Two activists who were prosecuted for peaceful acts of free expression during an International Women’s Day march in Almaty, Kazakhstan were convicted by a court for petty hooliganism last March 11, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
In a closed hearing, Almaty’s specialized inter-district administrative court found Irina Pukhnatova, better known as Arina Osinovskaya, and Fariza Ospan guilty of administrative charges of petty hooliganism for the symbolic burning of a funeral wreath in a public place.
The act took place during a March 08 women’s rights rally against all forms of violence against women and gender discrimination. Osinovskaya was also convicted for violating the law on organizing and holding peaceful demonstrations.
Both were penalized with administrative fines but they plan to appeal the conviction.
“Instead of protecting its citizens’ fundamental freedoms, the Kazakh government is using the judicial system to repress and convict women activists who were standing up for the rights of all women,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Kazakh authorities should immediately halt the prosecution, vacate the conviction, and stop using the law to stifle freedom of assembly and expression.”
Kazakhstan’s authorities have, for years, routinely used the repressive law on peaceful assembly, adopted in 1995 and last amended in 2004, to ban or restrict public demonstrations and protests. The Kazakh parliament is currently considering a new law, but local human rights activists have expressed concern that the draft will allow unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly to persist.
Several feminist groups organized the March 08 protest in the center of Almaty. One of the co-organizers told Human Rights Watch that they informed the Almaty city administration in December 2019 of their intent to march in the city center on March 08.
Osinovskaya told Human Right Watch that the march itself was peaceful, although city administration officials intervened twice by shouting into loudspeakers that the march was unsanctioned.
On March 10, 2020, Ospan posted on her Facebook page that she had received a summons to report to the police station on March 11. On March 11, Osinovskaya also posted on her Facebook page that she had received a summons. The hearings for both women took place on March 11.
Ospan told HRW that from the moment they arrived at the police station they were accompanied by police officers, including over lunch and even to the toilet, until the actual court proceedings began.
Although the judge initially granted Osinovskaya’s motion to allow media and independent monitors into the courtroom for her hearing, it was held behind closed doors, with no media or monitors allowed inside. Ospan’s hearing was also closed.
According to information Human Rights Watch received from reliable sources, at least three other women activists are the subject of police inquiries following the march.
The Almaty March 08 rally was a protest against gender-based violence and inequality, including domestic violence, which is not criminalized as a standalone offense under Kazakhstan’s laws.
Domestic violence in Kazakhstan, including deaths at the hands of an abusive husband or partner, is a serious concern for local and international organizations. A new draft law on combating domestic violence, currently in the lower chamber of Parliament, does not criminalize domestic violence as a standalone offense. (Source: HRW)