Kazakhstan: Land Protest Trial Ends With 5-Year Jail Sentences
Two activists accused of organizing land protests in Kazakhstan have been sentenced to five years in jail.
At the culmination of a trial lasting one and half months, Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan were found guilty of inciting social unrest, spreading false information and disrupting public order and will, in addition to serving prison time, be banned from public activities for three years.
Judge Gulnar Dauleshova also said the defendants had to pay 259,000 tenge ($750) to cover the costs of expert witnesses and would have their mobile phones confiscated.
Authorities will hope this verdict puts a definitive end to the season of political unrest that began when thousands of citizens hit the streets in the spring in protest at legislation to privatize swathes of public land. In the absence of adequate information campaigns, speculation circulated that much of the land would be bought by foreign investors, primarily from China — a taboo suggestion in a country where land is popularly deemed a natural birthright and where suspicions toward China run high.
Lawyers for the activists, both from the city of Atyrau, where the trial took place, have said they will appeal the sentence.
A journalist for RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq, present in the courtroom reported that the pair reacted calmly to the verdict and thanked their supporters as they were escorted out of the building.
As supporters left the courtroom, dozens of them broke out into renditions of the national anthem and shouted “Freedom” as the paddy wagon carrying Bokayev and Ayan drove past, Radio Azattyq reported.
The verdict was widely expected, although the sentence fell short of the eight-year jail term requested by the prosecution.
The case of Bokayev and Ayan, who have been described as “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International, has drawn criticism from international rights groups, who describe the trial as a unjust reprisal for anti-government protests.
Bokayev and “Ayan should not be facing prison time for peacefully exercising their right to protest or for encouraging others to do the same,” Mihra Rittmann, a Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement before the start of the trial. “Expressing a negative opinion about government policy is not a crime.”
The trial was marked by numerous dubious procedural oddities, casting doubt on the fairness and legitimacy of the entire process.
One damning witness statement was provided by jailed business Tohtar Tuleshov, who claimed in a video link-up on October 18 to have given Ayan $100,000 that were then used to finance the protests. Tuleshov was sentenced to 21 years in jail on coup-plotting charges earlier this month after the court ruled that he had hoped to exploit the wave of unrest sparked by the land protests to seize power. Tuleshov, however, denied he had any malicious intent and said the money he gave the Atyrau activists was for organizing roundtables and similar peaceful activities.
While claiming to have given Ayan money, Tuleshov also admitted not knowing the activist.
Ayan and Bokayev deny receiving any money from Tuleshov.
Other witnesses also related to the Tuleshov trial, which is taking place behind closed doors, gave similarly confused testimonies from remote sites, much to the dismay of defense lawyers.
Prosecutors claimed that cash handed to the activists was wrapped in a T-shirt. For reasons unclear, Dauleshova ordered that the alleged T-shirt in question be destroyed — a decision that could stand to complicate any appeal process.
While the sentencing of Bokayev and Ayan might suggest that the government feels like it has no case to make for its land reforms, the complete opposite is the case.
Despite insisting the land privatization would not harm the interests of the general public, President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved hastily in the wake of the protests to scrap the plans.
And in a suspiciously coincidental development, the lower house of parliament voted on November 23 to bolster a five-year moratorium on land privatization laws passed last year by agreeing to ban the sale of land to foreigners until December 31, 2021.
In effect, Ayan and Bokayev have been jailed for holding entirely peaceful protests against a law that even the government and parliament have been moved to agree was not worthy of implementation.