Earlier this month, following Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections, tax officials in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, fined Echo, an independent nongovernmental organization. The group’s operations were suspended for three months just as it prepared to release a report on the recent election. A few days later, a human rights group, Erkindik Kanaty, was fined by tax authorities, too — it had deployed observers to the recent election, some of which were harassed by police.
This week the another batch of organizations are feeling the heat. According to reporting from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and the International Legal Initiative have been fined and ordered to suspend their work for three months.
In a Facebook post, the International Legal Initiative categorized the actions as “a repression campaign against independent civil society organizations” and vowed to appeal in court.
Last fall, more than a dozen NGOs in Kazakhstan were notified by tax authorities of allegations of financial irregularities. Seven of the organizations issued a statement on November 30 that they had been “attacked” by the tax authorities at the behest of the country’s national security authorities. The statement pointed out that in what appeared to be a coordinated campaign, the tax authorities sent notices of violations in completing tax forms related to funds received from abroad. The statement highlighted increasingly restrictive Kazakh laws mandating severe penalties for what are essentially clerical errors and the huge imbalance in reporting requirements between NGOs and commercial entities.
In the organizations’ reading, the tax authorities were themselves pressured. “The tax authorities have been ‘instructed’ to find something, i.e. any inaccuracies, clerical mistakes or clerical misprints in these forms, in order to draw up administrative violation records as soon as possible and to be able further to fine or suspend the activities of such organizations,” the statement said.
On December 3, a quartet of international human rights NGOs issued a statement calling on the Kazakh tax authorities to end their harassment of domestic civil society groups. The U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan also chimed in, noting “alarm” at the reports that “Kazakhstani authorities have threatened to shut down human rights and civil society NGOs with tax complaints in advance of parliamentary elections.”
While the groups were not suspended ahead of the elections, there were other restrictions in place to limit the effectiveness of their attempts to monitor the vote. A resolution passed in December restricted NGOs from monitoring elections unless election observation activities were specifically included in their charters. Furthermore, observers were barred from posting videos or photos without the permission of the subject — i.e. if a person is photographed stuffing several ballots into a box, such documented election violations could not be legally shared without their consent.
Echo, Erkindik Kanaty, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, and the International Legal Initiative – all of which have been issued fines and suspensions in recent weeks — were among the signatories of the November 30 statement.
“Kazakh authorities harassing rights groups is, unfortunately, not new,” Mihra Rattmann, a senior Central Asia research for Human Rights Watch wrote last week. “But what’s shocking about this latest attack on freedom of association in Kazakhstan is how many groups are being targeted at once and the blatantly unlawful manner in which the authorities are acting.”
It’s likely that more NGOs in Kazakhstan will face fines and suspensions and the threat of such is clear. The taxman serves as a convenient cover for political pressure, masking repression with layers of bureaucracy.