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(Berlin) – Kazakh authorities should immediately release three activists in western Kazakhstan and drop charges against them, Human Rights Watch said today. The activists face prosecution in retaliation for peaceful protests in April and May 2016 against land code changes.

Two of the activists, Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan, from the northwestern city of Atyrau, are facing up to 15 years in prison on politically motivated charges of “preparing for a crime,” and “propaganda or public calls to seize or retain power, as well as seizure or retention of power or forcible change of the constitutional order of the Republic of Kazakhstan.” Zhannat Esentaev, a singer-songwriter from Uralsk, faces up to seven years in prison on vague criminal charges of “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord.”

Maks Bokaev. © 2016 Private

“No peaceful activist should be facing prison for taking part in peaceful protests,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These men should be released, and the authorities should stop their crackdown on government critics.”

Hundreds of people across Kazakhstan protested in late April and early May against proposed amendments to the land code that would extend the period foreigners could lease land in Kazakhstan from 10 years to 25. Protesters were concerned that long-term leases could result in the effective loss of Kazakh land to foreigners and foreign investors.

Bokaev, 43, is a well-known activist, outspoken on a range of issues, including human rights and the environment. He is a member of the Atyrau regional National Preventive Mechanism, a torture-prevention monitoring group under Kazakhstan’s office of the Ombudsman. Bokaev and Ayan, 32, were involved in and spoke out during an April 24 protest rally.

Although the protesters had not been given prior approval, as required under Kazakhstan’s restrictive law on public assemblies, the regional mayor stated publicly that no one would face punishment for participating.

On May 5, President Nursultan Nazarbaev imposed a moratorium on land code reforms and established a commission to review the issue. Bokaev’s family informed Human Rights Watch that he was invited to join the commission, but declined, saying that members should be nominated by citizens, not the government, and that the authorities should stop pressuring people who took part in the protests.

Wanting to keep pressure on the government to repeal the reforms, activists in at least half a dozen cities in Kazakhstan applied for permission to hold protests on May 21. In response, between May 16 and 18, the authorities jailed over two dozen activists and others who had been outspoken on land reform issues, including Bokaev and Ayan. They were detained on May 17 and sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest for allegedly violating the law on public assemblies. On May 21, hundreds of peaceful protesters were rounded up in a number of cities.

The criminal charges against Bokaev and Ayan were brought on the eve of their release for the administrative charges, and on June 1, they were transferred to pretrial detention for two months.

The authorities claim that Bokaev and Ayan, along with six others who participated in the April 24 protest in Atyrau, “manipulated negative public opinion about amendments to the land code… [and] from early April, began active propagandizing activities on social media, sowing public opinion that the head of the country and the government are selling Kazakh land to foreign citizens and organizations.” Ayan’s lawyer said that the authorities have named three other people who are not under arrest as suspects in the case and three others as witnesses.

Bokaev and Ayan are also accused of “refusing [to participate in] a constructive dialogue through the commission…, [and of] continuing to call on the population in social media to participate in a public meeting on May 21, preparing to organize a provocation of mass riots during the protests and an armed resistance against law enforcement.”

The charging document does not cite any material evidence that the men were planning violence, Human Rights Watch said.

In a separate case, the authorities are also prosecuting Esentaev, a member of Abyroi, a group of civic activists in Uralsk, on suspicion of “inciting interethnic discord.” The singer-songwriter is known for his criticism of government, including through his songs. The offense carries up to seven years in prison.

Esentaev was arrested on May 17, and an Uralsk court sent him to pretrial detention for two months. Authorities searched his home, confiscating his computer and telephone, media reports said. The details of the accusations against him have not been made public.

Authorities in Kazakhstan have long used the vague and overbroad charge of “inciting discord” to criminalize speech and behavior protected under international human rights law.

Freedom of opinion, expression, and assembly are basic rights protected by international treaties to which Kazakhstan is party.

Kazakhstan is scheduled to appear on June 22 and 23 before the United Nations Human Rights Committee for its second periodic review of Kazakhstan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 2006. Kazakhstan should make a commitment at that session to revise legislation that violates rights, Human Rights Watch said. In particular, it should revise the restrictive law on peaceful assemblies and article 174 of the criminal code “inciting social, national, clan, racial, class, or religious discord.”

Kazakhstan’s international partners should press the authorities to release the three activists immediately, stop targeting government critics who seek to express dissenting views, and urgently amend rights-violating legislation.

“In its effort to stifle normal civic debate and disagreement over proposed reforms, Kazakhstan has ratcheted up the pressure against activists, using detention to prevent protests, and threatening activists with long jail terms,” Williamson said. “Such repressive tactics are chilling to independent groups and have no place in a country claiming to uphold human rights and rule of law.”

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