In a surprising precedent, the trial of an independent journalist in Kazakhstan has culminated with an acquittal.
A court in Almaty ruled on February 29 to clear Yulia Kozlova of drug possession charges, bringing a close to a trial the reporter’s supporters said was politically motivated.
Kozlova’s lawyer had complained throughout proceedings that the two week-long trial was riddled with procedural irregularities.
The charges against Kozlova, who writes for an embattled website called Nakanune.kz that features regular and robust criticism of the authorities, arose from a police raid on her apartment in December. Investigators claimed that during a search for incriminating material related to a separate case involving reporting appearing on Nakanune.kz they found marijuana in a tea caddy.
Kozlova reacted with tearful surprise and delight to her acquittal, video posted on social networks showed. The verdict was unexpected in a country where innocent verdicts are rare, particularly in cases involving independent journalists.
One possibility is that the government may be seeking to mitigate the wave of international criticism that has been timed unfortunately to surge ahead of parliamentary elections on March 20.
Kozlova had staunchly denied the accusations against her.
“I link this to my work,” she told a court hearing attended by EurasiaNet.org in which she gave her testimony on February 18, pointing to her reporting as the source of her legal troubles.
Nakanune.kz was set up by journalists who used to report for Respublika, Kazakhstan’s most hard-hitting independent newspaper until it was closed down in 2012.
Respublika was among around 40 media outlets shut down on extremism charges after the authorities alleged they had fomented fatal unrest in the oil town of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
Opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov is serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence over that violence.
Kozlova told the court that she had been visiting the prison outside Almaty where Kozlov is being held to leave him food parcels. She was distantly related to the jailed politician, she said.
The visit served as another bone of contention that led to the drugs charge, Kozlova alleged in court.
Judge Lyudmila Bektemirova threw out the charge and ordered an investigation into defense lawyer Aiman Umarova’s multiple claims of procedural violations by investigators and prosecutors.
Another Nakanune.kz reporter, Guzyal Baydalinova, is still in detention pending an investigation into charges of disseminating false information about a Kazakhstani bank in reporting on the website.
Baydalinova was arrested on December 18, the same day as Kozlova — who, unlike Baydalinova, was released — after police raided their flats and offices to seek evidence over a complaint brought against Nakanune.kz by Kazkommertsbank. The bank alleges that Nakanune’s reporting, linking it to sleaze in Almaty’s construction industry, was knowingly false and instigated by commercial rivals.
The arrest of the journalist sparked international expressions of concern about harassment of independent media in Kazakhstan.
Last summer, Baydalinova was fined 20 million tenge (around $100,000 at the time) in a separate libel case brought by the bank over the same single report. Baydalinova is appealing that verdict.
The charge of disseminating false information, or rumor-mongering, under which Baydalinova is now under investigation carries a maximum jail sentence of 10 years.
Kazakhstan is facing criticism of its intolerance for independence media on several fronts.
Particular indignation was sparked last week following the arrest of one of the most prominent figures on Kazakhstan’s media scene.
Seytkazy Matayev, president of the Union of Journalists and head of the National Press Club, is being held under house arrest pending an investigation into embezzlement and tax evasion charges that he denies.