A prominent activist who was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International has been released from jail in Kazakhstan, absolved of charges of inciting fatal unrest in Zhanaozen last year and calling for the overthrow of the state.
Bolat Atabayev, an outspoken theater director, told a press conference in Almaty on July 4 that he was released from prison the previous evening after signing a document stating that he had repented.
“In this document I had to answer some questions, basically of this type: ‘Had you known that blood would be spilled on December 16, would you have gone to Zhanaozen?’” Atabayev was quoted as saying by the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency. “I say: ‘Had I known, I would not have gone.’”
Sixty-year-old Atabayev was facing charges of “inciting social discord” and calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order. He had been out on bail, but was arrested mid-June after refusing to cooperate with the investigation in protest at the sentencing of Zhanaozen protestors. Atabayev had pledged to turn his own trial into “a farce.”
He was among a group of activists due to go on trial on incitement charges. They include leader of the unregistered opposition Alga! party Vladimir Kozlov; youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay; political activist Serik Sapargali; and former oil worker Akzhanat Aminov, who was a prominent participant in an oil strike in Zhanaozen that was the catalyst for the violence.
These four face up to 19 years in jail on charges of “inciting social discord” and calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order.
On June 29 Human Rights Watch** issued a statement calling for greater transparency over the nature of the alleged crimes. Prosecutors charged the four with calling for the overthrow of the state a full six months after the violence occurred.
“Bringing additional criminal charges against these activists under the veil of secrecy that has surrounded this investigation reeks of arbitrary action by the authorities,” Mihra Rittmann, HRW’s Central Asia researcher, said.
Kozlov’s wife Aliya Turusbekova says her husband also faces charges of organizing a criminal group with two Kazakhs living abroad, Alga! activist Muratbek Ketebayev and former chairman of BTA Bank Mukhtar Ablyazov. Ablyazov is currently on the run from British justice after fleeing to escape a prison sentence for contempt of court in a fraud case.
Astana has accused Ablyazov of masterminding the violence in Zhanaozen, a charge he denies.
To date 45 civilians have been convicted on charges related to the violence (of whom 17 have been jailed), and six police officers have been imprisoned for their role in the deaths of protestors.
**CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog mistakenly identified the June 29 statement as Amnesty International's, when it was, in fact, by Human Rights Watch.