The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH, requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in Kazakhstan.
Brief description of the situation:
The Observatory has been informed by reliable sources about the judicial harassment and ongoing arbitrary detention of Mr. Max Bokayev , head of the NGO “Arlan”  and a human rights defender working for the protection of the environment, freedom of expression and the fight against torture, and Mr. Talgat Ayan, a lawyer and activist from Atyrau, Western Kazakhstan. Both human rights defenders played a crucial role in the social protests that took place last April and early May against the amendments to the Land Code of Kazakhstan (see background information below) .
According to the information received, the first hearing in the trial against Messrs. Bokayev and Ayan will be taking place in Atyrau’s City Court No. 2 at 10.30 am on October 12, 2016. They are facing charges for “institution of social discord” (Article 174), “dissemination of knowingly false information” (Article 274) and “violation of the procedure of organisation and holding of meetings, rallies, pickets, street processions and demonstrations” (Article 400) and face imprisonment for a term of up to ten years.
The judicial harassment and arbitrary detention of Messrs. Bokayev and Ayan has been ongoing since May 17, 2016, when they were arrested in Atyrau in retaliation for their critical statements posted on Facebook and for making public their intention to participate and encouraging others to take part in the 21 May protests. On the same day, an administrative court sentenced them to 15 days of administrative detention for “organising and holding peaceful assemblies” (Article 488 of the Administrative Offences Code) in violation of the laws of the Republic of Kazakhstan. This happened though the two had sent requests for authorisation to hold demonstrations on May 21 to the relevant local authorities in Atyrau, in accordance with domestic laws.
On May 20, 2016, the officers of the Division 9 of the National Security Committee in Atyrau, following a court order, raided the house of nine human rights defenders including that of Mr. Bokayev’s mother and confiscated documents, computers, telephones, USB sticks and other data storage elements. During the search, Mr. Bokayev’s mother was injured and her front door was slammed in.
On May 31, 2016, one day before the end date of their administrative detention, the National Security Committee issued an order charging Messrs. Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan with the offences of “preparation of a crime”, and “propaganda or public calls for seizure of power or retention of power or violent change of the constitutional order” under Articles 24.1 and179.3 of the criminal code. On July 21 these charges were replaced with the three charges mentioned above.
On June 3, 2016, the investigation judge of Atyrau Court No. 2 remanded Messrs. Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan for two months in pre-trial detention. Mr. Bokayev’s request for house arrest due to his critical health condition given that Mr. Bokayev suffers from a chronic hepatitis C and needs constant medical care was rejected. On August 27, 2016, the judge decided to extend the pre-trial detention. The prosecutor argued that “Max has a lot of friends inside and outside of Kazakhstan and so there’s a fear that he will leave the country”.
The Observatory expresses its concern regarding the ongoing repression, intimidation, and judicial harassment of human rights defenders in Kazakhstan, which seems to be aimed at hindering their legitimate human rights activities and condemns the ongoing attempts by the Kazakh authorities to curtail the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and expression,
Furthermore, the Observatory strongly condemns the ongoing judicial harassment against Messrs. Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, and calls on the Kazakhstani authorities to immediately and unconditionally release and drop all charges against them.
Between April and May 2016, several protests were held in Kazakhstan, gathering hundreds of citizens calling for the abolition of amendments to the Land Code that were introduced in November 2015 .
Ahead of a country-wide protest scheduled on May 21, the authorities started to repress the protest movement: they rejected all authorisations to hold demonstrations on May 21 and arrested and, between, May 16 and 20, 2016, detained and sentenced more than 30 protesters to administrative detention of up to 15 days for “preparation of illegal rallies” or “hooliganism” or “inciting social discord”. Protesters included Messrs.Gatau-Gali Bohan, Sagingali Kapizov, Kubaidolla Sholak, and Makhambet Abzhan.
Later, as the movement gained momentum through social media, the police arrested, ahead of protests, activists believed to be planning or involved in the movement. The arrests targeted well-known several civic activists and civil society leaders in Almaty, Uralsk, Atyrau, and Astana. Several criminal cases against human rights defenders were opened in addition to Messrs. Bokayev and Ayan. On May 17, singer and human rights defender, Mr. Zhanat Esentaev was arrested in Uralsk and subsequently sentenced on July 15 to two and a half years of probation for “incitement of inter-ethnic discord” for his posts on Facebook.
On May 21, 2016, demonstrations were held across the country though the authorities had failed to authorise them. The police systematically blocked access to public places and arrested hundreds of protesters as they were on their way to the protest meeting places. More than 500 people were arrested in Almaty and almost 100 in Uralsk.
Moreover, on the same day, law enforcement officers arrested over 50 journalists who were covering the protests or were in the vicinity. Their photos and videos were deleted. The distribution of the newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya was also blocked in addition to the website of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Kazakh Service, Radio Azattyq. In Almaty, where the protest counted the largest number of participants, access to social media such as Periscope, Facebook, Google and Youtube were blocked. In other regions, individual accounts on social media tools were monitored and used to prove participation in the protests.
On May 27, a press release posted on the official website of the Office of the Prosecutor General described protests as a “chain of events” by means of which “certain individuals” intended to “destabilise the social-political situation, inciting inter-ethnic discord and seizing power”. It stated that criminal proceedings had been launched against several individuals in connection with the events, without specifying their identity.
In this context, the Government launched a smear campaign via mass media platforms accusing the protesters of planning violent attacks and blaming a Kazakhstani businessman, for leading the protest movement in order to plot a coup to destabilise the country.
This isn’t the first time Kazakhstan has criminalised human rights defenders for using their right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly. On October 12, 2015, Messrs. Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin were arrested in Almaty and sentenced to a suspended three-year and one-year prison term respectively for “inciting inter-ethnic discord”. During a five-year period, they will not be able to take part in any so-called “social activities”.
Please write to the authorities of Kazakhstan asking them to:
i. Immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against Messrs. Bokayev and Ayan and put an end to all acts of judicial harassment against them as well as against all human rights defenders in Kazakhstan;
ii. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Messrs. Bokayev and Ayan,as well as of all human rights defenders in Kazakhstan;
iii.Repeal legal provisions limiting freedom of peaceful assembly beyond the narrow restrictions permitted under international human rights law, particularly with the aim of ensuring that this right is no longer subjected to the permission of government authorities and merely to prior notification;
iv. Repeal legal provisions limiting freedom of expression beyond the narrow restrictions permitted under Article 19 of the ICCPR, including the vague and broad definition of the offence of incitement to “social, national, clan, class or religious discord” in Article 174 of the Criminal Code;
v. Comply with all the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders;
vi. Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by Kazakhstan.
· Mr. Nursultan NAZARBAEV, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Fax: + 7 3172 32 61 82, 007 / 3172 / 32 40 89
· Mr. Kalmukhanbet Kassymov, Minister of Internal Affairs. Email: Kense@mvd.kz
· Mr. Zhakip Assanov, Prosecutor General. Fax: +7 7172 506 402
· Mr. Askar Shakirov, Human Rights Commissioner. Fax: +7 7172 74 05 48
· Ambassador Ms. Zhanar Aitzhanova, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the UN Office and other International organizations in Geneva. Fax: +41 (0) 22 788 66 02. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
· Ambassador Mr. Almaz KHAMZAYEV, Embassy of Kazakhstan in Brussels. Email: email@example.com.
· Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the OSCE in Vienna. Fax: +43 1 890 80 08 20. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please also write to the diplomatic mission or embassy of Kazakhstan in your respective country.