Trial of Kazakh activists marks new era in crackdown on dissent

Trial of Kazakh activists marks new era in crackdown on dissent
Supporters protest against the trial of Kazakh political activist Yermek Narymbayev in central Almaty ahead of appeal hearings
By Naubet Bisenov in Almaty March 31, 2016

The recent trial of political activists in Kazakhstan on ill-defined criminal charges of inciting hatred marks a new era in the crackdown on dissent, as authorities aim to intimidate the last few remaining critics of the authoritarian regime, international observers and local activists believe.

On March 30, a court of appeal in the country’s commercial capital of Almaty actually commuted the jail sentences that had been handed down in January by a lower court to Yermek Narymbayev and Serikzhan Mambetalin, though the judge still gave the two activists suspended sentences of two years and five months and one year respectively, and banned them both from carrying out any public activity for five years. 

The two men had been originally sentenced to three years and two years in jail respectively on charges of “inciting social, ethnic, tribal, racial, class and religious discord” under Article 174 of the Criminal Code, which was adopted in 2014, after the political activists posted on Facebook excerpts of an unpublished book authored by Murat Telibekov, leader of the independent Union of Kazakhstan’s Muslims, in 1992. 

Rinat Kibrayev, an Almaty-based blogger and civil rights activist, says the Kazakh authorities’ style of suppressing dissent in the country is in some ways reminiscent of that of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, though stopping short of his brutality. “The main aim of our government is to intimidate the remaining civil rights activists because neither Mambetalin nor Narymbayev presented any threat to our regime. The authorities are showing that, on the one hand, they can send anyone behind bars. On the other hand, the regime is not that tyrannical in Kazakhstan to actually imprison people like during Stalin’s times,” the blogger tells bne IntelliNews.

Galym Ageuelov, an Almaty-based civil rights activist, tells bne IntelliNews that Article 174, under which the two men were charged, should be removed from the Criminal Code. “Recommendations by international human rights and media organisations confirm that this article should be removed. It doesn’t define what inciting hatred means, nor does it offer criteria how to assess it,” he says. “That’s why we can see on the example of Yermek Narymbayev that anyone could be charged under this article for their civil position and actions.”

In 2013, ahead of the adoption of amendments to the Criminal Code that expanded the definition of incitement to include “class discord”, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the Kazakh authorities to repeal Article 174 because charges brought under this article and others of the Criminal Code “would directly threaten principles of free speech and thereby undermine media and speech freedoms in Kazakhstan”.

“Under these provisions, individuals may face criminal sanctions for expressing thoughts or opinions because others, including government officials, deem them offensive,” the watchdog wrote in a letter to Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor General Askhat Daulbayev. Human Rights Watch argued that the article “is vague, overbroad, and criminalises behaviour and speech protected under international human rights law”.

Local activists believe that by charging Narymbayev and Mambetalin and a court sentencing them, the authorities are purely punishing the activists for their political activities. “This article is wrong and Narymbayev has been charged wrongfully. It is being done for his defence of the rights of mortgage payers and all other ordinary people,” activist Raisa Duysenbayeva tells bne IntelliNews.

Narymbayev has been a vocal activist in defence of civil rights. In 2014, he spoke out on behalf of mortgage payers who faced seizure of their homes for failing to pay their mortgages to commercial banks. In August 2015, the central bank moved to freely float the national currency, which led to a sharp depreciation of the tenge against the dollar, Narymbayev intended to hold a protest against the devaluation on Almaty’s main square and call for the resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government if dollar-denominated loans and mortgages were not converted to tenge ones at the pre-devaluation rate of exchange.

“It is not normal to bring criminal charges against people for their views and remarks in a modern civilised society which Kazakhstan aspires to be,” says Kibrayev, the Almaty-based blogger.