A Court Victory over Torture Raises Hopes in Kazakhstan

The police in Kazakhstan, as in other Central Asian countries, have a dismal record on the use of torture—reports by human rights groups and experts have highlighted a situation in which beating and abusing suspects in a bid to elicit a confession is standard operating procedure. Local legal complaints by the victims are regularly dismissed by unsympathetic prosecutors and rarely reach the courts. Despite reform efforts funded by foreign donors, there’s been no evidence that this culture of police abuse is substantially changing.

So it was heartening that a local court in Kostanai, a city in northern Kazakhstan, ruled last November that a torture victim should receive compensation from the Ministry of the Interior, after taking his case to the United Nations Committee against Torture. Even more remarkably, on January 23, an appeal court upheld this decision in full. The rulings are unprecedented in Central Asia, with the local police department now obliged to pay 2 million Kazakh tenge (equivalent to about $13,000) in damages to the victim, Alexander Gerasimov, a construction worker.

The case marks the first time anywhere in Central Asia when a department of the Ministry of Interior was actually held accountable for torture on the basis of the UN CAT decision. This is also the first decision not only in Kazakhstan but in the Central Asia region where the views of a UN treaty committee, rather than a criminal conviction, have been the basis for awarding damages.

Gerasimov’s story is one of remarkable individual courage and persistence, which began when he was arrested in March 2007, and beaten by the local police in a bid to get him to confess to a crime that he did not commit, resulting in him spending two weeks in hospital. He filed a complaints with a local prosecutor office, which led the opening, and then the closing, of a domestic investigation – all amid attempts by the local authorities to intimidate him into silence. Then Gerasimov contacted the Kazakhstan International Bureau on Human Rights and the Rule of Law, a local human rights group, which joined with the Open Society Justice Initiative in filing a complaint at UN CAT.

In May 2012, UN CAT found Kazakhstan to be liable for torture and mistreatment, failure to prevent and effectively investigate torture, ordering compensation, and other remedies, and  urging Kazakhstan to “take effective measures” to ensure that Gerasimov and his family are “protected from threats and intimidation”.

But while the Gerasimov case is a certain victory in the battle against torture in Central Asia, it does not establish a binding legal precedent that could open the doors to a flood of similar complaints. In particular, while the principle that courts can enforce UN treaty body decision on compensation was successfully argued by Gerasimov’s legal team in Kostanai, this principle needs to be enshrined in law, as a necessary part of Kazakhstan’s accession to the UN treaties.

In the meantime, the court’s detailed analysis of the international obligations and national legislation of Kazakhstan could hopefully be used by other lawyers and judges in similar cases. In the Gerasimov case, after seven years, the police may still appeal against the ruling to the country’s Court of Cassation and the Supreme Court.

Gerasimov himself continues to show remarkable commitment to this long, long process. After the January appeal’s court judgment he told a reporter: "My own father worked as a police officer for more than 50 years. And he raised me to be honest…My father told me never to use his position to get what I wanted, but to achieve things on my own. That's why I'm fighting."

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