Officials in Kazakhstan have recently begun easing the lockdown that was imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
That means people are coming back out onto the streets, businesses are reopening, and life is slowly returning to something resembling normal.
But while the lockdown was in force, there were some in the government and others connected to it who were busy going after civic activists.
Yevgeny Zhovtis is a well-known human rights lawyer based in Almaty and the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR).
Zhovtis and his organization have been critical of the proposed revisions to the law on assembly that parliament has been debating, even while the lockdown was in place in big cities around the country and people were unable to gather to publicly express their opinions about the new legislation (the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, approved the bill on April 8 and approved changes to the draft law on public assembly on May 20).
The law defines how many people can attend a demonstration, what venues are available for rallies, and what permission is needed to conduct such public events.
KIBHR released a statement on April 20 that said the law was "generally not compliant with international human rights standards and there are severe and unjustified restraints on the time and place of assemblies, and burdens placed on the organizers of assemblies," and recommended Kazakh authorities send the draft law to the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Assembly and Association or the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights for review before adopting it.
According to a May 11 statement released by the international Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OPHRD), "on April 28, 2020, a large-scale, well-orchestrated smear campaign was launched in the media and social networks against Mr. [Yevgeny] Zhovtis, the KIBHR, and other civil society organizations critical of the draft law."
The OPHRD said that, between April 28 and May 2, "Several dozens of publications appeared on social networks and online media, that systematically receive funds from the state" that were "primarily accusing the KIBHR of defending the right of foreigners to peaceful assembly [and] also focused on the ethnicity of the KIBHR employees and on the fact that the organization receives funding from foreign donors."
The statement added: "Besides ordinary Internet users and fake accounts, among the authors of publications are public figures known for extreme nationalist views and owners of a government-linked 'troll factory.'"
The KIBHR posts its statements on the organization's website, so it would have been easy for Kazakh authorities to notice KIBHR's criticism, but even if the criticism had been only on social networks, it would also likely have been noticed.
Since it was not possible to stray far from home in Kazakhstan in recent weeks due to the pandemic, social networks have seen increased activity.
'An Excuse To Prosecute'
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported on May 21 that Kazakh authorities have hired firms to keep track of what is being said on social networks accessible in Kazakhstan.
These firms are contracted to search for posts that could create a "threat" to sociopolitical stability and also, as part of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, the dissemination of false information about the virus or government measures to battle it. But in the process they also find people's messages criticizing the government.
The OPHRD said in its May 11 release that "Kazakhstan authorities seem to use a state of emergency as an excuse to prosecute its critics and opponents."
The statement pointed to the case of Danaya Kaliyeva, who on May 4 was summoned for interrogation "because of a repost of a publication concerning the construction of hospitals for patients with COVID-19, which she made on her Facebook page," and charged under Article 274.4 (2) of the Criminal Code -- dissemination of knowingly false information -- and made more serious as it came "in a state of emergency or in a state of combat, or in wartime, or in the course of a public event."
RFE/RL also reported on the detention of activist Alnur Ilyashev on April 17 on charges of spreading false information for his posts on social networks criticizing the ruling Nur-Otan party.
Ilyashev has been helping to organize protests against the government since 2019 and took the Almaty mayor's office to court, unsuccessfully, after his requests to hold peaceful public meetings were rejected some 35 times.
The Observatory report lists other cases.
Serikzhan Bilash is an ethnic Kazakh who originally came from China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and moved to Kazakhstan where he obtained citizenship and, in 2017, founded the group Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland).
Shedding Light On Abuses
The organization has been instrumental in shedding light on the abuses against ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and others in Xinjiang at the hands of Chinese authorities in the so-called reeducation camps set up by Beijing.
Bilash's work has complicated the Kazakh government's relations with its large eastern neighbor, the more so because China has become a leading investor in Kazakhstan and one of the country's main trading partners.
Kazakh authorities already moved to mute Bilash and his group when a splinter faction of Atajurt Eriktileri that was much less critical of China was registered in September 2019.
Bilash continued his group's work, slightly altering its name to Naghiz Atajurt Eriktileri (the Authentic Volunteers of the Fatherland) in an effort to differentiate itself from the former group taken over by the government.
On April 25, RFE/RL received a message from Bilash saying he was under investigation for inciting social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred, the same charge he was on trial for during 2019 and eventually convicted, but fined only the equivalent of some $300 and freed.
On April 29, RFE/RL reported that the registered faction of Atajurt Eriktileri was filing a lawsuit against Bilash's faction, charging that his group was using emblems, symbols, names, and other property that belong to the registered Atajurt Eriktileri.
Bilash was summoned for questioning again.
There were concerns by many in some countries that as authorities introduced measures to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus, they might also use the opportunity to clamp down on dissent and neutralize perceived threats.
Many would now point to Kazakhstan as an example of this fear being put in practice.