Kazakhstan: Killings, Excessive Use of Force in Almaty

Partners Should Press for Investigation into Abusive Response to Protests, Unrest

Kazakh secu­ri­ty forces used exces­sive force on at least four occa­sions, includ­ing lethal force such as shoot­ing at pro­test­ers and riot­ers, dur­ing recent demon­stra­tions and sub­se­quent civ­il unrest, Human Rights Watch said today. An analy­sis of over 80 ver­i­fied videos record­ed between January 4 and 6, 2022, in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, high­lights the urgent need for an effec­tive, inde­pen­dent, and impar­tial investigation.

The worst of the four inci­dents ana­lyzed in the videos led to 10 appar­ent killings, with 19 peo­ple injured. The full toll is like­ly high­er, both in this case and in oth­ers in which secu­ri­ty forces used exces­sive force. On January 15 Kazakhstan’s prosecutor’s office stat­ed that the bod­ies of 225 peo­ple, includ­ing 19 mem­bers of the secu­ri­ty forces, had been deliv­ered to morgues across the coun­try since January 4.

There is ample evi­dence show­ing that secu­ri­ty forces opened fire with­out any appar­ent jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and killed at least 10 peo­ple,” said Jonathan Pedneault, con­flict and cri­sis researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The death toll from the vio­lent crack­down is like­ly much greater and requires a prompt and effec­tive investigation.”

Protests began on January 2 in Zhanaozen, a west­ern oil town, over a sharp increase in gas prices. By January 4, thou­sands of peace­ful pro­test­ers in oth­er parts of the coun­try had joined in, demand­ing eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal reforms. The gov­ern­ment clamped down on the protests over the next six days, includ­ing restric­tions to inter­net access. Authorities in Kazakhstan have long restrict­ed fun­da­men­tal rights and reject­ed calls for gen­uine reforms.

Human Rights Watch ver­i­fied and ana­lyzed over 80 videos, the major­i­ty of which were record­ed by par­tic­i­pants or wit­ness­es to the events in Almaty between January 4 and 6 and shared on Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Nine of them were record­ed by Agence France-Presse jour­nal­ists and one was post­ed online by the Kazakh gov­ern­ment. A local jour­nal­ist sent anoth­er video direct­ly to Human Rights Watch.

By match­ing land­marks in the videos with satel­lite imagery, maps, and pho­tographs, Human Rights Watch iden­ti­fied the loca­tions where the videos were record­ed. To estab­lish a chronol­o­gy, the footage was com­pared with media reports and social media posts, the time of sun­set and sun­rise, and clocks shown in record­ings. For the events on January 6, Human Rights Watch also spoke with three wit­ness­es, a jour­nal­ist and two protesters.

In the first inci­dent, 17 videos record­ed on late January 4 and ear­ly January 5 show peace­ful pro­test­ers walk­ing to and gath­er­ing in Almaty’s Republic Square, close to city hall and the president’s palace. Small groups with­in the crowd appear to be loot­ing from stores on their way to the square. Around 12:15 a.m., short­ly after the pro­test­ers arrived, secu­ri­ty forces forcibly dis­persed them with tear gas, stun grenades, and rub­ber pro­jec­tiles. Afterwards, a crowd began to attack secu­ri­ty forces and set fire to police vehicles.

In the sec­ond inci­dent, a series of 23 videos record­ed between 3 and 5:30 p.m. on January 5, shows that secu­ri­ty forces pro­tect­ing the president’s res­i­dence repeat­ed­ly fired with assault rifles at sev­er­al hun­dred peo­ple out­side the build­ing, includ­ing pro­test­ers and oth­ers hold­ing sticks, shields, and spades. The peo­ple did not appear to be pos­ing an immi­nent threat to secu­ri­ty forces, though one per­son might have been hold­ing a hand­gun. From this footage, Human Rights Watch count­ed at least 10 peo­ple who appear to have been killed and 19 injured, most of them appar­ent­ly by bullets.

That night, in a tele­vised speech, President Kasym-Jomart Tokaev referred to the pro­test­ers and riot­ers as “ter­ror­ist gangs […] who have under­gone train­ing abroad.” He did not elab­o­rate or offer evi­dence for his claims at the time, or since.

In the third inci­dent, a video showed sol­diers shoot­ing live ammu­ni­tion in Republic Square around 10 a.m. on January 6. A pro­test­er who was present at the time said that she and about 150 oth­ers were peace­ful and shout­ed “Don’t shoot” pri­or to secu­ri­ty forces fir­ing into the air. She said one man was injured, which local media also report­ed.

