U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland).

By Eve Sampson, Capital News Service

Over 200 people died when demonstrations in Kazakhstan turned deadly earlier this year. Now, legislators are concerned U.S.-trained troops were involved. 

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin joined Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey and other Democrats in calling on the Biden administration to support an independent investigation of Kazakh security forces’ brutal suppression of widespread anti-government protests in January.

In response to reports that Kazakhstan deployed U.S.-trained KAZBAT security forces, the senators are urging a review of U.S. military assistance to the country.

The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, said the senators are “deeply concerned by reports that KAZBAT security forces trained by the United States to participate in international peacekeeping missions were deployed during January, wearing UN peacekeeping helmets.”

Anti-government protesters stormed Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, in early January after the government ended fuel price caps, doubling gas prices overnight. The protestors called for an extensive government overhaul.

In response to demonstrations spreading quickly throughout the country, the authoritarian regime deployed huge numbers of police in an effort to curb the unrest. 

The senators’ letter details reports of human rights abuses at the hands of Khazakh authorities, including torture, abuse and the deaths of demonstrators in state custody. The government of Kazakhstan, the senators said, has not appropriately investigated the reports. 

“Despite widespread reports of torture, only fifteen officials are being investigated for these actions. There are no reports of security officers being questioned or detained over the 238 deaths and growing evidence of the authorities pressuring witnesses to the January events to withdraw accusations of abuse by security forces,” the letter said. 

The death total comes from an official list of 238 names released by Kazakhstan’s General Prosecutor’s Office of those declared dead as a result of the protests, including six people who died from torture in pre-trial custody.

The senators are not the first to call for independent investigations. 

In July, six months after the deadly demonstrations, Human Rights Watch and nine other human rights organizations signed a joint statement calling on the Kazakhstan government to allow an independent investigation into the allegations of torture, abuse and death.

A January Human Rights Watch report that analyzed over 80 videos of demonstrations between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6 found at least four instances where police used excessive force such as shooting at protesters. The report speculates that the actual number of incidents involving excessive force is most likely much higher.

Mihra Rittmann, a senior Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a country already fraught with human rights issues, Kazakhstan’s investigation of those responsible for the violence is a crucial component to reform and democratization.

“It’s essential that the government shows that it’s willing to hold law enforcement accountable. People were killed, people died,” Rittmann said. “The government itself admits to six people dying in detention because of torture.” 

“And if there is no accountability for those crimes, for the people that were killed, for the people who died in detention, for people who were tortured, then the government loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people,” she said.

In September, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced a measure granting amnesty and compensation to 421 people with suspected involvement in the riots and demonstrations.

To Rittmann, this may not be enough.

“The government says that it is taking steps to democratize, it says that it has reforms underway, but so often those reforms don’t translate into actual changes on the ground,” Rittmann said. “There’s rhetoric but not meaningful change. And that has to change if there’s going to be a way that the Kazakh government can engage with its population that doesn’t result in mass arrest of people trying to peacefully protest.”

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