and that “the police should avoid any use of force as long as an assembly remains non-violent, even if the assembly is unlawful.”[6] The by-default rule in policing assemblies according to the OSCE should be “encouraging good behaviour [rather] than constantly wait to confront bad behaviour”.


It was not the first time Kazakhstan had chosen to misinterpret international human rights standards regarding the freedom of peaceful assembly. The current law on peaceful assemblies adopted in May 2020 mentions the presumption in favour of peaceful assemblies but unlike in the OSCE Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, where this principle is pointed out as one of the core obligations of the state and means “an obligation of tolerance and restraint towards peaceful assemblies in situations where legal or administrative procedures and formalities have not been followed”, in Kazakhstan it is more of an obligation of the people and means favouring strictly legal over peaceful but illegal assemblies.[7] Even single-person peaceful pickets are curbed when they are held without duly notification of authorities in accordance with the law.


For example, in July 2021, a dozen of policemen kettled around an artistic performer Askhat Akhmediarov and an eco-activist Aliya Akhmalisheva in Nur-Sultan. The activists were protesting commercialisation of Boszhyra Nature Park in the West of Kazakhstan but were doing so without prior notification of authorities.


Another sad case of kettling for the sake of safeguarding the law took place in May 2021 in Nur-Sultan. Then, the Orynbekovs family of a father, a mother and their nine small children were kettled by police when they were trying to go to the Presidential Administration to complain about the continued failure by their local authorities to help improve their housing conditions.


This kind of abuse of the law to curtail the freedom of assembly and other human rights is a common practice in authoritarian states. It is well addressed in the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement in the case of Primov and Others v. Russia: “While rules governing public assemblies, such as the system of prior notification, are essential for the smooth conduct of public events since they allow the authorities to minimise the disruption to traffic and take other safety measures, their enforcement cannot become an end in itself.”[8]


In Kazakhstan safeguarding the law has become an official justification for the police to violate the law themselves by kettling peaceful protesters – the tactic that is nowhere to be found in the national legislation.


At a press-briefing on June 11th 2021 Erlan Turgumbayev, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, said the following about the use of kettling by police in Kazakhstan:


“Different countries have different laws and use different methods. On the subject of kettling, it is a standard police tactic of blocking and containing a crowd with the use of cordons. The blockage methods used involve using auto transport, iron railings, and police personnel as physical force. It is used everywhere in the world, there’s nothing new.


[We do not use] the word ‘kettling’, we call it “blocking a place where a group of people violates public order.” This tactic is detailed in the internal orders and instructions.


Indeed, several times we blocked places where unauthorised protests were happening, but in comparison to the police in other countries, we did not use water or sound cannons, or other ammunition. Practically always our policemen stand without firearms, rubber buttons, or gas guns, and they stop these violations of the law by their physical strength only.


There’s not been any cases of torture whatsoever. We allowed everyone who wished to leave the blockade to do so. We were offering food and water. There has been no violence. There’s always ambulance and doctors available when this happens.”[9]


After the case of kettling on January 10th 2021 in Almaty, when an ambulance had to be called for at least four protesters, one of whom was a pregnant woman and another a 18-year girl who nearly fainted while waiting to be let out to use the restroom, several protesters reported a crime against the Almaty police claiming inhuman or degrading treatment, unlawful arrest, and abuse of power.


Under the Kazakhstani law, reports against the police are investigated by the anti-corruption agency and vice versa to avoid the conflict of interest. In this case, no sooner than the protesters filed their report of the crime against the police, the city of Almaty anti-corruption agency turned it over to the police’s own disciplinary service. A criminal case was never opened because after a month-long internal checking the police returned the file to the anti-corruption agency saying no wrongs had been found in the actions of the police and that no protesters had suffered any illegal treatment whatsoever.


The protesters’ further complaint to a court about the failure of the anti-corruption agency to start an investigation into the police’s actions did not bring any result. The court agreed with the conclusions of the police and indorsed the anti-corruption agency’s decision not to start a criminal case. The upper-instance court supported this decision.


