(Berlin) – Kazakh authorities should drop criminal charges against a journalist and immediately release him from a psychiatric clinic where he is under forced observation. On May 13, 2013, a court in the journalist’s hometown extended his detention until June 14.
The journalist, Aleksandr Kharlamov, is also a civil society activist from Ridder, a town in northeastern Kazakhstan about 1,000 kilometers from the capital, Astana. Authorities arrested him on March 14 on charges of “inciting religious discord,” under article 164 of Kazakhstan’s criminal code. The charge carries a maximum seven-year prison sentence. In mid-April, authorities placed Kharlamov under observation in a psychiatric clinic in Almaty to determine whether he was clinically insane at the time of the alleged crime.
“This is hardly the first time the authorities have used criminal incitement charges to try to silence a peaceful critic,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To add insult to injury, then they put him under observation in a mental institution. They should drop the charges against Kharlamov and free him immediately.”
Kharlamov provided legal consultations on civil matters to local residents in Ridder, and in some cases acted as a public defender. He kept a blog, contributed to local newspapers in northeast Kazakhstan, and wrote about corruption in local administrative and law enforcement bodies.
In a joint news conference on May 14 with a leading Kazakhstani human rights organization, the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR), Kharlamov’s partner, Marina Kaplunskaya, raised concern that Kharlamov may have been targeted by the authorities because of his critical publications. Other human rights activists in Kazakhstan have raised similar concerns. Kharlamov’s writings have been available online since 2005, Kaplunskaya stated.
In Kharlamov’s charge sheet, the investigator stated that Kharlamov had published articles on world religions despite “understanding that his views are cardinally opposed to the views and beliefs of the majority of religious people, and that his actions may result in adverse consequences such as religious enmity and discord, leading people to form negative attitudes toward religion, which [in turn] could create conflicts between people.”
A psychological-philological expert analysis requested by the investigators on the case of three dozen texts written by Kharlamov on the topic of world religions and atheism concluded that over half of these writings “contain negative information aimed at inciting religious hatred and discord.” The conclusions of the expert analysis served as the basis for the charges against him.
One such example of his writing found by the experts to incite religious discord reads, “All world religions – like mysticism, like atheism, which deny the possibility of knowing the True and Real God – are obscurant and primitive.”
“If Kazakh authorities have any actual evidence that Kharlamov’s religious writings incited anyone to violence, they should charge him with a credible offense,” Rittmann said. “Otherwise, they should drop this overreaching charge and release him immediately.”
In early April, Kharlamov was transferred from a temporary detention center in Ridder to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital, in the southern part of the country. Approximately a week after he was transferred, he was admitted to a clinic in Almaty to undergo psychiatric observation, where he has been forcibly held since, in violation of international standards against arbitrary detention.
Neither his lawyers nor his family members have been able to visit him since he was admitted to the clinic, Human Rights Watch said.
If Kharlamov is found legally insane by doctors at the psychiatric clinic, he faces possible forced psychiatric detention and treatment.
“Subjecting Kharlamov to psychiatric observation on flimsy criminal charges, while denying his relatives and lawyer access to him, violates multiple human rights guarantees and is a throwback to the Soviet-era tactic of repression,” Rittmann said.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on Kazakh authorities to amend or repeal the charge of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, or religious discord or enmity” under article 164 of the criminal code, as this provision is vague, broad, and criminalizes behavior and speech protected under international human rights law.
Laws that target speech that incites violence, discrimination, and hostility must also respect the core right of free speech, and are considered compatible with human rights law only when such violence, discrimination, or hostility is imminent, and the measures restricting speech are absolutely necessary to prevent such conduct. A government may not impose criminal sanctions for expressing thoughts or opinions merely because others, including government officials, deem them offensive, Human Rights Watch said.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) permits a government to restrict the right to freedom of expression to protect public morals only if the restriction conforms to strict tests of necessity and proportionality, and is nondiscriminatory, including on the grounds of religion or belief.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, has stated, “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the covenant,” except in strictly limited circumstances such as direct incitement to violence.
Authorities in Kazakhstan have repeatedly misused this overbroad and vague criminal charge under article 164 of Kazakhstan’s criminal code – inciting social, national, clan, racial, or religious discord or enmity – in an attempt to silence outspoken government critics, Human Rights Watch said.
In October 2012, Vladimir Kozlov, head of the unregistered political opposition party Alga!, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison on this charge for his alleged role in violent clashes in western Kazakhstan in December 2011, following extended labor strikes. In August 2011, a union lawyer, Natalia Sokolova, was convicted under the same charge and sentenced to 6 years in prison, but was later released.
“Even if Kharlamov’s writings and views may offend some, they are in no way criminal, and Kharlamov shouldn’t be subjected to forced psychiatric observation, treatment or institutionalization,” Rittmann said.