International freedom of speech campaigners have penned an appeal to Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev to guarantee the safety of jailed journalist Zhanbolat Mamay and to ensure an impartial investigation into his case.
Mamay’s supporters say his arrest was a politically motivated reprisal for his criticism of the government.
The campaigners expressed their “profound concern about the arrest and continued persecution” of Mamay in their appeal, which was released on March 27. Signatories include 29 Kazakhstani and international human rights groups and freedom of speech watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Index on Censorship and Article 19.
Mamay, the editor of what was until recently one of Kazakhstan’s last surviving independent newspapers, Tribuna, was arrested last month on suspicion of using the outlet as a channel for money-laundering. Investigators have accused him of using the newspaper to launder the sum of $110,000 on behalf of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakhstani businessman and political opponent of Nazarbayev’s.
“We have concerns about his security,” Inga Imanbay, a Tribuna journalist and Mamay’s wife, told EurasiaNet.org. “This is a political case and we understand that he might receive a jail term, but the most important thing for us right now is that he should come out alive and well.”
The public appeal to Nazarbayev comes after Mamay went public last month with claims that he had been beaten up by fellow prisoners, which Imanbay said was an attempt to pressure him to confess.
A court in Kyrgyzstan has frozen the bank accounts of two media outlets facing libel lawsuits mounted on behalf of the president by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Bishkek city court on March 22 ruled that assets belonging to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyq, and news website Zanoza.kg should be frozen pending hearings over their alleged “spread of dishonest information” about President Almazbek Atambayev.
Zanoza.kg chief editor Dina Maslova told EurasiaNet.org that the decision has put the operations of her outlet at risk.
“These are the funds we use to pay taxes, the salaries of our employees and our rent. Now we need to look into different options — opening another outlet, another website or just use social media. And there could be problems with advertisers,” she said.
Maslova said the website will appeal the ruling.
She and others have argued that the government is trying to force Zanoza.kg into refraining from critical reporting by filing unwarrantedly large lawsuits — Maslova has said her outlet is being sued for more than $140,000.
“We consider this a form of pressure. If the authorities wanted to get to the truth, then they would have settled this matter before going to court. They would have called, told us of their indignation, there would have been meetings. None of this happened. They want to ruin us from the outset, because what Kyrgyz outlet has this kind of money?” she said.
The court justified its ruling by saying that in the event of the lawsuit going the way of the General Prosecutor’s Office, it could directly levy the amount from the accounts.
But Maslova said the amount in question was not even on the accounts in the first place.
Rally organizer and public activist Edil Baisalov, center, marching at a rally in defense of freedom of speech in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on March 18, 2017. (Photo: Danil Usmanov)
Hundreds of people went onto the streets of Kyrgyzstan’s capital over the weekend to demonstrate in support of free speech — only for many of them to be detained by police.
The rally in the center of Bishkek on March 18 was prompted by a wave of libel lawsuits filed on behalf of President Almazbek Atambayev that media rights advocates say are intended to crush independent reporting.
Among those participating were numerous journalists, members of parliament, rights activists and regular members of the public. The MPs were from the opposition Ata-Meken party, whose leader Omurbek Tekebayev is in jail facing charges of corruption. Several of the lawsuits involve the reporting of unproven allegations made by Tekebayev.
One participant in the rally was Alexander Kim, who is facing investigation over alleged financial misdemeanors while he was in control of Kyrgyzstan’s largest newspaper, Vecherniy Bishkek. The newspaper was wrested from his control by court ruling in 2015 and has since tacked to a fiercely pro-government and, accordingly, anti-opposition line. On the eve of the rally, finance police turned up at Kim’s home to detain him, but were foiled when it was found they did not have a warrant.
While the rally began peacefully enough, it was quickly interrupted by police, who said they had a court order to bring the march to a halt. After that, police began detaining participants, including activists Mavlyan Askarbekov, Aibek Myrza and Azamat Attokurov. Ata-Meken MP Kanybek Imanaliyev was held briefly before being released.
Rally organizer and public activist Edil Baisalov confronted the police, stating that the mayor’s office had given its approval. City Hall confirmed this information.
The former owner of Kyrgyzstan’s largest newspaper — which has tacked away from its formerly sparky reporting style since a court-ordered takeover in 2015 — is being targeted for arrest.
After nightfall on March 17, a group of officers with the finance police attempted to forcibly detain 70-year old Alexander Kim at his apartment, but their efforts were foiled following a public uproar.
