Update: At an appeal hearing in Bishkek on 29 September, a court reduced Kyrgyz journalist Zulpukar Sapanov’s sentence of four years in prison to a suspended two-year jail term and freed him at the end of the hearing.
“We welcome the release of Zulpukar Sapanov, who should never have been imprisoned just for tackling the highly sensitive subject of religious pluralism in Kyrgyzstan,” Reporters Without Borders said.
14.09.17: Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by Kyrgyz journalist Zulpukar Sapanov’s four-year jail sentence for allegedly “inciting hatred between religious faiths” in a book about pre-Islamic beliefs in Kyrgyzstan and calls for his conviction to be overturned on appeal.
Although Kyrgyzstan boasts of being an island of free speech in Central Asia, a court in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, passed the sentence on 12 September. The judges said the book “downplays Islam’s role as a religion and fosters a negative attitude towards Muslims”.
Entitled “Kydyr Sanzhyrasy,” the book describes itself as a detailed study of pre-Islamic beliefs and ancient pagan traditions among the Kyrgyz people. When published last year, it was fiercely denounced by Kyrgyz religious leaders, who regarded it as an internationally-inspired attempt to destabilize the country.
It was at their request that Sapanov was placed under investigation on suspicion of violating article 299 of the criminal code. The investigation was carried out by the State Committee on National Security (GKNB), which searched his home in February.
“Zulpukar Sapanov’s imprisonment sets a disturbing precedent for freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We condemn his conviction and call on the courts to release him without delay.”
During the trial, Sapanov said the evaluations of his book by the independent expert commissioned by the court were not serious analyses. He has filed an appeal.
Fear of “disturbing social peace” has been fuelled in Kyrgyzstan by various waves of violence, the latest of which left around 500 dead in the south of the country in 2010. As a result, inter-ethnic relations have long been the subject of a great deal of self-censorship.
But Sapanov’s imprisonment has reinforced concerns about media freedom violations, which have been getting more and more frequent in the run-up to next month’s presidential election.
Kyrgyzstan is ranked 89th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.