In the fourth inci­dent, between 6 and 6:30 p.m. on January 6, peace­ful pro­test­ers again gath­ered on Republic Square hold­ing a large white ban­ner that read: “We are peace­ful pro­test­ers! We are not the terrorists!”

A pro­test­er present at the time told Human Rights Watch that he saw secu­ri­ty forces fire warn­ing shots pri­or to direct­ing live fire at the pro­test­ers and then ran for his life. The pro­test­er who was on the square ear­li­er and the jour­nal­ist said they had left the square min­utes before but heard the shoot­ing. Witnesses who spoke to the jour­nal­ist said they saw one pro­test­er hit in the head and anoth­er wound­ed in the upper body.

The wit­ness accounts are con­sis­tent with footage in six videos that were record­ed at the time by peo­ple who were flee­ing or hid­ing from the shoot­ing, though none of them cap­tured video of the sol­diers open­ing fire. In one, over 100 gun­fire rounds can be heard. One video showed one man, appar­ent­ly injured, being car­ried by pro­test­ers to a car.

During a tele­vised speech on January 7, President Tokaev said he had ordered secu­ri­ty forces “to shoot to kill with­out warn­ing.” The same day, Human Rights Watch urged the gov­ern­ment to rescind the order because it could lead to unlaw­ful killings.

The gov­ern­ment has sub­se­quent­ly defend­ed the con­duct of secu­ri­ty forces. On January 16 the Almaty police chief, Kanat Taimerdenov, told the media that “in all cas­es, police offi­cers worked accord­ing to the estab­lished pro­ce­dures to ensure the pro­tec­tion of pub­lic order dur­ing peace­ful assem­blies and were not armed.” On January 11 Almaty police said that, in addi­tion to the 19 killed, 176 of its offi­cers had been injured in the unrest.

In addi­tion to oblig­a­tions to pro­tect rights to life and bod­i­ly integri­ty, under inter­na­tion­al human rights law, Kazakhstan has an oblig­a­tion to respect the right to peace­ful expres­sion and assem­bly, includ­ing by ensur­ing that its secu­ri­ty forces are trained and equipped to police demon­stra­tions in rights-respect­ing ways.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that secu­ri­ty forces should “apply non-vio­lent means before resort­ing to the use of force and firearms,” and use the min­i­mum nec­es­sary force at all times. Intentional, lethal use of firearms is only per­mit­ted when strict­ly unavoid­able to pro­tect life.

In light of the grav­i­ty of the alleged vio­la­tions, Kazakhstan’s inter­na­tion­al part­ners, includ­ing the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Kazakhstan is a mem­ber, and the European Union, should press the gov­ern­ment of Kazakhstan to con­duct an effec­tive, inde­pen­dent and impar­tial inves­ti­ga­tion into the secu­ri­ty forces’ response to the January events, with a view to ensur­ing full accountability.

The gov­ern­ment should also con­duct an effec­tive inves­ti­ga­tion to iden­ti­fy those respon­si­ble for attack­ing and killing secu­ri­ty force mem­bers, caus­ing crim­i­nal dam­age to pub­lic prop­er­ty, or oth­er unlaw­ful acts. They should be held to account in fair pro­ceed­ings, Human Rights Watch said.

The gov­ern­ment should seek the sup­port of inter­na­tion­al exper­tise and refrain from hin­der­ing inquiries and mon­i­tor­ing activ­i­ties by nation­al and inter­na­tion­al non-gov­ern­men­tal groups, region­al and inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions, and the media.

Should the gov­ern­ment fail to con­duct an effec­tive inves­ti­ga­tion that meets inter­na­tion­al stan­dards, OSCE mem­bers should invoke the Moscow Mechanism, an OSCE inves­ti­ga­tion pro­ce­dure, and UN Human Rights Council mem­bers should address the issues at their next session.

Dozens of griev­ing fam­i­lies across Kazakhstan are wait­ing for answers from their gov­ern­ment,” Pedneault said. “It should be a pri­or­i­ty for Kazakhstan to restore some mea­sure of con­fi­dence in the rule of law and ensure that all those respon­si­ble for this trag­ic loss of life are held to account.”

For addi­tion­al details, please see below.

The fol­low­ing chronol­o­gy is based on a review of over 80 ver­i­fied videos that were record­ed in Almaty between January 4 and 6, the major­i­ty of which were shared on Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, the remain­der filmed by jour­nal­ists. Together with state­ments pro­vid­ed by three wit­ness­es and media reports, they show that secu­ri­ty forces forcibly dis­persed peace­ful pro­test­ers on the night of January 4 and ear­ly morn­ing of January 5, and used lethal force on January 5 and 6, result­ing in seri­ous injuries and deaths.

