The Kazakhstani authorities must not use “extremism” as a pretext to muzzle freedom of the press, Amnesty International said today after an attempt by the General Prosecutor’s Office to close down some 40 opposition media outlets and websites.
On Wednesday the Almaty city Prosecutor filed a court complaint seeking to close down almost all remaining independent and opposition media – accusing them of being “extremist”, inciting social discord and threatening national security.
Amnesty International echoes the concerns of 15 Kazakhstan-based human rights organizations who blasted the move, saying it appears to be the culmination of efforts by the authorities to curtail independent media outlets in the Central Asian country.
“Kazakhstan’s remaining independent voices are at serious risk of being silenced forever if the courts follow through on this complaint,” said David Díaz-Jogeix, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme.
The Prosecutor’s complaint covers eight print media and 23 websites owned by a single media conglomerate, as well as one other newspaper and its supporting websites, and two independent TV channels which broadcast over the internet. It also calls for the unregistered opposition party Alga and the unregistered social movement Khalyk Maydany to be classified as “extremist”.
Clampdown after violent clashes On Monday, an appeals court in the south-western region of Mangistau upheld the prison sentence of Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of Alga, one of Kazakhstan’s unregistered opposition parties. He was previously charged with inciting violent protests during an oil industry workers’ strike in December 2011.
What began as celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence turned into the country’s worst violence in recent history when clashes broke out between protesters and police in the south-western city of Zhanaozen on 16 December 2011.
At least 15 people were killed and more than 100 seriously injured. The violence followed months of strikes by oil industry workers in Mangistau region over trade union rights and pay and conditions.
In subsequent trials earlier this year, five senior security officials were found guilty of abuse of office and sentenced to five years in prison for having allowed or used excessive and lethal force to disperse crowds of protesters.
Seven labour activists and protesters were sentenced to up to seven years in prison in May 2012 after Mangistau regional court convicted them of organizing or participating in the Zhanaozen protests. All the defendants maintained their innocence and claimed that police tortured them to extract confessions.
In March this year, Amnesty International expressed concern about moves to hold labour and political opposition activists criminally responsible after they travelled abroad to brief international governmental organizations and foreign governments on the strikes and ensuing violence in Zhanaozen. New national security legislation, which came into force on 6 January 2012, makes “damaging the image of Kazakhstan abroad” a criminal offence.
Others who distributed literature and publicized the striking workers’ concerns within Kazakhstan were also at risk of being held criminally liable under a provision in the security law which penalizes individuals for “influenc[ing] public and individual consciousness” through the distribution of “distorted” and “unreliable” information “to the detriment of national security.
Intimidation of media workers Kazakhstani media workers and their relatives have also been targeted by recent court cases and incidents of harassment.
In its verdict against Kozlov on 8 October, the court of first instance labelled several opposition media outlets that had covered the 2011 strikes and the investigations into the Zhanaozen violence – including the newspaper Golos Respubliki – as “political extremists” that incite “social hatred”.
Under Kazakhstani law, “political extremism” is a criminal offence which has its roots in Soviet times and carries a prison sentence of up to seven years.
Several weeks after the initial ruling against Koslov, on 31 October Askar Moldashev –the brother of Golos Respubliki’s editor and owner – was arrested on what Amnesty International believes were fabricated drugs charges.
He was initially held without access to his lawyer or family and had to be hospitalized while in detention. On 2 November the Bostandyk District Court sanctioned two months of pre-trial detention for Moldashev and called for an investigation into his allegations about violations during his arrest and subsequent detention last month.
According to Golos Respubliki, its director Daniyar Moldashev – the brother of the detained man – has also been the target of political persecution in the past and had to hide abroad for a few months to undergo medical treatment earlier this year.
“This ongoing harassment of media workers and their relatives presents a serious affront to freedom of expression in Kazakhstan and must end,” said Díaz-Jogeix.
“The authorities must protect the right to freedom of expression – including freedom of the press – and ensure that media workers can carry out their jobs without fear of reprisals and smear campaigns against them and their relatives.”