On 15 July 2021, I wrote a letter with four other UN experts to the Government of Kazakhstan regarding the alleged harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders Gulzada Serzhan and Zhanar Sekerbayeva.
Ms. Gulzada Serzhan and Ms. Zhanar Sekerbayeva are women human rights defenders, founders of Feminita Kazakhstan Feminist Initiative, a queer grassroots initiative formed to monitor, document and challenge discrimination and hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including by means of strategic litigation, media campaigns and advocacy for the rights of lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer (LBTIQ) women in Kazakhstan.
On 29 May 2021, an event organised by Feminita on gender equality and women’s rights was set to take place in central Shymkent, with Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva were scheduled to participate. The event was initially due to be held at a co-working centre in Shymkent, however, it was moved to the conference room of a city-centre hotel after the centre’s administration cancelled the event. While awaiting the beginning of the event in a café near the hotel, Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva were approached by a group of three unknown men, one of whom identified himself as a police officer. They informed them that an anti-LGBT protest was taking place nearby and that the event planned by Feminita should be cancelled. Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva were subsequently informed by the hotel’s administration that the conference room could no longer be used for the event, which was then moved to the hotel’s café. While at the café, the event’s attendees were confronted by a group of approximately 30 unknown men, who surrounded, insulted and threatened Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva.
As the acts of harassment were taking place, a police officer arrived at the location after receiving a call from the men who had confronted Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva. The police officer allegedly proceeded to insult Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva before violently arresting the two human rights defenders, forcing them into an unmarked police car with the assistance of men from the group, one of whom pulled Ms. Sekerbayeva by the hair and punched her in the face. At the time of their detention, no reason was given as to the reasons for the measure being taken against them, however, in a subsequent police statement it was stated that Mses. Serzzhan and Sekerbayeva had been taken into police custody for their own safety.
Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva were brought by the police officer to Abay District Police Department, where their phones were confiscated and they were interrogated as to the reasons for their presence in Shymkent. Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbayeva were permitted to leave the Police Department at around midnight on the same date, after approximately eight hours in detention. During this time, they were permitted to meet with a lawyer. They were asked by the police to leave Shymkent, however, the police prevented them from traveling by train, and they were instead driven to Almaty by a group of five police officers, who filmed the human rights defenders without their consent.
While detained by the police, Ms. Sekerbayeva was informed that she would be charged with insulting state representatives under article 378 of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan, yet no such prosecution was initiated. In response to a complaint filed by Ms. Sekerbayeva, an investigation has reportedly been opened into the unknown men who attacked those attending the event. No investigation has been launched into the actions of the policeman involved in the arrest of the two human rights defenders.
Prior to these events, Ms. Sekerbayeva had been receiving threats from unknown individuals via phone calls and messages after her phone number was published on various social media platforms.
In the communication we expressed concern that the harassment and intimidation of Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbaeva appear to be related to their advocacy aimed at promoting women’s rights and combating discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Our concern in this regard extends to the alleged violent arrest, detention and interrogation of Mses. Serzhan and Sekerbaeva by police, which, if proved accurate, would appear to greatly undermine their legitimate work as human rights defenders.
The Government sent a thorough response to the allegation letter, addressing most of the allegations in the communication and reiterating its commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms. However, their telling of events differs to the that of the women human rights defenders.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.