Wider map of central Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Wider map of cen­tral Almaty, Kazakhstan. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Late January 4 and Early January 5 – Incident One

Human Rights Watch ana­lyzed 17 videos record­ed in Almaty on late January 4 and ear­ly January 5 that show the Kazakh secu­ri­ty forces’ unlaw­ful dis­per­sal of peace­ful protests, includ­ing using unnec­es­sary and dis­pro­por­tion­ate force, while a shut­down of mobile inter­net access was being imposed.

Peaceful Demonstrations

A video from AFP, made up of mul­ti­ple clips record­ed around 12 p.m. on January 4, shows a small group of peace­ful pro­test­ers led by Zhanbolat Mamay, a for­mer jour­nal­ist now lead­ing Kazakhstan’s unreg­is­tered Democratic Party, ral­ly­ing in sup­port of the protest move­ment on Almaty’s Republic Square. Security forces are then seen arriv­ing and appear to order them to disperse.

Around 6:30 p.m., users and media began to report restric­tions to mobile inter­net access, which rep­re­sents almost 75 per­cent of online traf­fic in Kazakhstan. Between 7:15 and 7:45 p.m., as media reports describe and a video post­ed to Telegram show, scores of peace­ful pro­test­ers gath­ered by Alatau Theater on the out­skirts of Almaty, head­ing toward the cen­ter, 10 kilo­me­ters away. At around 10 p.m., a group of thou­sands of pro­test­ers is seen in a video post­ed to Facebook walk­ing toward cen­tral Almaty, singing the nation­al anthem.

Security Forces on Republic Square

Human Rights Watch ver­i­fied three videos shared on YouTube and Telegram show­ing hun­dreds of law enforce­ment offi­cers equipped with riot gear, includ­ing shields, hel­mets, and batons, deploy­ing by mid­night on the night of January 4 on Republic Square. Before pro­test­ers arrived, the forces are seen form­ing a cor­don block­ing the entrance to city hall and posi­tion­ing them­selves at the cross­roads of Satpaev and Nazarbayev Streets, on the east­ern end of the square. Seven trans­port trucks and at least 33 police vans sup­port them.

Between 12:05 and 12:19 a.m. on January 5, peace­ful pro­test­ers can be seen fill­ing Republic Square, enter­ing from the west at the cross­roads of Satpaev and Zheltoksan Streets, and gath­er­ing around the Independence monument.

Forced Dispersal of Peaceful Protesters; Unnecessary Use of Force

Fifteen min­utes after the peace­ful demon­stra­tors arrived, about 20 dis­tant det­o­na­tions are heard in a video record­ed from a build­ing over­look­ing Republic Square from the north. Several hun­dred addi­tion­al pro­test­ers are then seen arriv­ing from Zheltoksan Street, rush­ing toward the police cor­don in front of city hall and push­ing their way through the line. The pro­test­ers even­tu­al­ly flanked law enforce­ment offi­cials, who then retreat­ed east to their posi­tion at the cor­ner of Satpaev and Nazarbayev Streets. Within min­utes, a series of loud det­o­na­tions are heard, and a thick cloud of tear­gas smoke can be seen waft­ing west­ward from the law enforce­ment posi­tion, slow­ly engulf­ing the square and protesters.

Between approx­i­mate­ly 12:25 and 12:51 a.m., law enforce­ment offi­cers at the cor­ner of Satpaev and Nazarbayev Streets deployed scores of stun grenades and tear­gas can­is­ters to dis­perse the crowd. A video post­ed to Telegram shows that some pro­test­ers retal­i­at­ed by throw­ing stones and oth­er objects at law enforce­ment offi­cers, but most pro­test­ers remained peaceful.

Tokaev Speech, Rioting, and Retreat by Security Forces

Just as secu­ri­ty forces were force­ful­ly dis­pers­ing pro­test­ers from Republic Square, President Tokaev gave a tele­vised speech, broad­cast short­ly before 12:37 a.m., in which he called for dia­logue but empha­sized that the gov­ern­ment would not fall and that “calls to attack the offices of civ­il and mil­i­tary depart­ments are absolute­ly illegal.”

By 1:05 a.m., law enforce­ment offi­cials had dis­persed all pro­test­ers from Republic Square, but vio­lence erupt­ed in oth­er areas of town, with groups of riot­ers aggres­sive­ly tar­get­ing police vehi­cles and set­ting them on fire.

Around 2 a.m., a video record­ed near Republic Square and post­ed on YouTube showed secu­ri­ty forces aggres­sive­ly con­fronting a group of pro­test­ers who appeared large­ly peace­ful, except for some peo­ple throw­ing stones. The video showed secu­ri­ty forces fir­ing stun grenades and a police­man hit­ting one detainee in the back.

