Kazakhstan: Campaigners Urge Legal Reform To Protect Free Speech
Human rights campaigners in Kazakhstan are calling for the abolition of two pieces of legislation frequently used against critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The appeal comes against the backdrop of an ongoing trial in Almaty of two activists facing charges of incitement — an accusation that their supporters argue is an attempt to muzzle them through the courts.
“There are two articles in our Criminal Code that can – given the desire – be used against inconvenient dissidents and political opponents,” Yevgeniy Zhovtis, the country’s best-known human rights campaigner, told a press conference in Almaty on January 19. “Both are political.”
Zhovtis was referring to the charge of incitement to social, ethnic, tribal, racial, class or religious strife — a statute routinely wielded against political activists and journalists — and the charge of dissemination of false information, which was criminalized last year.
Continued use of these articles “for the persecution of dissidents” risks “turning our country into a police state moving closer to totalitarianism, which is extremely sad,” said Zhovtis.
Zhovtis has personal experience of the court system being used as a stick to beat dissidents. In 2009, he was sentenced to jail following a fatal traffic accident that Zhovtis admitted to, though he denied that he was legally culpable and dismissed proceedings as a “political set-up.” Independent observers noted that the trial was marred with irregularities and that the final penalty was unduly severe.
The trial of activists Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev on charges of inciting ethnic enmity is now running into its second month in Almaty. People following the case have lambasted the accusations themselves as spurious, based as they are on postings on Facebook that purportedly reproduce excerpts of an unpublished book written two decades ago. Compounding matters, Narymbayev, who has been diagnosed with high blood pressure and a heart condition, has complained of worsening health as hearings have proceeded.
Zhovtis, who is a lawyer by training, pointed out that there was no legal definition in Kazakhstan of what precisely constitutes incitement, and said the charge — also criticized by international rights watchdogs — is open to highly subjective interpretation.
It was used to jail opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov for seven-and-a-half years in 2012, after prosecutors argued that his verbal support for an oil strike that culminated in fatal violent in 2011 had incited social strife.
The incitement charge — which carries a prison term of up to 20 years in aggravated cases — should be replaced with a clause criminalizing hate speech, with a clear definition based on best European practice, Zhovtis argued.
“This is a political article, and under this article dissidence is persecuted,” said Tazabek Sambetbay, an activist from the Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan.
Sambetbay said his party, which positions itself as an opposition movement but has been largely inactive in recent years, supported calls for abolition.
The charge of “disseminating knowingly false information” — which effectively criminalizes rumor-spreading and carries a jail term of up to 10 years — has also been deployed in variety of cases, including against journalist Guzyal Baydalinova.
Baydalinova is currently in jail pending investigations into reports about Kazkommertsbank that were published on the Nakanune.kz website. Baydalinova has already been found guilty of defamation in her reports about the bank.
Critics of the criminal charges believe the stakes could not be higher.
“For a society to be free, there has to be free discussion,” said activist Galym Ageleuov.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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