A court in Kazakhstan has sentenced the leader of an unregistered opposition party to a suspended six-year prison term on charges ranging from the dissemination of false information to the instigation of public unrest.
The charges relate to what prosecutors have claimed was the role played by Zhanbolat Mamay in laying the seeds for the bloody political unrest that left more than 238 people dead in January 2022.
Mamay has vehemently denied the accusations. While the official narrative for those events places the blame on troublemakers and provocateurs, independent accounts suggest police also played a notable role in worsening tensions by violently suppressing what had begun as peaceful marches in Almaty, where most of the bloodshed occurred.
Mamay, 34, will not face further time behind bars, but he will be prohibited from carrying out political activity and journalism for the duration of his sentence. He said after his April 10 conviction that he will appeal.
“We presented what I believe was simply irrefutable evidence of my innocence. Dozens of witnesses spoke here and fully confirmed that I did not call for riots,” he told the court. “I think this is a completely politically motivated verdict.”
The sentence handed down by the judge presiding the trial was only six months less than what was requested by the prosecution.
Mamay was placed under arrest for a 15-day period at the end of February 2022 for his role in organizing a rally to commemorate people who had died during the unrest in Almaty. What began as a short jail term was later extended after the authorities determined that they believed the activist had himself played a role in instigating that turmoil in January.
Mamay has insisted that the full extent of his activity during the trouble was to encourage people to attend a peaceful picket on the outskirts of Almaty on January 4, but he denies calling on crowds to head into the center of the city, where the worst of the clashes occurred.
This conviction marks only the latest of many run-ins that Mamay, an outspoken critic of the government, has had with the authorities. Perhaps his first arrest arrived in 2012, when he was accused of inciting social discord after taking part in a labor strike mounted by oil workers in the western Mangistau region. He was arrested one month later and subsequently became a constant feature of the country’s beleaguered opposition scene.
In 2017, when he was working as editor of opposition newspaper Tribuna, he was again arrested on charges of laundering money for wealthy, Europe-based government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov. After spending six months in a pre-trial detention facility, Mamay was sentenced to three years of restricted freedom.
His efforts after that were focused on trying to get his Democratic Party of Kazakhstan – not to be confused with the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, another opposition force – registered with the Justice Ministry. All those attempts failed in the face of much sustained harassment.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.