Two videos of an inci­dent that took place before 2:53 a.m. about 700 meters north­west of Independence Monument, near the cor­ner Seifullin and Abay Streets, show hun­dreds of riot­ers chas­ing away secu­ri­ty forces aboard three troop-car­ry­ing trucks and an 8‑wheeled BTR armored vehi­cle with a mount­ed machine gun.

January 5 and Early January 6

Human Rights Watch ana­lyzed over 50 videos record­ed between the late after­noon of January 5 and ear­ly morn­ing January 6 that show gov­ern­ment forces adopt­ing dif­fer­ent secu­ri­ty pos­tures at var­i­ous points, begin­ning with a show of force, fol­lowed by a deploy­ment of unarmed and light­ly equipped troops on foot in the streets of Almaty, only hours after peo­ple had clashed with secu­ri­ty forces.

At 3 p.m., a mixed group of pro­test­ers and riot­ers tried to storm gov­ern­ment build­ings, includ­ing the Almaty city hall and the near­by president’s residence.

Law enforce­ment offi­cers defend­ing city hall appeared to offer lim­it­ed resis­tance, with some secu­ri­ty force per­son­nel cap­tured and severe­ly beat­en. But cadets and police offi­cers deployed at the res­i­dence rapid­ly resort­ed to sus­tained and exces­sive lethal force. In footage from the event, Human Rights Watch iden­ti­fied at least 19 peo­ple who were injured and 10 who appear to have been killed.

Early Morning Deployment of Forces by Republic Square

In an appar­ent gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tion of force cap­tured on video in the morn­ing of January 5, six BPM-97 armored per­son­nel car­ri­ers are seen at the entrance of Republic Square, at the cor­ner of Satpaev and Nazarbayev Streets.

Photographs and video footage pub­lished by Orda.kz, a local news out­let, before 11 a.m. show that mil­i­tary forces wear­ing bul­let­proof vests but not vis­i­bly bear­ing weapons had cor­doned off city hall. A sim­i­lar deploy­ment was report­ed near Almaty’s inter­na­tion­al air­port at the same time.

By mid­day, Orda.kz post­ed anoth­er video show­ing groups of pro­test­ers walk­ing on Raimbek and Tole Bi Streets toward the city center.

Events on Shevchenko Street

Around 2:40 p.m., four videos record­ed from dif­fer­ent loca­tions on down­town Almaty’s Shevchenko Street between Seifullin and Pushkin Streets show a com­pact group of few­er than 300 law enforce­ment offi­cers, in riot gear and equipped with batons and shield, being pur­sued east­ward on foot by a few dozen vio­lent riot­ers, who form the van­guard of a larg­er group of sev­er­al hun­dred sparse­ly dis­trib­uted protesters.

At the cor­ner of Shevchenko and Seifullin Streets, footage shows riot­ers sin­gling out at least three law enforce­ment offi­cers and beat­ing them severe­ly on the head and body with sticks and hel­mets. A few min­utes lat­er, riot­ers are seen sur­round­ing anoth­er law enforce­ment offi­cer and beat­ing him against a wall, at the cor­ner of Shevchenko and Maulenov Streets, one block far­ther east.

Security forces are then seen turn­ing abrupt­ly west­ward, toward the oncom­ing riot­ers. A dozen shots, most like­ly from a rifle, are heard, and secu­ri­ty forces can be seen throw­ing at least three tear­gas can­is­ters at riot­ers, dis­pers­ing them. The forces then cap­ture and severe­ly beat one riot­er who had just pushed a law enforce­ment offi­cer. A man is seen lying motion­less in a ditch on Maulenov Street, near the cor­ner of Shevchenko. At the same cor­ner, around the same time, secu­ri­ty forces can be seen drag­ging one of their col­leagues who appears to be severe­ly injured eastward.

Security forces con­tin­ued their retreat east, still pur­sued by riot­ers and pro­test­ers. A group of riot­ers that split off are seen turn­ing south on Seifullin Street and unsuc­cess­ful­ly try­ing to com­man­deer an ambu­lance. A video of this inci­dent, record­ed at the cor­ner of Shevchenko and Pushkin Streets around 3:10 p.m., shows riot­ers severe­ly beat­ing a mem­ber of the secu­ri­ty forces while anoth­er tries to intervene.

