The editor a prominent newspaper has received a suspended five-year jail term after confessing to charges of fraud.
The specialized inter-district criminal court in Astana on January 24 ruled to allow Bigeldi Gabdullin, the 61-year old chief editor of the Central Asia Monitor newspaper and the executive director of Radiotochka.kz news website, to be released from custody and for a freeze of his assets to be lifted.
Gabdullin was detained in mid-November on what investigators said was the suspicion that he was using media under his control to intimidate officials into paying him money to avoid negative coverage.
While the journalist has escaped prison time, his criminal record means he will be denied the right to hold office in local government departments for a period of up to 10 years. He will also be denied the right to relocate from his current place of abode without prior permission from the authorities.
Several high-ranking officials gave testimony as injured parties during the trial. The Kazakhstan edition of Forbes magazine reported prosecutor claims that Gabdullin threaten to publish defamatory material about the head of Zhambyl region, Karim Korkebayev, the deputy mayor of Astana, Yermek Amanshayev and Energy Minister Kanat Bozumbayev among others unless they provided his publications with contracts under a system known at the state order. That system is used by the government to finance state media or place articles about state policies in nominally independent media.
Press freedom advocates had initially cast Gabdullin’s case as another instance of state pressure on the media.
The head of Almaty-based media rights group Adil Soz, Tamara Kaleyeva, on November 23 argued at a press conference that the experienced journalist was unlikely to commit the crime of which he was being accused.
Bekzhan Idrisov, who edits Radiotochka.kz, of which Gabdullin is the executive director, announced on his Facebook page on December 26 that he had left Kazakhstan out of concern he could be targeted for prosecution.
But to some surprise Gabdullin’s lawyer, Amanzhol Muhadmedyarov, said at a pre-trial court hearing on January 11 that his client was cooperating with the investigation and helping to clarify the circumstances of his alleged crime. The journalist has compensated the injured parties to tune of 20.6 million tenge ($62,000), the lawyer said.
Gabdullin is the second veteran journalist to fall foul of allegations of fraud linked to the state order in the past year.
A court in Astana in October ruled that Seitkazy Matayev, the head of the Kazakh Journalists’ Union, along with his son Aset Matayev, abuse of the system to defraud government agencies of around $1 million.
Seitkazy Matayev, who served as President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s first post-independence press secretary in the early 1990s, received a six-year sentence in a penal colony, while his son was sentenced to five years in jail on embezzlement charges. Both vehemently denied the accusations.