A high-profile trip by two senior UK parliamentarians to Kazakhstan to examine its human rights record has almost immediately run into trouble as they were denied access to a jailed opposition leader who is the focus of the visit.
The former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald and the former justice secretary Robert Buckland were not permitted to meet the head of the unregistered Democratic party of Kazakhstan, Zhanbolat Mamai, or senior Kazakh diplomats.
The two British barristers flew to Almaty on Monday on what they said was a prior understanding with Kazakh diplomats in London that they would be given permission to meet Mamai and the deputy foreign minister.
Mamai was detained in February 2022 after being accused of playing a part in orchestrating protests that had swept the country in January, sparked by a rise in petrol prices. The protests led to the killing of 238 people, including some children, in what is seen as the worst violence to hit the oil-rich country since its independence was secured 30 years ago. Human rights groups say 10,000 people were detained and torture was widespread.
The Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has tried to give the impression that his country is on a path to reform, and on Thursday he announced parliamentary elections in March. The country is inching away from its longstanding Russian alliance.
After flying to Kazakhstan, Lord Macdonald and Buckland were told that meetings with government officials including the deputy foreign minister, Roman Vassilenko, set for the next day had been cancelled. The meeting was rearranged, then cancelled again on Thursday. A court reversed its decision to allow the meeting with Mamai.
At a press conference in Almaty on Friday, Macdonald responded to a Kazakh government statement that said planned meetings would not go ahead since the parliamentarians were not part of an official UK government delegation.
“This misses the whole point,” Macdonald said. “The whole point is we are an independent commission. I very much regret these meetings have been cancelled at short notice and without explanation.” He called the cancellation “a mistake and discourteous” and argued that the Kazakh government had signed many human rights conventions, adding that “with these conventions comes scrutiny”.
Buckland said: “It should be a self-evident truth that their families are owed the highest degree of justice and more widely those that have been detained are owed the benefit of due process of law. Only in March, the president declared he wants this country to be ‘an effective state with a strong civil society’. The surest way of building a strong civil society is the fullest development of the rule of law.”
The visit was requested by Kazakh citizens and approved by the government. The Labour MP Rushanara Ali, who did not travel to Almaty, is the third member of the inquiry.
Last January as the protests spread, Tokayev claimed on Twitter that 20,000 “foreign-trained terrorists” had attacked the country. As a result, he claimed, it was necessary for him to order a “counter-terrorist operation to eliminate the national security threat and protect the lives and property of the citizens of Kazakhstan”. That same day, he announced in a televised address that he had ordered police and the army to “shoot to kill without warning”.
The demonstrations had started on 2 January in the west of the country over an increase in state-controlled gas prices. Those protests developed into broad criticisms of corruption, economic inequality and the continuing grip on power and the country’s energy wealth by its long-serving first leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his family.
At Tokayev’s request, 2,000 mostly Russian peacekeeping troops were sent in by the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of six former Soviet states. The CSTO is due to leave in late January. Tokayev’s administration rejected calls for an international investigation into his handling of the protests.