Police in Kazakhstan have thrown two activists behind bars on suspicion of fomenting ethnic strife through postings on social networks in which they quoted from an old, unpublished book.
The arrests of Serikzhan Mambetalin and Yermek Narymbayev – who are vocal online critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule, but wield little on-the-ground influence to rally support against it – are symptomatic of the extent to which the authorities in Kazakhstan go to crush even limited, or virtual, dissent.
The two were arrested on October 12 on the basis of allegations of “their dissemination on social networks of information containing clear signs of fomenting ethnic strife, [and] insults against ethnic honor and dignity,” the Almaty police department said in a statement put out the following day.
They are being investigated under a broad charge covering incitement to social, ethnic, tribal or religious strife. The offense is punishable with a fine or up to 12 years in jail.
This is one of the charges under which opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov was jailed in 2012 for seven and a half years after being found guilty of fomenting social strife that prosecutors argued led to fatal unrest in the town of Zhanaozen.
Police did not further specify the nature of the suspicions against the two activists, but Mambetalin offered a clue before his arrest. Writing on his Facebook page two days earlier, he said they were under attack for citing the writings of Murat Telibekov, another activist who is known for his anti-regime views.
Telibekov, who heads an organization called the Union of Muslims of Kazakhstan (which has no official backing), is the target of another separate police inquiry on the same charges of fomenting strife.
Those investigations were initiated in July and related to the contents of a book Telibekov wrote 15 years ago, but which was never published, according to Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz press freedom watchdog.
“I believe it is stupidity to accuse [people] of fomenting strife for publishing excerpts of a non-existent book or for reposting that publication,” Zoya Narymbayeva, Yermek Narymbayev’s wife, commented to the Respublika-kaz.info website.
The book was a “pretext,” she suggested.
Narymbayeva said the authorities really “want to put pressure on them” to thwart their political activism, critical virtual postings, and attempts to set up a political party that they planned – appropriately in the circumstances – to call Facebook.
Narymbayev was last in prison in July, when he was jailed for 15 days on charges of holding an unsanctioned rally after laying flowers at a monument to independence in Almaty in protest at Kazakhstan’s close alliance with Russia.
Both he and Mambetalin are vocal online critics of the Nazarbayev administration, but – such token gestures notwithstanding – would appear to pose no threat to the established order on the ground.