Harsh prison sentences handed down this week in two separate cases involving articles published in local newspapers in Kazakhstan raise questions over freedom of speech.
In one case, a newspaper editor in the northern city of Pavlodar was sentenced to eight years in jail on charges of attempting to extort money from the regional governor.
In the other, a civil society activist in the south of the country was jailed for one and half years on libel charges over an article criticizing a local prosecutor. One rights group says this is the first time in six years anyone has been jailed on libel charges in Kazakhstan.
Yaroslav Golyshkin, editor of local Pavlodar newspaper Versiya, received his sentence on October 30 after the court found him of guilty attempting to extort money from regional governor Kanat Bozumbayev, Tengri News reports. The court heard accusations that Golyshkin was demanding money to hush up allegations that Bozumbayev’s son was involved in a rape case.
The woman who filed the complaint was paid $5,000 not to press charges, which is legal under reconciliation procedures in Kazakhstani law, the Adil Soz freedom of speech watchdog said.
She reportedly later gave an interview to Golyshkin. Bozumbayev claimed Golyshkin then demanded a payment of half a million dollars to keep the revelations in the interview under wraps.
In the same trial, Askar Bakhralinov, a former deputy district mayor in the region, was sentenced to 10 years in jail — also on extortion charges.
Some of the case material was reportedly kept classified, raising suspicions that a senior official might be receiving special treatment.
In the other case, Amangeldy Batyrbekov, a civil society activist who heads the Adilet (Justice) non-governmental organization in the town of Saryagash in South Kazakhstan Region, was jailed on libel charges on October 29.
At issue was an article he wrote for a local newspaper criticizing decisions made by a local prosecutor and calling for an intervention by Kazakhstan’s general prosecutor.
This was the first time a prison sentence has been handed down for libel in Kazakhstan since 2009, Adil Soz said.
International freedom of speech campaigners have for years been calling on Kazakhstan to make good on a pledge made in 2010 to decriminalize libel, which they say is frequently used as a tool of intimidation against journalists.