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Statement by Chargé d’Affaires Robbins on the New Religion Law in Kazakhstan

Despite assurances from the Government of Kazakhstan that the new law on religion would be in keeping with its OSCE commitments and its international obligations and commitments regarding freedom of religion, the United States wishes to express its serious concern that the new law appears to fall short of those measures.

The new law, passed by the Kazakhstani Parliament on September 29, requires that existing religious organizations submit re-registration documents within one year via a procedure that subjects them to an examination of their religious literature. The United States is concerned that this process could be used to restrict the activities of religious groups thereby negatively impacting religious freedom in Kazakhstan.

The new tiered registration system appears to prohibit the registration of religious groups with fewer than 50 members in each location. Other provisions appear to allow strict oversight of missionary activity, government reviews of religious literature and texts, and restrictions on the location of places of worship.

When governments unduly restrict religious freedom and freedom of expression, or when societies fail to take steps to promote tolerance and curb discrimination based on religious identity, they risk alienating religious believers and emboldening extremists.

We urge the government of Kazakhstan to work with ODIHR to address these concerns in order to ensure that this law does not improperly restrict freedom of religion or belief in any way that is inconsistent with the country’s OSCE commitments and its international obligations and commitments.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

 


Response to Ambassador Alexandre Keltchewsky, Head of OSCE Center in Astana

The United States extends a warm welcome to Ambassador Keltchewsky; Ambassador, thank you for your thorough report. The last year has been momentous for the Center and for Kazakhstan. You and your staff supported a High-Level Tolerance Conference, an NGO Forum, a Parallel OSCE Civil Society Conference, and the first OSCE Summit in 11 years — all with great skill and grace.

As you note, there were critical events this past year in Kazakhstan: the referendum on voiding elections, the ensuing constitutional battle, followed by the snap presidential ballot. We noted that the preliminary report issued jointly by ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly found technical improvements over previous years. It also indicated that Kazakhstan’s “legal framework has key shortcomings inconsistent with its OSCE commitments,” particularly in the fields of freedom of assembly and media. In addition, processes such as candidate registration and adjudication of electoral disputes lacked transparency, and many local authorities intervened to increase voter turnout. Finally, serious irregularities took place in the voting and tabulation. No election since Kazakhstan’s independence has been deemed to have met OSCE commitments or international standards. Active steps need to be taken to counter this trend.

Making meaningful reforms before parliamentary elections next year would be an excellent demonstration of Kazakhstan’s efforts to develop its democracy and we urge the Center to support real government reforms.

As your report notes, President Nazarbayev declared reform a top priority. We urge Kazakhstan to implement credible judicial reforms, including equal access to justice and adherence to due process. The OSCE has a role to play in helping to implement the strategies and legislative acts aimed at reform — especially the “National Action Plan for Implementing Human Rights 2009-2012,” and those aspects that remain behind schedule, including legislation on freedom of assembly, media freedom, the Ombudsman institution and the National Preventive Mechanism in line with the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. We also hope Kazakhstan will follow through on its commitment at the July 2010 High-Level Conference on Tolerance to bring its religion law up to international standards and to promote religious tolerance.

We particularly urge the Center to continue working closely with the government to address what many observers cite as backsliding on media freedom commitments. We must point out that despite assertions to the contrary, Kazakhstan has still not decriminalized defamation. It has only reduced the manner and means by which a person may be convicted and sentenced to jail for what they say. We urge the government to follow through with its stated intention on this important and symbolic measure and to address other shortcomings in its media legislation. We also wish to express our regret that Evgeniy Zhovtis and Ramazan Yesergepov are still in jail, and we hope to see them included in the upcoming amnesty.

We wish to express our appreciation to the Government of Kazakhstan for the support it has given to the Center on the second dimension, especially in Kazakhstan’s efforts to become EITI compliant and to address the tragedy of the Aral Sea and other water management issues.

In the Politico-Military Dimension, the Center’s work to help Kazakhstan combat terrorism and trafficking in narcotics and human beings and to reform law enforcement agencies — especially bringing these efforts in line with democratic standards and human rights — is essential to OSCE’s work in Central Asia. The Center’s efforts to reduce Small Arms and Light Weapons in Kazakhstan will add to peace and security. The Center’s work with training Afghan police officers in Almaty is a creative and useful way to implement the 2007 Madrid Decision on intensifying engagement with Afghanistan. We commend the efforts between the Center and the Government of Kazakhstan for last October’s conference on preventing terrorism, and welcome the upcoming workshop on “Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE)” to be held in Almaty this October, as concrete examples of cooperation in counterterrorism.

Thank you again, Ambassador Keltchewsky and please be assured of our best wishes and support.

Thank you, Chair.

 


Charge d’Affaires Fuller: Statement on Elections in Kazakhstan

Following the results of the presidential elections on April 3 in Kazakhstan, the United States welcomes the preliminary conclusions set forth in the Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions issued jointly by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on April 4th.   As we are all aware, the OSCE represents the gold-standard in election monitoring. Therefore, its finding that the latest election in Kazakhstan reveals the urgency of implementing long-awaited reforms should not be ignored. We join in that assessment and urge Kazakhstani officials to implement the recommendations fully before Kazakhstan’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We are pleased that the ODIHR/PA report found the election commissions at all levels, including the Central Election Commission, handled the technical aspects of the election in a professional manner. The report makes clear that ODIHR saw efforts by authorities to improve the election legislation and incorporate some OSCE recommendations. The report also noted that efforts were made to improve the quality of the voter lists by conducting a large-scale door-to-door verification process and by ensuring public review. These improvements are important and need to be built upon for the future. While we appreciate these and the other improvements noted by ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, we nonetheless urge the government of Kazakhstan to address the serious shortcomings they also highlighted.

According to ODIHR and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly election observers noted serious irregularities, including: – numerous instances of seemingly identical signatures on voter lists; – cases of ballot box stuffing; – lack of transparency in the vote count and tabulation, and the frequent failure to follow proper procedures; – restrictions on the ability of international observers to perform their tasks; and – intervention by many local authorities in the election process in order to increase turnout. I wish to point out that U.S. Embassy observers also witnessed similar irregularities. Such irregularities are not in keeping with Kazakhstan’s OSCE commitments and obligation to its citizens to hold elections that meet OSCE standards.

The statement made by the Parliamentary Assembly and ODIHR and the ODIHR report establish that Kazakhstan still needs to make improvements to meet its democratic commitments, particularly in the fields of freedom of assembly and media.   We note President Nazarbayev’s stated commitment to “political modernization,” and Kazakhstan’s national development program through 2020 as a part of the country’s long-term path to democracy. We hope, therefore, that the government will view the recommendations in the ODIHR report as constructive guidance for future improvements that will help it move forward on that path.

 
 

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