Kazakhstan to liberalize rules on protests and political parties

NUR-SULTAN (Reuters) - Kazakhstan will drop a requirement for public protests to be approved by authorities, make it easier to form political parties, and reduce punishments for hate speech and libel, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Friday.

The reform package would ease some of the most widely criticized restrictions on political freedoms in a country which has no real opposition parties in parliament and where government critics have often faced criminal charges.

Tokayev, who took over the former Soviet republic in March when Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned after almost 30 years in power, announced his plans at a meeting of the National Council of Public Trust, an advisory body he established this year.

“We are making a serious step towards reforming the existing political system,” Tokayev said.

A new draft law on public rallies excludes provisions requiring official approval, which have effectively served as a blanket ban on protests.

Hundreds of people were detained at protests during and after the June presidential election, which Tokayev won with Nazarbayev’s backing. Dozens are also routinely held by police at smaller rallies.

In another move easing political restrictions, the minimum number of people required to start a party will be halved to 20,000, Tokayev said.

Tokayev also said offences such as slander and libel would be removed from the criminal code and the article on hate speech would become more specific and less harsh. Both have often been used against opposition activists and government critics.

Kazakhstan’s parliament is dominated by the ruling Nur Otan party which Nazarbayev continues to lead while also remaining the head of the powerful security council and carrying the title of Yelbasy, or national leader. A parliamentary election is scheduled for 2021.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Giles Elgood