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As soon as tomorrow, a court in eastern Kazakhstan will rule on whether to convict and imprison a journalist and civil society activist  for “inciting religious discord” for articles he published that were critical of world religions. Kazakh law sets out stiff prison terms for “inciting social, national, clan, racial or religious discord,” and if the activist, Aleksandr Kharlamov, is found guilty, he will be the latest in a growing list of outspoken individuals authorities have convicted or imprisoned on vague incitement charges after public criticism of government officials.

In October 2012, political opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years on this charge. In early 2012, authorities brought the same charge against 10 others in connection with the investigation into the 2011 violence in Zhanaozen, although eventually those detained were released after signing statements of remorse. In August 2011, a court in Aktau sentenced an outspoken union lawyer, Natalia Sokolova, to six years in prison. She too was ultimately released, but authorities barred her from any “civic” activity for three years.

Independent expert analysis concluded that none of Kharlamov’s writings on religion and atheism contain incitement speech. When Kharlamov’s lawyer recently asked the court to allow for additional expert analysis, the judge refused.

Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have raised concerns that the authorities are using the incitement charges to target Kharlamov for his publications that criticize corruption in local administrative and law enforcement bodies.

Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly urged the Kazakh authorities to repeal or amend the vague “incitement” article, which criminalizes speech and activities protected under international law.

Instead the Kazakhstan government has proposed increasing the maximum prison sentence from 12 years to 20 years.

It’s not too late for Kazakhstan to revise the “incitement” amendments to bring them into line with international standards, or repeal it altogether. But more urgently, there is still time for the Kazakh authorities to review, and drop, the charges brought against Kharlamov.

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