Detailed view of central Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Detailed view of cen­tral Almaty, Kazakhstan. © 2022 Human Rights Watch

Storming of Almaty City Hall

As the Shevchenko Street events took place, around 3 p.m. groups of pro­test­ers and riot­ers gath­ered on Republic Square. The armored per­son­nel car­ri­ers deployed there in the morn­ing had left. Protesters and riot­ers can be seen in videos mov­ing rapid­ly toward city hall, which police offi­cers and army cadets defend­ed. A video edit­ed and post­ed by the Kazakh gov­ern­ment shows riot­ers cap­tur­ing and beat­ing law enforce­ment offi­cers out­side the city hall’s main entrance. Another video filmed about an hour lat­er appears to show some offi­cers who had retreat­ed into the build­ing hid­ing in a safe room in the basement.

By 3:08 p.m., video footage shows large plumes of smoke bil­low­ing from win­dows on the south­ern and east­ern sides of city hall, and a third fire can be seen in win­dows on the north­ern wall with the main entrance fac­ing Republic Square. A video record­ed inside city hall shows sev­er­al riot­ers loot­ing the build­ing while fires burn on sev­er­al floors and uniden­ti­fied peo­ple try to escape the flames.

Shortly after these fires start­ed, a short video from the cor­ner of Nazarbayev and Satpaev Streets, by the east­ern entrance to Republic Square, shows sev­er­al riot­ers gath­er­ing around the open trunk of a car and grab­bing at least five rifles.

Storming of Almaty’s Presidential Residence — Incident Two

At some point between 3 and 4 p.m., most like­ly as riot­ers entered city hall around 3:30, oth­er groups made up of sev­er­al hun­dred riot­ers and pro­test­ers began to march on Almaty’s vacant pres­i­den­tial res­i­dence, locat­ed imme­di­ate­ly south of city hall at the cor­ner of Nazarbayev and Timiryazev Streets. A video shared on Telegram and Twitter around that time and record­ed from a tow­er over­look­ing the scene, shows rough­ly two dozen law enforce­ment offi­cers deployed on the residence’s heli­pad with the sup­port of four armored pro­tect­ed vehi­cles and sev­en troop trans­port trucks.

A series of 23 videos record­ed at var­i­ous times before sun­set at 5:31 p.m. in a 100-meter radius from the residence’s gate at Nazarbayev and Timiryazev Streets shows secu­ri­ty forces deployed to pro­tect the res­i­dence repeat­ed­ly shoot­ing at sev­er­al hun­dred pro­test­ers and riot­ers, some of whom have sticks, spades, and stolen police shields and batons. The footage shows one per­son hold­ing an object that appears to be a hand­gun but no one else can be seen with a firearm.

In four videos record­ed around 3:30 p.m., when secu­ri­ty forces start­ed to shoot, a group of about 40 pro­test­ers, appar­ent­ly unarmed but equipped with shields, can be seen crouch­ing behind the shields by the residence’s entrance on Nazarbayev Street. A larg­er crowd of sev­er­al hun­dred pro­test­ers, some of whom have shields, spades, and sticks, stands behind them, their atten­tion direct­ed else­where. As a few men stand up and move in the direc­tion of the res­i­dence, secu­ri­ty forces open fire, appar­ent­ly with­out warn­ing. Two men clos­est to the res­i­dence appear to be hit and fall to the ground. Rioters then set fire to a police booth by the entrance gate.

At a dif­fer­ent entrance, most like­ly around the same time, anoth­er group of few­er than 50 pro­test­ers, some with shields and batons, are seen approach­ing the res­i­dence in for­ma­tion from Timiryazev Street. All but one man, pos­si­bly hold­ing a hand­gun, appear to have no firearms and some raise their arms. There is debris on the ground, which may indi­cate the use of stun grenades pri­or to the video being recorded.

As these men approach a line of law enforce­ment offi­cers who are about 40 meters away and at least five meters above ground on top of an under­ground garage entrance to the res­i­dence, dozens of live rounds are heard, and at least five stun grenades det­o­nate. The shots do not appear to hit any­one, and the pro­test­ers con­tin­ue to advance toward the residence.

Other video footage record­ed after the gun­fire at the entrance on Nazarbayev Street shows that some of the shields that pro­test­ers stole from the police had been hit by what appear to be large full-sized rifle rounds and inter­me­di­ate sized bul­lets used in Kalashnikov and sim­i­lar rifle models.

Use of Lethal Force and Casualties at the Residence

Based on the reviewed video footage, secu­ri­ty forces at the president’s res­i­dence did not face immi­nent threats to their lives that would have jus­ti­fied resort­ing to lethal force dur­ing both attempts to enter the compound.

