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Housing rights activist detained in Kazakhstan over comments made on YouTube

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 13 November 2015.

Kazakhstan police detained an activist in Astana on November 9, 2015, on suspicion of “inciting social discord,” Human Rights Watch said today. On November 11, an Astana court confirmed a two-month pretrial detention order for the activist, Bolatbek Blyalov.

Blyalov is the third activist in Kazakhstan arrested in the last month on suspicion of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord,” a vague and overbroad criminal offense, during a crackdown on outspoken government critics. Kazakh authorities should release Blyalov immediately, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Kazakh government should stop targeting its critics with vague and overbroad criminal charges,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “No one should be jailed for expressing a contentious opinion, or for criticizing the government.”

Blyalov, 42, is the head of the Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, a nongovernmental group, and has worked to defend housing rights of Astana residents. He is also an active member of Antigeptil, which has protested the use of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to launch Proton-M rockets because of concerns about their negative environmental and health effects. Blyalov has been repeatedly detained by police for exercising his right to peaceful protest, most recently in September.

Blyalov appears to be under investigation for his comments in video clips and media interviews on YouTube, which authorities claim amount to a “serious crime against peace and security of humankind.” In the videos, Blyalov comments on a range of issues, including Kazakh nationalism, the use of Kazakh and Russian languages in Kazakhstan, and how Russia views and has acted toward Ukraine.

Police searched Blyalov's home on October 30. Kadyr Kasiyet, a group that monitors the security situation of human rights activists, shared information with Human Rights Watch that police confiscated a computer, a laptop, a mobile telephone, an iPod, and documents. The authorities have not issued a record detailing the search and confiscation of items from Blyalov's home, as they are required to do under Kazakh law, Kadyr Kasiyet said.

On October 30, the Astana internal affairs department confirmed in a media statement that they were investigating Blyalov on charges of article 174, part 1 for “circulating information in social media that contains elements of inciting social discord.”

Police detained Blyalov on November 9. On November 11 authorities amended the charges, saying that Blyalov's violations were committed “via mass media or information-communication networks, as a leader of a public association.” Blyalov faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison under article 174, part 2 of Kazakhstan's criminal code.

Freedom of opinion, expression, and association are basic rights protected by international treaties to which Kazakhstan is party and should not be violated, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch and others, including the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association after his visit to Kazakhstan in January, have said that the Kazakh government should amend the offense of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord” so that it is strictly and narrowly defined, and complies with international human rights law, including the principle of legality.

Kazakhstan's bilateral partners should similarly – and as a matter of urgency – call on the Kazakh authorities to stop misusing this vague offense to go after outspoken activists and critics, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Union, which is concluding an enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Kazakhstan, is especially well placed to call on the Kazakh government to release activists imprisoned on this improper charge and to urgently amend article 174 of the criminal code.

The European Parliament in a November 2012 resolution on the enhanced PCA negotiations process expressly called on the EU to urge Kazakh authorities to amend the offense to bring it in line with international human rights law. The parliament, which has to approve the enhanced agreement before it can enter into force, has an important oversight role to play to ensure that the EU does not squander a key opportunity to push Kazakhstan to make desperately needed human rights reforms.

“Kazakhstan shouldn't benefit from upgraded relations with the European Union while activists are sitting behind bars for expressing their opinions,” Rittmann said. “Blyalov's arrest serves as a stark reminder that the Kazakh government is flouting its rights obligations and should be called to task.”

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