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Ramazan Yesergepov. © 2016 Kazis Toguzbaev (RFE/RL)

(Berlin) – A prominent Kazakh journalist and activist was violently attacked in the early morning hours of May 14, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The Kazakh authorities should ensure that the attack is investigated promptly, thoroughly, and impartially and that the attackers are identified and brought to justice.

Ramazan Yesergepov, chairman of the board of Journalists in Danger, a Kazakh media freedom group that provides legal advice and representation and training for journalists, was stabbed in the abdomen by two unidentified men during a train journey from Almaty to Astana. He was scheduled to meet in Astana with foreign diplomats about activists and journalists imprisoned in Kazakhstan and about the government’s failure to comply with United Nations Human Rights Committee decisions, including in his own case. Yesergepov was hospitalized following the attack and underwent surgery.

“This violent, targeted attack on a prominent journalist-activist and long-standing government critic raises serious concerns,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Kazakhstan authorities should ensure that there is a thorough investigation of this vicious attack and that those responsible are identified and brought to justice.”

Yesergepov, 61, had stepped out of his compartment for some air when two unidentified assailants stabbed him in the abdomen with a sharp object. Yesergepov told Human Rights Watch that the men identified him as that “Magnitsky” guy. The reference appears to relate to Yesergepov’s public call for Kazakh officials to impose visa and financial sanctions on anyone allegedly involved in torturing and killing whistleblowers. A similar United States sanctions law relates to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer, in a Russian prison.

Yesergepov said he was taken to the hospital at the next stop, in Shu, a town in southern Kazakhstan, where he underwent surgery. The police have opened a criminal case for attempted murder.

Rozlana Taukina, director of Journalists in Danger, told Human Rights Watch she believes the attack was politically motivated because of Yesergepov’s harsh criticism of government, in particular of the authorities’ refusal to implement the UN Human Rights Committee March 2016 decision regarding violations of Yesergepov’s right to a fair trial and unlawful detention. The committee monitors provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and can consider individual complaints.

Yesergepov has repeatedly appealed to government and judicial bodies to carry out the decision, but the authorities have not taken any action on his case, he said. On Friday, May 12, Yesergepov filed a lawsuit against the head of the presidential administration, the chairman of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor general, and the ministers of foreign affairs and finance over the failure to enforce the decision, he said.

Yesergepov is the former editor of the independent newspaper Alma-Ata Info. After his newspaper published an article alleging corruption against local officials based on classified documents, he was sentenced to three years in prison in August 2009, on charges of disclosing state secrets. He was also banned from engaging in journalistic activities for two years. Yesergepov’s trial was not open to the public, and he was denied a lawyer of his choice. He was released on January 6, 2012, after he completed his sentence.

The authorities should ensure that the investigation into the attack on Yesergepov examines the possibility that he was attacked in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of government and his media freedom activism, Human Rights Watch said.

The environment for free speech and media freedom in Kazakhstan is highly restrictive. It is marked by harassment and attacks on independent journalists, closure of independent and opposition media outlets, prohibitive penalties for civil defamation, and criminal penalties for libel.

This is not the only time a critical journalist has been the target of a violent attack in Kazakhstan in recent years. In August 2013, Igor Larra, a journalist with the independent newspaper Svoboda Slova, was badly beaten by four assailants in his hometown, Aktobe. In April 2012, two unidentified men stabbed Lukpan Akhmedyarov, a journalist with the independent newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya in Uralsk, eight times and shot him with a non-lethal weapon.

“This violent attack on Yesergepov is a pressing reminder of the highly restrictive space for freedom of expression in Kazakhstan,” Rittmann said. “The Kazakh government should take immediate and urgent steps to lift restrictions on independent journalists and media outlets so they can carry out their work without fear of violent repercussions.”

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