Kazakhstan: Hands off independent journalists

In Kazakhstan, police are harassing journalists in a bid to obstruct them from reporting on the release of wrongfully imprisoned human rights defender.

Police in Kazakhstan have harassed, detained and questioned journalist Lukpan Akhmediyarov, and repeatedly harassed his colleagues in an attempt to interfere with their rights to carry out their journalistic activities, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee said in a statement today. In the statement, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee called on authorities in Kazakhstan to cease all harassment of journalists and immediately end all interference with the press’ free reporting.

Yesterday morning Lukpan Akhmediyarov , editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Uralsk Week, and two fellow journalists along with a driver set out from the city of Uralsk in a rental car, headed towards the neighbouring city Atyrau. In Atyrau the journalists planned to shoot footage of and report on the case of imprisoned human rights defender Max Bokayev, on his release from prison today on February 4, having served a politically motivated prison sentence since late 2016.

Akhmediyarov told the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that shortly after the journalists set out from Uralsk, police stopped traffic on the road for several hours, creating a massive traffic jam. At around 11:40 the police came up to their car and produced a warrant saying that Akhmediyarov is to be detained and taken in for questioning in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation. Having detained him, police allowed traffic to continue, and the rest of the crew continued towards Atyrau. After about one hour, police stopped them, claiming that the rental car they were traveling in had been involved in a minor traffic accident the same morning, and subsequently brought the driver in for questioning. The remaining journalists then endeavoured to continue towards their destination by taxi, but before long, the police stopped the taxi. The police then alleged that the taxi was not fit to carry passengers and demanded lengthy and time-consuming statements from the driver and the two journalists, further obstructing them on their way to Atyrau.

– This repeated and targeted harassment stands out as obvious attempts to interfere with the legitimate and necessary work of independent journalists and represents a hard and heavy blow to press freedom in Kazakhstan, said Geir Hønneland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. – I call on president Tokayev to demonstrate commitment to stated intentions of reform and to guarantee a safe and free environment for all journalists. The persecution of Lukpan Akhmediyarov must cease now.

After the police took him back to Uralsk yesterday, Akhmediyarov was summonsed to questioning several times, although the police did not ask him a single question, in a string of events that strongly appear orchestrated to obstruct him from traveling to Atyrau. Akhmediyarov told the Norwegian Helsinki Committee that after he was brought in for questioning in the afternoon yesterday, the police kept him for hours without questioning him. Having kept him around three hours, the police asked him to sign a statement saying he had refused to answer any questions without a lawyer. When he signed the document, the police released him and handed him a summoning to come back for further questioning at 21:00 the same night.

After he left the police, Akhmediyarov declared that he would hold a one-man picket outside the police station later in the day. At 18:30, protesting the harassment of himself and his colleagues, he walked back to the police station holding up a placard with the text “Police or Gestapo?”. Again, the police took him in, took his statement, and subsequently released him. Then, when he went back to the police station for planned at 21:00, the police kept him for around 40 minutes, this time also without questioning him, claiming the investigating officer was delayed. Before they let him go, they told him to come back today. However, this morning the investigating officer told him there will be no questioning today, claiming to be busy.

The current campaign of harassment of Akhmediyarov begain earlier this week – on February 1, police in Uralsk first summoned him for questioning in connection with an ongoing investigation. The interrogating officer then told him that, in the investigation, he holds the status of a “witness with the right to legal counsel” – an ambiguous term meaning that he is not, as per now officially or formally charged with, or suspected of having committed a crime, although the status links him to such an act. The investigation in question is concerned with a crime under article 423 of the Kazakhstani Criminal Code, which criminalizes “divulgence of data of pre-trial or closed court proceedings by a person warned about inadmissibility of their divulgence in the manner prescribed by law of the Republic of Kazakhstan”.

The background for the investigation is an article Akhmediyarov published on November 27 last year, in which he exposed irregularities and illegalities connected to the distribution of land plots in western Kazakhstan. In the article, Akhmediyarov  also implied one staff member of the prosecutor’s office. Akhmediyarov maintains that no one warned him about the “inadmissibility of his divulgence” of any information published in the article, and that the prosecutor’s office simply refused to provide any comments on his story as he was researching it.

The ongoing pre-trial investigation, in which Akhmediyarov is concerned, strongly appears to be trumped up as a means to obstruct his work, or as retaliation for his journalistic endeavours – or both. Authorities must drop the case as Akhmediyarov has not committed any crime; on the contrary, his and his colleagues’ work is of inestimable value to Kazakhstani society.

Geir Hønneland, secretary general in NHC


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