If the forces had insuf­fi­cient access to less-lethal means to pro­tect the prop­er­ty and feared for their own safe­ty, the pri­or­i­ty should have been the pro­tec­tion of human life over that of the prop­er­ty, and the inves­ti­ga­tion should exam­ine what, if any­thing, they were pro­tect­ing beyond the prop­er­ty, and why they did not retreat ear­li­er rather than take action that would cost lives.

A num­ber of riot­ers and pro­test­ers who approached the president’s res­i­dence were armed with sticks, batons, spades, and shields but none, except for one, appeared from the avail­able videos to be hold­ing a firearm. The chronol­o­gy of events, media reports, and the footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch sug­gest that most firearms lat­er report­ed­ly used in the city by riot­ers were stolen that evening, either from forces at city hall and the res­i­dence, or dur­ing the storm­ing of the National Security Bureau and gun shops.

The use of assault rifles, as heard in the videos, also most like­ly increased the chances of pro­test­ers being hit.

A for­mer sol­dier, who was at the res­i­dence dur­ing the assault, pub­lished a live video on Instagram in which he said he was in con­tact with troops inside and the build­ing was “being pro­tect­ed by cadets, ages 18 to 20, and their offi­cers.” Comments by the inter­im Interior Minister, Yerlan Turgumbaev, as well as a media report quot­ing an employ­ee from the near­by Central State Museum, appear to con­firm that cadets were pro­tect­ing the res­i­dence. If accu­rate, the cadets might not have been prop­er­ly trained in non­lethal crowd con­trol measures.

In 18 of the 23 videos record­ed near the president’s res­i­dence, Human Rights Watch count­ed 19 peo­ple who appear to have been wound­ed, many with bul­let wounds, and 10 who appeared to be dead.

Call to CSTO Military Alliance; and ‘Counterterrorism’ Operation

Rioters took over the president’s res­i­dence short­ly after sun­set on January 5. In a video record­ed inside at that time and ini­tial­ly post­ed lat­er as a “sto­ry” on Instagram on January 6, riot­ers are seen loot­ing the build­ing and set­ting it on fire. The riot­ers are seen beat­ing a few secu­ri­ty force mem­bers, but they are appar­ent­ly able to leave the res­i­dence after remov­ing their uni­forms. One riot­er who appears to have seized an AK-47 in the res­i­dence shoots sev­er­al rounds in the air, to cheers from the crowd.

A review of Kazakh media reports on law enforce­ment casu­al­ties indi­cates that at least three police offi­cers were killed down­town around the time of the events at city hall and the res­i­dence on January 5. Two of them were report­ed killed while pro­tect­ing the Almaly District Police Department build­ing, about a kilo­me­ter north­west of Republic Square, while the third was report­ed killed pro­tect­ing an “object of strate­gic impor­tance,” like­ly city hall.

By 8:37 p.m., media report­ed that armed peo­ple cap­tured Almaty’s inter­na­tion­al air­port. A video record­ed inside the ter­mi­nal and post­ed on Telegram a few hours lat­er showed riot­ers roam­ing freely in the wait­ing hall.

By 10 p.m., a report on a Telegram chan­nel said that the Almaty National Security Committee (KNB) branch had been breached and its armory loot­ed. A video lat­er pub­lished by Orda.kz showed emp­ty lock­ers in the armory and riot­ers han­dling weapons.

At some point that night, riot­ers also attacked the KNB Border Academy on Dostyk Avenue. A video record­ed on Dostyk out­side the acad­e­my and ver­i­fied by Human Rights Watch shows riot­ers severe­ly beat­ing five peo­ple who appear to be secu­ri­ty forces. Media report­ed that three cadets and two offi­cers had been killed defend­ing the acad­e­my that night. It is unclear whether they are the peo­ple in the footage.

By 12:45 a.m., President Tokaev, in a tele­vised speech, called on Russian-led forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a secu­ri­ty alliance of six coun­tries in the region, to assist the coun­try in respond­ing to “ter­ror­ist gangs […] who have under­gone train­ing abroad.”

Around the same time, the gov­ern­ment tem­porar­i­ly lift­ed some restric­tions on mobile inter­net access and exten­sive loot­ing was report­ed on social media through­out the city. That night, the Interior Ministry announced the death of 18 ser­vice­men. RIA Novosti report­ed that two of them had been found with sev­ered heads, and the Almaty police depart­ment report­ed the death of dozens of peo­ple dur­ing an attack on its build­ing. Human Rights Watch did not review any videos of that incident.

By 1:10 a.m. on January 6, Yerzhan Babakumarov, the deputy may­or of Almaty, told media that a coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tion had begun in the city. Another video from else­where in Almaty’s cen­ter, record­ed around 2 a.m., shows two women cross­ing an emp­ty street as sev­er­al gun­shots are heard being fired in their direc­tion. A man can be seen lying face down on the pave­ment, most like­ly severe­ly injured or dead.

