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Kazakhstan court awards thousands in damages against advertising agency

This article was originally published on hrw.org on 29 October 2014.

An Almaty court awarded thousands of dollars in damages against an advertising agency for a poster depicting two male cultural icons kissing, Human Rights Watch said today. The draconian ruling on October 28, 2014 will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and creativity in Kazakhstan and condones homophobia and prejudice, Human Rights Watch said.

The Almaty court hearing the class-action lawsuit also required the agency to issue a public apology. The court additionally froze the agency's assets until the award is paid.

“Kazakhstan's courts should be fair and impartial when asked to censor the right to free expression just because an image is offensive to some or causes discomfort,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With this punitive ruling, the court has chosen to trample on free speech in Kazakhstan.”

A group of 34 people sought 34 million tenge (approximately US$187,900) in moral damages for offense caused by the advertising agency's poster showing the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin kissing Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbaiuly. The agency, Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan, submitted the poster for a design competition. The plaintiffs claimed that the poster was “unethical” and offensive to the honor and dignity of both men's descendants, as well as to all people who respect their art.

In its ruling the court stated it “considers the plaintiffs' demands that the defendants issue a public apology legitimate, given that the poster leaves a lasting, negative impression amongst a large group of people toward the memory of Kurmangazy Sagyrbaiuly,” and that the amount of 1 million tenge for each plaintiff is “proportionate to the harm caused.”

Dariya Khamitzhanova, director of Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan, the advertising agency that was sued, told Human Rights Watch that none of the plaintiffs attended any of the hearings, nor did they respond to her efforts to reach out to them to apologize. She intends to appeal the ruling.

As party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Kazakhstan has an obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds. In its General Comment 34 on freedom of expression, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which oversees compliance with the ICCPR, notes that “the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties.”

“Kazakhstan's judiciary has an opportunity to set aside this unjustified ruling and show it won't let prejudice rule the day,” said Rittmann.

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