Drop charges against peaceful activists
Authorities in Kazakhstan must drop all charges against civil society activists Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan, and immediately free them, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement today. The trial against Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayan is scheduled to start on October 12 in the city of Atyrau. The two peaceful activists risk five to ten years imprisonment if found guilty on charges that appear trumped-up in retaliation for their role in organizing peaceful protests earlier this year, the NHC said.
Police arrested the two in May under circumstances that strongly indicate that authorities targeted them for their active role in the protests against unpopular land reforms. Shortly before their arrest the two had taken on a leading and outspoken role in organizing and calling for peaceful protests against a proposed new law that would extend the time foreigners could lease land. Critics feared that foreigners would now be allowed to gain permanent ownership of Kazakhstani land, which gave rise to broad popular discontent with the proposed reform. Bokayev and Ayan publicly criticized the proposed amendments, organized peaceful protests rallies and called on the public to take to the streets to peacefully demonstrate against the reforms. The two now face charges of dissemination of knowingly false information and incitement of social discord, the latter a vague article in the Penal Code, repeatedly employed by authorities to silence outspoken critics, the NHC said.
“By arresting, charging and putting these men on trial, the Kazakhstani authorities are sending a chilling warning to the country’s civil society that anyone can be prosecuted for speaking out against the will of Astana”, said Marius Fossum, Norwegian Helsinki Committee Regional Representative in Central Asia. “With the case against Bokayev and Ayan, the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are under attack in Kazakhstan – authorities cannot allow these men to be imprisoned merely for exercising their rights protected under the Constitution of Kazakhstan and international treaties”.
Apart from immediately dropping the charges and releasing Bokayev and Ayan, the NHC called on the Kazakhstani authorities to ensure that civil society members, diplomats, journalists and representatives of international organizations are allowed to observe the court hearings, and that the trial be conducted in a fair, transparent manner.
Bokayev and Ayan were among the key organizers of an April 24 protest in Atyrau – the first major demonstration against the reform. Popular discontent with the amendments soon fueled public protests across the country, and on May 6 Bokayev and Ayan applied to local authorities for permission to hold meetings on May 21. The authorities dismissed the application, and on May 16, charged the outspoken critics with violations of the law regulation peaceful assemblies. The next day they were administratively detained for 15 days. Upon finishing the administrative sentences, Bokayev and Ayan were criminally charged and their detention was extended. Initially authorities charged them with “propaganda or public calls for seizure or retention of state power” (article 179 of the Penal Code). Authorities later dropped these charges – instead the Bokayev and Ayan are now charged with “dissemination of knowingly false information” (art. 274) and “incitement of social discord” (art. 174). If found guilty they face prison sentences ranging from five to ten years.
”If imprisoned, Bokayev and Ayan will become prisoners of conscience. Such a verdict would be a serious blow to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Kazakhstan and give rise to serious doubts as to the independence of the judiciary”, Fossum said.