The move comes against the backdrop of mounting intimidation of independent press and attempts by state prosecutors to seek crippling libel damages from critical outlets, such as Zanoza.kg, which is owned by Kim.
The State Service for Combating Economic Crimes has said it is investigating Kim over suspect financial activity when he was the director of the holding company that owned Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper.
Shortly after the arrival of the finance police squadron at Kim’s apartment, civic society and rights activists rushed to the scene. After a standoff lasting several hours, finance police relented but left a summons for Kim to present himself to the authorities on March 22.
Vecherniy Bishkek, a daily newspaper, has had a complicated and troubled past, having changed beneficiaries repeatedly through nebulous means.
Its current owner, Alexander Ryabushkin, previously had a degree of control over the paper, but argued that it was illegally wrested out of his hands. A court in September 2015 ordered that ownership of the newspaper be transferred from Kim to Ryabushkin.
Kim argued that the court decision was politically motivated and engineered by people close to the presidential administration.
A journalist for a fiercely pro-Kremlin news agency has been expelled from Kyrgyzstan in a move that has political observers in the Moscow-friendly nation scratching their heads.
Grigory Mikhailov, an editor with Regnum website, posted an update on Facebook on March 13 to say he was returning to Russia from Kazakhstan after having been denied entry to Kyrgyzstan, where he has been based for more than a decade.
Mikhailov was stopped by police on the evening of March 10 while he was strolling with his wife in the center of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and ordered to show his documents. The journalist, a Russian citizen, was not carrying his passport, but it was eventually established that his registration in Kyrgyzstan had expired, which constitutes a violation of migration law.
While Mikhailov admits his papers were not in order, he toldfergana.ru that police made no note of this fact in their reports.
“The police advised us to cross the nearest Kyrgyz-Kazakhstani border point and to return to Kyrgyzstan so that they could put a note about registration at the passport control booth,” Mikhailov’s wife, Yevgeniya Kim, told EurasiaNet.org.
But when Mikhailov attempted to do just that, he was denied re-entry at the border.
Mikhailov has said he believes he has been singled out for this treatment because of his work.
“It is possible that the evaluations that I made in my articles — and I have had a few recently — were not to somebody’s pleasing,” he said.
Technically speaking, Mikhailov was not even deported, since he left Kyrgyzstan of his own will.
Police in Kazakhstan have acted quickly to prevent any public gestures of solidarity with the jailed editor of an independent newspaper, whose supporters fear is being subjected to ill-treatment in prison.
On February 23, political activist Yerlan Kaliyev announced his intent to hold a one-man picket in support of Zhanbolat Mamay, who is facing accusations of laundering the proceeds of corruption through his Tribuna newspaper. But before Kaliyev could reach the headquarters of the Security Services Committee, or KNB, in the city of Almaty, he was detained by police.
Other activists, Galym Ageleuov and Askhat Bersalimov, later made it to the same building to report on Kaliyev’s fate, only to also find themselves being detained, according to RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, Radio Azattyq. Kaliyev and Ageleuov were later released, but Bersalimov has been ordered to served a 15-day jail term for summoning an unsanctioned protest.
Concern has been mounting about Mamay’s wellbeing over reports he has been physically maltreated since being taken into custody on February 10.
A independent committee known as the national mechanism for the prevention of torture stated on February 23 that it had visited the detention facility where Mamay is being held and found that there was indeed apparent evidence of abuse in the prison.
“It has been established that the safety of the detainee was indeed not observed as required,” the committee said in a statement after meeting with Mamay and his lawyer. “In part, he faced psychological and physical intimidation by those with him in the same cell, who were people with multiple convictions.”
Rights activists argue that investigators habitually place suspects in cells with other dangerous prisoners as a form of intimidation.
Supporters of a jailed journalist in Kazakhstan have said he has been targeted for physical mistreatment since being detained last week.
Authorities accuse Zhanbolat Mamay, editor of Tribuna newspaper, of involvement in fraudulent schemes with fugitive banker and government foe Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Mamay’s lawyer, Zhanara Balgabayeva, said on February 21 that she filed a request to meet see her client in person and for him to be moved to a more secure pretrial detention facility but was rebuffed on both counts.
Tribuna is one of very few independent media outlets in Kazakhstan that have either not been shut down or coopted by the authorities, leading rights activists to speculate Mamay is facing politically motivated charges. Unlike most media in Kazakhstan, Tribuna is not a beneficiary of the “state order” system, whereby the government either finances outlets outright or pays for the publication of material publicizing state policies and initiatives. It focuses primarily on social issues and has a line that tends toward robust criticism of the government and provides a platform for the few opposition politicians remaining on the scene.
