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The Kazakh reality: 5 years in prison over peaceful protest

Riot police officers detain demonstrators during a protest against President Nursultan Nazarbayev's government and the land reform it has proposed, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 21 May 2016
Riot police officers detain demonstrators during a protest against President Nursultan Nazarbayev's government and the land reform it has proposed, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 21 May 2016

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

This statement was originally published on on 29 November 2016.

The convictions and five-year sentences on November 28, 2016, for two Kazakhstan activists for exercising their right to peaceful protest is a miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

A court in Atyrau, western Kazakhstan, found Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan guilty of inciting social discord, spreading knowingly false information, and violating the law regulating public assemblies. In addition to the prison terms, the court banned each from engaging in civic activities for three years after their release and fined them approximately US$1,500.

“Jailing Bokaev and Ayan for nothing more than peacefully expressing dissenting views is an outrageous miscarriage of justice,” said Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan should be freed immediately.”

Bokaev, 43, is a well-known activist, outspoken on a range of issues, including human rights and the environment. He is a member of the Atyrau regional National Preventive Mechanism, a torture prevention monitoring group under Kazakhstan's Office of the Ombudsman. Ayan, 32, is another Atyrau-based activist and lawyer who has actively opposed government-proposed amendments to the land code.

Bokaev and Ayan had sought permission for a protest on April 24, in Atyrau, against changes to the land code, including the proposal to increase from 10 to 25 years the time for which foreigners could lease land in Kazakhstan. Local authorities denied them permission, but hundreds of people – including Bokaev and Ayan – gathered that day on Atyrau's central Isatai-Makhambet square. It was one of the largest protests in Kazakhstan in recent years.

Police aggressively responded to efforts by activists to organize subsequent protests on May 21 in other cities in Kazakhstan. In mid-May, over two dozen activists, including Bokaev and Ayan, were detained on administrative charges. On May 21, the police rounded up and held hundreds more people who tried to protest.

The prosecution of Bokaev and Ayan began on October 12, in Atyrau. Erlan Kaliev, monitor for the nongovernmental group the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, who monitored the whole trial, told Human Rights Watch that he documented procedural violations, and that the trial did not meet international fair trial standards.

The judge denied defense motions to summon witnesses to appear in court, refused the defense request to keep a written record of court proceedings, and had ordered the trial to be heard on its merits before reviewing a complaint regarding Ayan's detention, in violation of Kazakhstan's criminal procedural code. The judge also denied several defense motions to recuse herself, including for showing bias against the defendants.

Kaliev told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution's case relied on state-commissioned expert analyses of Bokaev's and Ayan's statements, including in social media, and the decision by the Atyrau city mayor's office to deny permission to hold a protest on April 24, but that the prosecutor did not show any hard evidence of criminal wrongdoing by either defendant.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, prepared a legal assessment on the activists' case, noting that “should the organizers [of a peaceful protest] fail to notify the authorities…the organizers should not be subject to criminal sanctions, or administrative sanctions, resulting in fines or imprisonment.”

Kiai also noted that “It is…of utmost importance for the court, especially in a context of assemblies, to scrutinize criminal charges to avoid the punishment of the exercise of rights protected by international law, such as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”

Earlier, Kiai, following his visit to Kazakhstan in January 2015, concluded that the manner in which the government regulates peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan “deprives the right of its meaning.”

International human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, have called for the activists' immediate release.

Kazakhstan's international partners should remind Astana that neither participating in peaceful protest, nor expressing a dissenting opinion is a crime, and similarly urge the Kazakh government to release Bokaev and Ayan immediately.

“Authorities should put an end to their misguided and punitive approach to public assembly and recognize the fundamental right to gather and peacefully express one's views,” Rittmann said. “Bokaev and Ayan shouldn't have to spend even one more day locked up.”

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