At about the same time, dis­turb­ing footage from inside the Almaty morgue began to cir­cu­late online. Two videos that Human Rights Watch viewed show in total at least 21 bod­ies, includ­ing a man who was shot in the head. A morgue employ­ee can be heard say­ing: “Where was he wound­ed? His head?” “Yes,” a per­son off cam­era responds. “His head. Close his eyes.”

Use of Lethal Force at Republic Square on January 6

Three peo­ple inter­viewed sep­a­rate­ly told Human Rights Watch that secu­ri­ty forces opened fire on a group of peace­ful pro­test­ers who had gath­ered on Republic Square on January 6. Seven videos that Human Rights Watch ana­lyzed and media reports were con­sis­tent with their claims.

Incident Three

A female pro­test­er who was on the square with 150 to 200 peace­ful pro­test­ers said she saw the “mil­i­tary” arrive around 10 a.m. from the cor­ner of Nazarbayev and Satpaev Streets. An old­er female pro­test­er walked toward the mil­i­tary wav­ing her arms and call­ing on the forces not to shoot, she said.

Soldiers nonethe­less kneeled and point­ed their guns at pro­test­ers, the wit­ness said; actions that are also seen in a video record­ed at the scene. At that point, those who were car­ry­ing sticks dropped them and raised their hands. Some young men then made abrupt move­ments, the wit­ness recalled, and sol­diers ini­tial­ly began to shoot in the air. She said that at least one man was injured, which Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, also report­ed.

The shoot­ing even­tu­al­ly stopped, and the sit­u­a­tion sta­bi­lized, allow­ing pro­test­ers to return to the square, shout­ing “Atpa!” (“Don’t shoot!”). The wit­ness said that protest rep­re­sen­ta­tives demand­ed to talk with the force com­man­ders, and three senior offi­cers came to them. “You may go on with a peace­ful protest,” one of the offi­cers alleged­ly said, accord­ing to the wit­ness to whom anoth­er pro­test­er report­ed the con­ver­sa­tion. “We see you are peace­ful pro­test­ers; we have been watch­ing you.” But he appar­ent­ly added a warn­ing: “no provo­ca­tions, no weapons, or we will be forced to open a fire at you, we have an order.”

The secu­ri­ty forces report­ed­ly left the square short­ly there­after and the sit­u­a­tion calmed down. A jour­nal­ist who arrived at the square in the late after­noon told Human Rights Watch that pro­test­ers came from var­i­ous social groups, includ­ing stu­dents and pen­sion­ers, and were large­ly grouped around the Independence mon­u­ment. “None of them had any weapons, they had only cell phones in their hands, some of them had flags of Kazakhstan, first-aid kits, brooms and dust­pans for garbage col­lec­tion, and a mega­phone,” he recalled.

Incident Four

Between 6 and 6:30 p.m., the female wit­ness went home and heard shoot­ing and explo­sions that she said came from the square. When she called one of the protest lead­ers, he told her not to come, say­ing “the mil­i­tary has opened fire.”

Another pro­test­er also said that he saw sol­diers return to the square around 6 p.m. At that point, as both video footage and the wit­ness state­ments indi­cate, pro­test­ers were gath­ered in the cen­ter of the square, hold­ing a white ban­ner on which “We are peace­ful pro­test­ers! We are not the ter­ror­ists!” was writ­ten in large black letters.

They came with armored vehi­cles and opened fire,” he said. “We dis­persed and ran away, and those who stayed to hide behind mon­u­ments or build­ings were shot at when they peeked out.” Witnesses who spoke to the jour­nal­ist said that they saw one pro­test­er shot in the head and anoth­er wound­ed in the upper body. “We could not pick up the wound­ed,” the pro­test­er said. A col­league of the jour­nal­ist, who went to the square short­ly after the shoot­ing, lat­er told him he had found the body of a dead man in the street.

Three videos record­ed on the square that night show groups of pro­test­ers shout­ing “Atpa!” (“Don’t shoot!”) before the shoot­ing starts, and they start to run as dozens of explo­sions and over 100 rounds, includ­ing from machine guns, are heard with­in 2.5 min­utes. Based on the posi­tion of peo­ple seen hid­ing behind mon­u­ments, the shots appear to come from the direc­tion of Nazarbayev Street. One injured man is seen being car­ried into a car.

