Update: Amangeldy Batyrbekov was finally acquitted on 9 January 2019.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges Kazakhstan’s judicial system to quash the 27-month prison sentence that journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov received on a criminal defamation charge last month, and reiterates its call for Kazakhstan to decriminalize press offences.
Kazakhstan gave this latest example of how it persecutes journalists just weeks ahead of its next Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council, scheduled for 7 November.
The jail sentence was passed on Batyrbekov on 23 September by a court in Saryagash, in Kazakhstan’s southern Turkestan region, where he edits the local newspaper Saryagash Info. The court also ordered him to pay more than 800,000 tenge (2,000 euros) in damages. His appeal is expected to be heard soon.
Known in the region for his investigative reporting on local government officials and judges, he was convicted for a series Facebook posts about alleged corruption within the education system in the district of Keles.
The trial was conducted by a judge who has been the subject of Batyrbekov’s critical reporting and who had convicted him several times in the past, including on cases that had already been tried. The defence’s request for the judge’s removal was nonetheless rejected. The good character testimony that Batyrbekov wanted to produce during the trial was only registered after his conviction.
“This harsh sentence was imposed at the end of a trial marred by many procedural flaws,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We call on the judicial system to hear the appeal in a different jurisdiction and to issue a decision that conforms to international free speech standards. And finally, the Kazakh authorities must decriminalize press offences if they want their talk of reform to be taken seriously.”
An open letter signed by around 500 people in the Turkestan region, including journalists and activists, has called on the national authorities to ensure that Batyrbekov gets a fair hearing on appeal.
Like RSF, the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have long been pressing the Kazakh authorities to decriminalize press offences. Jailing reporters for defamation has a chilling effect that deters others from tackling sensitive stories. Decriminalization is one of the leading recommendations in the report that RSF submitted to the UN Human Rights Council ahead of Kazakhstan’s next Universal Periodic Review.
Kazakhstan is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.