The supporters of a jailed political opposition leader in Kazakhstan have lashed out at a decision by the courts to hold his ongoing trial, on charges of involvement with an extremist organization, behind closed doors.
In a desperate bid for his trial to be made open to the public, Marat Zhylanbayev, a 60-year-old once widely feted for his marathon running exploits, earlier this month sewed his mouth closed and declared he was mounting a hunger strike.
Speaking in a press conference on November 8, Zhylanbayev’s lawyer, Meirzhan Doskarayev, said that the October 30 ruling on keeping court proceedings away from public view had been adopted at the instigation of two unnamed individuals.
“There are no state secrets here or any information about violent actions being perpetrated against any individuals in the case,” Doskarayev told reporters. “The two witnesses purportedly stated that they feared for their safety, but they do not even know Marat Zhylanbayev and have not met him.”
Doskarayev said his client is already showing signs of physical weakness as a result of his hunger strike.
The claim made by prosecutors is that Zhylanbayev, who was arrested in May, has been conspiring with Europe-based government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov, who founded a movement called the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, or DVK. The movement has since 2018 officially been deemed an extremist organization, meaning that anybody believed to be associating with it can face charges akin to those reserved for suspected terrorists. Zhylanbayev is accused of participating in and financing the activities of DVK.
Zhylanbayev and his supporters deny those links and insist instead that he leads another entity altogether, the unregistered Alga Kazakhstan! political party. The authorities have in essence strongly hinted that DVK and Alga Kazakhstan! are all but the same thing.
The Almaty-based Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law reported on November 9 that Alga Kazakhstan! representatives have filed a petition with the Prosecutor General's Office demanding that investigators in Zhylanbayev’s case be held accountable for allegedly falsifying evidence.
Alga, Kazakhstan! activist Sergei Izmailov, who also spoke at the November 8 press conference, said that one line of evidence being advanced by investigators is that Zhylanbayev left comments under social media posts by DVK leader Ablyazov.
Meanwhile, the extremism funding allegation rests, he said, on the fact that Zhylanbayev paid money toward the registration fees of two independent candidates – Zhanna Sarsenova and Bibigul Imangaliyeva – running in the parliamentary elections in March.
“But neither Sarsenova or Imangaliyeva have ever been charged with extremism or anything else, otherwise they would never have been registered as candidates in the parliamentary elections,” Izmailov said.
Imangaliyeva spoke at the press conference too and said that she was thoroughly vetted by the National Security Committee, or KNB, before her candidacy was approved.
Until 2021, Zhylanbayev was best known for his achievements as a long-distance runner. He achieved fame in Kazakhstan for his marathon runs across deserts in Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.
That changed after an obscure nongovernmental group called Ar-Bedel took Zhylanbayev to court for his habit of taking to social media to criticize former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. In one post titled “This is not Nazarbayev’s land,” Zhylanbayev wrote: “There is no room for Kazakhs to live in Kazakhstan. You cannot even say the smallest truth. Because the only people who are allowed to live are ass-kissers and sycophants, it is sickening to have to even look at their faces.”
That experience only appears to have emboldened Zhylanbayev in his criticism.