Video footage record­ed at 6:20 p.m. at the cor­ner of Satpaev and Nazarbayev Streets shows three GAZ Tigr light-armored jeeps appar­ent­ly leav­ing the square and dri­ving east­ward to turn south on Nazarbayev, where they are joined by two Ural-type armored vehi­cles and a fourth GAZ Tigr, which make U‑turns after arriv­ing from the east. Several pro­test­ers and passers­by were report­ed­ly killed that day.

The fol­low­ing day, January 7, President Tokaev said in a tele­vised speech that he had giv­en the order to shoot to kill with­out warning.

Government Narrative on Police Use of Force

On January 9 inter­im Interior Minister Yerlan Turgumbaev told media, with­out pro­vid­ing a chronol­o­gy, that pro­test­ers had attacked patrol units, burned offi­cial vehi­cles, seized sev­en weapons stores, and pre­vent­ed ambu­lances from offer­ing med­ical assis­tance to victims.

Describing the storm­ing of city hall on January 5, he spoke of 20,000 peo­ple arriv­ing from the out­skirts of Almaty, claim­ing they were bet­ter armed and orga­nized than secu­ri­ty forces at the time. He did not explain why mil­i­tary per­son­nel deployed ear­li­er that day on the square had left their position.

On January 16 Taimerdenov, head of the Almaty police depart­ment, and Berik Zhuiriktayev, chief pros­e­cu­tor of Almaty, pro­vid­ed media with a more detailed account.

In all cas­es,” Taimerdenov said, “the police offi­cers worked accord­ing to the estab­lished pro­ce­dures in ensur­ing the pro­tec­tion of pub­lic order dur­ing peace­ful assem­blies and were not armed.”

According to the police chief, on January 4, 10,000 pro­test­ers were already try­ing to storm city hall. He blamed vio­lence on “ter­ror­ists, rad­i­cals, extrem­ists, and crim­i­nals” who joined the pro­test­ers and encour­aged them to take aggres­sive actions against the authorities.

Despite the numer­i­cal supe­ri­or­i­ty of the attack­ers, thanks to the self­less actions of the police and mil­i­tary per­son­nel, they did not suc­ceed,” he said of what he described as two unsuc­cess­ful attempts to cap­ture city hall on the night of January 4 to 5.

On January 5 he told media that “law and order” had been restored in the city, when a crowd of 20,000 peo­ple head­ed toward city hall broke through police lines.

 “Given the lim­it­ed space and den­si­ty of peo­ple, the police did not use weapons, as this could have led to large casu­al­ties,” Taimerdenov said. He did not pro­vide an expla­na­tion for events at the president’s res­i­dence or events on January 6.

Since January 5, only ban­dits and ter­ror­ists have been oper­at­ing in the city,” Zhuiriktayev said. “It was no longer a peace­ful protest. We were faced with an act of terrorism.”

International Standards on Freedom of Assembly and the Use of Force

Governments are oblig­ed, under inter­na­tion­al law, to pro­tect the right to free­dom of peace­ful assem­bly, both by adopt­ing mea­sures to enable peace­ful assem­blies and by pro­tect­ing demon­stra­tors from vio­lence direct­ed at them by counter-protests or indi­vid­u­als. They should restrict such assem­blies only to achieve a legit­i­mate goal, such as pro­tect­ing the rights of oth­ers, and then use the least intru­sive mea­sures that are nec­es­sary and pro­por­tion­ate to achieve that goal.

They should pre­sume that all assem­blies will be non­vi­o­lent, even in cas­es in which there may be iso­lat­ed inci­dents of vio­lence, or where small groups of exter­nal actors – such as coun­ter­pro­test­ers or riot­ers – may engage in vio­lence. Assemblies are often diverse gath­er­ings, and par­tic­i­pants do not lose their indi­vid­ual rights sole­ly because a small num­ber of peo­ple are behav­ing violently.

Assemblies may only be dis­persed in “excep­tion­al cas­es” such as when “the assem­bly as such is no longer peace­ful, or if there is clear evi­dence of an immi­nent threat of seri­ous vio­lence that can­not be rea­son­ably addressed by more pro­por­tion­ate mea­sures.” In that event, law enforce­ment author­i­ties should first give pro­test­ers ample oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­perse, with clear instruc­tions and open pathways.

Law enforce­ment offi­cials, in gen­er­al, should avoid the use of force to dis­perse peace­ful protests, regard­less of whether they deem the protests unlaw­ful. Even in the event of vio­lence, force should be used only if nec­es­sary and pro­por­tion­ate to address a gen­uine threat, and only as a last resort.

Lethal force should nev­er be indis­crim­i­nate­ly direct­ed at crowds and should only be used in case of immi­nent threat to life.

Original source: (Berlin) –  Human Rights Watch