Kazakhstan: Prosecutors Seek Lengthy Jail Term for Land Protesters
Prosecutors in the trial of two activists in Kazakhstan accused of whipping up anti-land reform rallies have demanded jail sentences of up to eight years and a $1.5 million fine to be slapped on the men.
Lawyers acting for the state also argued on November 21 in the Aytrau court that Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan should be banned from engaging in public activity for three years.
If the court entertains anything near close to that request, it would send an ominous signal about the government’s willingness to tolerate any kind of public dissent, regardless of how peaceful it is.
Bokayev and Ayan staunchly deny they did anything wrong other than express their discontent at a law passed last year that would have led to the privatization of once-publicly owned land. In the absence of a public information campaign, a wave of peaceful but impassioned rallies were held in the spring, mainly in western Kazakhstan, over concerns that land might be the object of major buy-ups by foreign investors.
“What guilt am I supposed to admit? In Kazakhstan there is a law about peaceful gatherings and I took part in a rally in accordance with this law. I am not guilty and I did nothing that could raise alarm or pose a danger to people’s lives,” Bokayev told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyq, during the break of one hearing.
Prosecutors this week once again argued that the activists were in cahoots with brewery tycoon Tohtar Tuleshov, who was sentenced to 21 years in jail on November 7 on charges of purportedly plotting a coup. According to the authorities, Tuleshov was scheming to use the political unrest provoked by the anti-land reform protests to make a grab for power.
Tuleshov’s trial was held behind closed doors, but the businessman made an appearance by video link in Bokayev and Ayan’s trial on October 17, when he appeared to confirm the prosecution’s case. He told the court that he gave $100, 000 to Ayan, despite never having met the activist in person.
By way of evidence for this payment, investigators claimed that the money was wrapped in a T-shirt belonging to Ayan that was later found in the possession of another activist in the northeastern city of Semey, Marlan Yeselbayev. Ayan derided this line of prosecution, arguing that the T-shirt could not have belonged to him in any case since it was too small to fit him, something he said he could prove by trying to put it on. The judge refused to entertain Ayan’s request.
Also, while Tuleshov claims to have given the activists money, he denies it was with the intent of clearing a path for him to grab power. He told the court that he thought they would organize roundtables with the cash.
In brief, Tuleshov admits paying money, but apparently not caring particularly what it was spent on. Meanwhile, the activists deny ever receiving the money or meeting Tuleshov, which even the businessman confirms.
Prosecutor Kasym Sadykov said at the November 21 hearing that while some of the public might think that the activists were simply being put on trial for “expressing their opinion on land reforms,” this was not the case.
“They pursued the goal of going to the streets, despite the lack of permission from the city authorities, so as to use any means possible to discredit the authorities. What would have happened if people had been hurt, or buildings there had been damaged?” Sadykov argued.
The prosecutor also explained that there were no laws prohibiting people to “express their opinions while sitting at home.”
Activists say that they sent numerous requests to local government offices in the cities where they held their rallies, but had permits declined on every occasion.
One claimed reason for permit denial was particularly ironic.
The former governor of Atyrau region, Nurlybek Ozhayev, told the court his office declined the permit for a rally in his city because the plan was for crowds to gather on Makhambet and Isatay Square.
The square is named after two celebrated Kazakh tribal leaders who rallied opposition in the west of modern-day Kazakhstan in the 1830s against the presence of the Russian Empire on their land. Grievances arose from a sense among Kazakh people that they were being deprived of fertile land and pastures, leading to their profound impoverishment. To protest on a “sacred site” devoted to these heroes, Ozhayev told the court, would have been improper.
The court’s verdict is expected on November 28.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.