Balgabayeva cited a note conveyed to her by Mamay stating that he had been “subjected to beatings in his prison cell,” but added that the claim might have been “sharply worded” and that there was no way to independently verify his wellbeing for now.
Mamay’s spouse, Inga Imanbay, said in a Facebook video message that she had met with the head of pretrial detention facility No. 18, where her husband is being held, in a failed bid to see him.
Local authorities in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, have begun demolition work on a building used to host press conferences for political activists and independent journalists.
The building was also home to KazTAG, a news agency run by two prominent media figures — father and son, Seytkazy and Aset Matayev — facing trial on charges of defrauding the state of nearly $1 million.
The official reason given for the demolition of the National Press Center is that the 300-square meter, two-story building does not correspond to earthquake standards and is therefore illegal.
The Matayevs are currently facing trial in the capital, Astana. Prosecutors have ruled out any link between the trial and the fate of the building, which is situated on a valuable piece of real estate in central Almaty. Media observers and rights activists are a little more skeptical, however, suggesting that the Matayevs have fallen victim to a crude attempt at a property grab.
Tamara Kaleyeva, head of the Adil Soz press advocacy group, told Channel 31 that she believes the charges of fraud against Matayevs are without foundation and that the situation surrounding the National Press Center headquarters can hardly be considered a coincidence.
Representatives of the National Press Center have said a second story was added to their building 10 years with all the necessary permits from the city administration. Despite that, in February, just as the charges were being level at the Matayevs, a note was delivered to the center declaring the building unfit. Appeals to reverse that decision were rejected.
Tajikistan’s General Prosecutor is considering prosecution for a Russian journalist for “inciting ethnic hatred” over an article that mocked the country and its president.
Sergei Ponomaryov’s piece in Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda about a visit to Tajikistan was published last month and featured numerous crude stereotypes. The article has already led to the shuttering of the local edition of the newspaper, which had a circulation of 5,000 in Tajikistan.
Likely most troubling for authorities in Dushanbe, however, was the fact that the article reveled among other things in ribald observations about President Emomali Rahmon. A concerted exercise in personality cult building has made Rahmon, who is alluded to exclusively in state media as the “Leader of the Nation,” off-limits to any critics.
Asia-Plus website cites General Prosecutor Yusuf Rahmon as saying Ponomaryov’s article, which was sarcastically titled “Tajikistan: Out of the Soviet Waste to a Bright Future,” will be studied for evidence of incitement to interethnic hatred.
The piece was certainly patronizing and insulting. Ponomaryov bases some of his caustic observations on a pair of Tajik characters from a popular Russian sketch show, Nasha Russia.
“On the plane from Moscow to the ancient city of Khujand, the capital of northern Tajikistan and the second city in the country, mine was the only Slavic countenance. The rest was straight-up Ravshan and Jamshuds,” he wrote.
The Nasha Russia characters are a pair of Tajik migrant laborers distinctive for their primitiveness and stupidity.
One of Kazakhstan’s last remaining independent newspapers has been ordered to pay heavy damages in a libel case that its editor believes was designed to drive it out of business.
The ruling ordering the Tribuna/Ashyk Alan newspaper to pay nearly $15,000 in damages to a former Almaty city official was the latest in a series of lawsuits lost by independent media in Kazakhstan that critics see as a blow to freedom of speech.
“This basically means the destruction of the independent media,” Zhanbolat Mamay, the newspaper’s editor, told EurasiaNet.org after the verdict on July 12. “It is an attack on freedom of speech.”
The lawsuit was filed by Sultanbek Syzdykov, a former Almaty city hall official whom the newspaper had labeled “corrupt” because he was accused of embezzling $70,000 from funds to stage the 2011 Asian Winter Games. A criminal probe was closed after he repaid the sum.
The case was widely covered in Kazakhstan’s media at the time, but Tribuna/Ashyk Alan has now been punished for reporting on it, Kazakhstan’s Adil Soz (Freedom of Speech) watchdog noted.
Denis Krivosheyev, a journalist at the bilingual Russian-Kazakh newspaper (whose name means “Platform”), wrote about it again this spring after Syzdykov was appointed to head a company belonging to city hall.
“[Syzdykov] now considers that he is not corrupt, and that we called him corrupt without grounds,” Mamay told EurasiaNet.org prior to the verdict, which awarded Syzdykov a third of the $45,000 in damages he had sought.