Protesters at a small rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on March 18, 2016.
A handful of civil society campaigners staged a rare picket in Almaty on March 18, demanding freedom for a political activist sentenced to jail on incitement charges.
The protest took place two days before Kazakhstan votes in a snap parliamentary election, and was the first time activists had staged any such actions during a lackluster campaign for an election certain to be won by the ruling party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
“Freedom for Yermek Narymbayev,” chanted the five activists who took part in the picket on a pedestrian shopping thoroughfare in downtown Almaty.
They held up banners in Kazakh, English and Russian showing demands such as “Free human rights defender Yermek Narymbayev” and calling for the abolition of Article 174 of the criminal code under which he was jailed on charges of inciting ethnic strife.
The protest lasted approximately three minutes and attracted little attention on a quiet and rainy weekday morning.
With no police in the immediate vicinity to witness it, no arrests were made. Public protest is rare in Kazakhstan and protesters are frequently detained on charges of breaching stringent public assembly laws.
Narymbayev was handed a three-year jail term in January on charges of inciting ethnic enmity following a trial in which fellow activist Serikzhan Mambetalin received a two-year term.
The two were released under house arrest shortly after their sentencing pending an appeal hearing due later this month. They spent four months in jail before their release, and will return to prison to serve out their time if the appeal fails.
A former prime minister of Kazakhstan who was jailed last year in a high-profile corruption case has had his jail sentence reduced on appeal.
The case attracted widespread attention in Kazakhstan, where corruption is rife but the arrest of political heavyweights on graft charges is rare. That has led some observers to speculate that the case is the result of infighting among the elite groups surrounding President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The term of Serik Akhmetov, who was prime minister for 18 months until April 2014 and was subsequently defense minister for six months, was cut from 10 years to eight in a ruling handed down on March 14, the Total.kz news website reported.
Akhmetov was jailed in December after a trial in which he pleaded guilty to bribery and embezzlement during his tenure as governor of Karaganda Region, which is Kazakhstan’s industrial heartland, from 2009 to 2012.
Investigators accused the former prime minister of taking bribes worth some $2.4 million to ensure that a firm run by his brother Berik Akhmetov and his son Daniyar Akhmetov was awarded lucrative tenders in Karaganda.
Prior to his conviction, Akhmetov issued a groveling public apology to Nazarbayev, in which he begged the president’s forgiveness “for failing to live up to his trust.”
Campaigners have handed a petition to the World Bank urging it to suspend funding for agricultural projects in Uzbekistan until Tashkent roots out forced labor in the cotton harvest.
A petition addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and signed by 140,000 people was delivered to the institution’s Washington HQ on March 9, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of advocacy groups.
On the same day, one human rights group released a damning report documenting allegedly systematic use of forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest.
“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs,” the report by the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) stated.
The World Bank press office told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“Over the past 2-3 years, the Bank has maintained an intensive dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan on issues related to child and forced labor in the cotton sector. During this period, the authorities introduced changes to the national legal framework related to the protection of the rights of workers and the prohibitions on child and forced labor,” the World Bank said.
In many democratic systems, holding legislative elections amid spiraling inflation, a rapidly depreciating currency, sharp contractions in government expenditure and reports of job losses and delayed wages usually spells trouble for a governing party.
(A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that the central bank had spent $464 million propping up the tenge in February.)
After a precipitous plunge over many months, Kazakhstan’s embattled currency has gained ground in recent weeks.
Now, the governor of the central bank has revealed the reason for the tenge’s sudden rally.
Speculation had been rife that the bank was propping up the currency ahead of the March 20 parliamentary election — but it has actually been maneuvering to weaken the tenge, Daniyar Akishev revealed to parliament on March 3.
The precise total spent on buying hard currency in February to bring down the tenge rate was $474 million, he said.
The main factor contributing to the tenge’s rise appears to have been the sale of dollars as the tax-reporting period approached at the end of February, when major companies have to pay their dues in tenge.
Akishev moved to quell speculation that Astana is scrambling to soothe any pre-election tensions by taking measures to pacify public anger over the devaluation of the tenge, which has hit people hard in their pockets and even sparked occasional public protests.
“This is not linked to domestic political processes within the country,” Akishev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“The Kazakh system for investigating police abuses is so riddled with loop-holes and the protection of vested interests that torturers are able to act with virtual impunity,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director.
A crucial finding was that vested interests hamper investigations into torture claims, preventing eradication of the abuse.
“The underlying factor behind the barriers to justice facing victims of torture in Kazakhstan is that it is not in the interests of the agencies and individuals who carry out investigations of torture to do so impartially and objectively,” the report stated.
Obtaining justice is an up-hill struggle as investigators play “bureaucratic ping-pong” with those who file complaints about police abuse.
Maklakov, one of 12 case studies in the report, filed his complaint in 2006.
Uzbekistan has never been a fan of free speech — but Tashkent is now literally equating debate to terrorism.
Ozodlik, the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has reported that two academics who wrote a manual on how to foster debating skills among young people are facing suspicions of terrorism and pursuing the overthrow of the government.
According to Ozodlik’s anonymously sourced report, Eleni Duras and Dilfuza Kurolova are under investigation for authoring or disseminating material liable to present a threat to public order.
None of the people involved in the story responded to EurasiaNet.org’s queries for clarification.
Published three years ago with the support of the United Nations Development Program, the Guide to Debating aimed to develop oratorical skills among young people — a common practice in universities worldwide.
The manual has now been withdrawn from educational institutions and copies have been burned, according to RFE/RL’s source.
The two authors — both respected academics — and Bahodir Ayupov, the head of the UNDP’s Social Innovation and Volunteering in Uzbekistan project, have reportedly been called in for interrogation by prosecutors and intelligence agents from the National Security Service.
Kurolova is a law graduate and MA student at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, according to her LinkedIn professional profile. She is also a member of the OSCE-backed Central Asian Youth Networking forum, which brings together young people from around the region to promote understanding of topical issues.
In a surprising precedent, the trial of an independent journalist in Kazakhstan has culminated with an acquittal.
A court in Almaty ruled on February 29 to clear Yulia Kozlova of drug possession charges, bringing a close to a trial the reporter’s supporters said was politically motivated.
Kozlova’s lawyer had complained throughout proceedings that the two week-long trial was riddled with procedural irregularities.
The charges against Kozlova, who writes for an embattled website called Nakanune.kz that features regular and robust criticism of the authorities, arose from a police raid on her apartment in December. Investigators claimed that during a search for incriminating material related to a separate case involving reporting appearing on Nakanune.kz they found marijuana in a tea caddy.
Kozlova reacted with tearful surprise and delight to her acquittal, video posted on social networks showed. The verdict was unexpected in a country where innocent verdicts are rare, particularly in cases involving independent journalists.
One possibility is that the government may be seeking to mitigate the wave of international criticism that has been timed unfortunately to surge ahead of parliamentary elections on March 20.
Kozlova had staunchly denied the accusations against her.
“I link this to my work,” she told a court hearing attended by EurasiaNet.org in which she gave her testimony on February 18, pointing to her reporting as the source of her legal troubles.
Nakanune.kz was set up by journalists who used to report for Respublika, Kazakhstan’s most hard-hitting independent newspaper until it was closed down in 2012.