HRD Interview: Danaya Kaliyeva, civic activist from Almaty, Kazakhstan
What is the situation like for human rights defenders, working on business-related human rights issues in Kazakhstan? Are there sufficient protections for HRDs?
Taking into account the situation in general, human rights defenders are not protected, just like ordinary citizens. Judging by the latest world statistics, Kazakhstan is among those close to the authoritarian regime. Therefore, human rights defenders are not protected in our country.
What are the greatest risks human rights defenders are currently facing? Has the situation improved or worsened over the last five years? Has it changed during COVID-19, and if so how?
Human rights defenders, taking into account the fact that they somehow belong to certain public associations, may face various obstacles. As the recent examples with Echo, Yerkindik Kanaty, the Bureau for Human Rights and so on have shown, government agencies can find fault with anything: reporting, sanitary standards.
Over the past five years, the situation has only worsened. It seems that we do not receive frank reprisals, but at the same time we see how human rights defenders are legally driven more and more into a dead end. In general, not only with human rights defenders, the authorities used the pandemic exclusively to their advantage.
They got the maximum benefit they could get. By moving everything to online format, the same lawsuits, the same tricks used by officials, they deprived people of the opportunity to defend others and defend themselves. From my own experience, I will say that during an online court hearing you may not be heard, your question may not be answered, you may be disconnected, allegedly due to technical problems, and during this time they can come up with a version and an answer. It also relates to statements. A statement to police was written through the Kamkor website. No reply was received within the prescribed fifteen days. Then we went to the police department. It’s good that they’ve begun accepting visitors now. Otherwise, you can’t protect yourself or protect others because everywhere they refer to quarantine. Everything is online. And when it’s online, they can pretend that there is nothing. When it is to their benefit, we have a pandemic, and when it is not to their benefit, there is no pandemic.
Can you tell us more about your work on business and human rights?
Now we are trying to get on platforms for discussing bills. For example, the project "Prevention of Domestic Violence", projects of public control. Basically, I deal with issues of excessive spending of the state budget of government agencies and quasi-government sector.
Can you share the kinds of threats and attacks you have experienced as a result of it? How were companies involved in this?
Two of the three criminal cases brought against me involve clashes with large companies. One of them, from the quasi-government sector, is Otbasy Bank, previously called ZhilStroySberBank, and the second is BI Group, represented by Chairman Rakhimbaev.
What concerns ZhilStroySberBank [now Otbasy bank], I analyzed public procurement: why some purchases are made from one source, issues of excessive spending. I took information from open sources. A criminal case was opened against me on April 20, 2020 for disseminating deliberately false information during the state of emergency.
At the moment, I have the status of a witness with the right to defense, searches were carried out, equipment was seized, and so on. The case is now on hold.
Also, during the emergency, when the construction of modular hospitals began, I made a repost from the Telegram channel. I was interested in the price since these are modular hospitals. I reposted a message by the BI Group Chairman, Aydin Rakhimbaev, so that my subscribers could see the person promises honesty and transparency. In response, they start a criminal case against me: they confiscate my phone, conduct an interrogation and so on. This case is currently on hold, but it has not been closed.
Yesterday and the day before yesterday, posts were published on some fake pages encouraging to beat and lynch me and my colleagues. Society is being actively engaged in violence against me, my comrades-in-arms. It has already come to this. We try not to answer unfamiliar numbers, do not go out in the dark. This has been happening for the last year and a half. There is a personal interest of the Chairman of Otbasy Bank, because a lot of money is involved. After the reorganization from ZhilStroySberBank to Otbasy Bank, they were allocated about 889 billion tenge in the first tranche.
What has been the response of other NGOs to the attacks you have been experiencing? How about the general public? The international community, including buyers from and investors in Kazakhstan?
Human rights organizations supported me, independent media, bloggers and individual activists also provided support. The US Embassy expressed concern.
Are businesses cooperating with civil society when concerns are raised about their operations? Can you share some positive examples, if there are any?
Companies contact human rights defenders only when they are trying to bribe or intimidate them. They do not try to fix anything.
Have any investors or companies supported human rights defenders beyond their operations?
Locals do not support, because it is risky for them, they will fall under pressure.
What role does the government play? Is it supportive of human rights defenders? Or do you feel pressure from the government?
It does not support human rights defenders at all. They invite you to some kind of round tables, imitate frantic activity. What happened to the law "On Peaceful Assemblies"? They did not hear any of the human rights defenders, they did their own thing anyway. All activity is blurring the eyes. People have fewer and fewer legal mechanisms to influence this.
The same law "On Peaceful Assemblies" can be called an active obstruction of human rights activities, because in fact people get administrative arrests. We, human rights defenders, have no status.
What do you think the government or investors/companies can do to improve the protection of human rights defenders?
To start by recognizing that we have human rights violations. Recognition is the first step towards a solution and it needs to be spoken out. You also need to define a clear status of a human rights defender and not put it in a framework, that is, [not] tie it like legal practice that is licensed. The activities of a human rights defender are much broader. Companies can make their activities open, invite the public.
What can international organizations and community do to help protect human rights defenders on the ground?
It is necessary to impose sanctions in relation to those persons who are associated with the persecution and pressure of human rights defenders and civic activists. Block accounts, property abroad. Then there will be a result. Only punishment to the full extent of the law will be clear to them.
What drives you to do your work? How do you think it contributes to achieving corporate accountability for human rights abuses?
Altruism, I guess. It's hard to stop now. The more you face it, the faster you want to see when this is all over. I would like to believe that the water wears away the stone, and that everyone does their bit. If we take the BI Group, it was not in vain that this topic was raised. I am even glad that a criminal case was opened against me because more people paid attention to their activities and, as it turned out, not in vain. Also, more people paid attention to Otbasy Bank. People began to ask questions, study numbers - they get involved. This process can no longer be stopped and that is good.
We pay for this price, but we get the result: people develop critical thinking, people become politicized, people start with their rights and obligations of state bodies. We are getting a good result in the form of feedback from civil society.