Torture in Kazakhstan: Eradicated by 2013?

Will Kazakhstan keep the pledge it made last month to eliminate “all vestiges of torture” by 2013? And why do we need to wait three more years for these flagrant abuses to stop?

Today, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak presented his findings on Kazakhstan to the UN Human Rights Council. His report outlines “many credible allegations of beatings,” in some cases supported by forensic medical evidence. Along with kicking and punching, victims endured asphyxiation with plastic bags and gas masks as police tried to force confessions.

Without effective investigations, these violations flourish, creating a culture of impunity. Perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. In 2009, there was only one case in which someone was convicted under the torture article of Kazakhstan’s criminal code.

The Open Society Justice Initiative and partner human rights groups in Kazakhstan have conducted research that confirms Nowak’s findings of torture and recently brought our concerns to the attention of the UN Universal Periodic Review. It was at this meeting in Geneva that Kazakhstan’s representative announced its commitment to eradicating torture.

The government’s statement is welcome, but needs to be backed by real commitment to reform. All too often, declarations of this sort are designed to preempt criticism and protect the country’s reputation at international fora, but this doesn’t necessarily change things on the ground.

Kazakhstan has announced that it has two draft laws in the works: one to create an independent mechanism for investigating torture allegations, and another strengthening safeguards to protect suspects at the time of their arrest. Yet are the police and security service officials who routinely apply torture and inhuman treatment across Kazakhstan ready for these changes?

As Nowak puts it in his report: “various players in the criminal justice cycle must live up to their responsibilities, close the implementation gap, and denounce cases of torture, which is currently not the case.”

The government will need to demonstrate serious political will and budgetary support for implementation. In the meantime, the Justice Initiative is working on litigation to bring perpetrators of torture to justice and helping build a strong coalition of local groups that are committed to challenging abuse.

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