In its report to the anti-corruption agency about the findings of their internal enquiry, the Almaty police said that on January 10th 2021, based on the information on social media about the upcoming unauthorised rallies in Almaty, “in order to prevent destabilisation of the socio-political situation” the city police dispatched 3,482 police staff and 334 police cars to enforce the law. The report did not mention anything about any cases of violence or disruption of public order on that day. It only said that by police count the total number of protesters throughout the city on that day whom the police prevented from “destabilising the socio-political situation” was less than a hundred. Three-and-a-half thousand police staff against a hundred of peaceful protesters resulting in many violations of human rights is what happens when the state frowns on peaceful assemblies.


The new law on peaceful assemblies entered into force in June 2020 on the day the first example of kettling being used was registered. This law meticulously regulates organisation and conduct of peaceful assemblies and instructs the organisers and participants what exactly they should do prior to and during their assembly. Any deviation is considered a breach of this law and is punishable by a warning, a fine, or an imprisonment for up to ten days. When an assembly is held without notifying the authorities, the punishment increases to up to 15 days in jail. This law was presented as a breakthrough, the government was saying that peaceful assemblies could now be held without permission from the authorities but via a simple notification procedure. The pandemic of COVID-19 has not allowed to test this law in full yet, but what the practice has shown so far is that this law is used to curb dissenting voices and not to promote freedom of assembly.


Recommendations regarding the use of kettling by police are universal and obvious. They can be found in the OSCE’s Human Rights Handbook on Policing Assemblies in the chapter on Management Disorder and Violence in the section on Containment.[10] The main idea is that kettling should only be used as a last resort and only against violent protesters to prevent escalation of violence. Kazakhstan in its management of assemblies should follow the principles of democratic policing and should stick to its human rights obligations. The OSCE should make sure its member-states apply this Organisation’s standards in good faith and that they do not use the OSCE’s name to cover up for any violations of human rights.


Meanwhile the victims of police kettling on January 10th are preparing a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee.


Tatiana Chernobil is a human rights lawyer and independent consultant from Almaty, Kazakhstan. Tatiana specialises in human rights monitoring, advocacy, and training on issues of fundamental freedoms, non-discrimination, freedom from torture, police accountability, and others. Tatiana is a graduate of Adilet Law School in Almaty, Kazakhstan and of the International Human Rights Law Master Programme at Notre Dame University Law School Civil and Human Rights Centre in South Bend, Indiana, USA. Tatiana was a member of NPM in Kazakhstan in 2015-2017. She is an expert member of the Coalition of NGOs of Kazakhstan against Torture and a mentor at the Soros-Kazakhstan Foundation’s training courses for young human rights defenders.


Image by Upyernoz under (CC).


[1] See, for example, Normative Ruling #2 of the Constitutional Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan of April 13th, 2012 ( in Russian only). In it the Constitutional Council ordered to consider “any restrictions on the freedom of a stopped person including on the freedom of movement such as forcefully containing someone in a certain place, forcefully taking them to a police station (capturing, locking in a room, enforcing to go somewhere or to stay still, etc.), as well as other actions that significantly limit one’s liberty, regardless of assigning that person any procedural status or of completing any other formal procedures” a de-facto arrest (italics added).

[2] Nurgul Tapaeva, Ombudswoman has called kettling a measure to promote security, Radio Azattyq, RFE/RL, March 2021,

[3] OSCE, Handbook on Monitoring Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, Second Edition, December 2020,

[4] Ibid, page 54.

[5] Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, United Nations General Assembly, June 2013, A/HRC/23/39/Add.1, para. 37,; OSCE, Handbook on Monitoring Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, Second Edition, December 2020,

[6] OSCE, Human Rights Handbook on Policing Assemblies, March 2016, page 62,; Ibid, page 100.

[7] European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) and OSCE Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (3rd edition), CDL-AD (2019)017re, Strasbourg / Warsaw, July 2020,; Ibid, Point 21, page 9.

[8] European Court of Human Rights, Primov and Others v. Russia, 17391/06, June 2014, para 118,

[9] Bagdat Asylbek, [Minister] Turgumbayev on the Kettlings out in the Freezing Weather: There Have Been No Torture, People Just Wouldn’t Want to Leave, Radio Azattyq, RFE/RL, June 2021,

[10] See 8 above, page 101.

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