Zhanbolat Mamay © Inga Imanbay

(Berlin) – An Almaty court on September 7, 2017, convicted the editor of one of Kazakhstan’s few remaining critical newspapers in a politically motivated money laundering trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Medeu District Court barred the editor, Zhanbolat Mamay, from journalism, and restricted his freedom of movement for three years, and ordered him to perform 120 hours of community service. Mamay, who has been in detention since his arrest in February, was freed following the trial.

“While it’s wonderful that Mamay is home with his family, his prosecution was an example of the authorities’ blatant efforts to silence what remains of Kazakhstan’s independent media,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In prosecuting yet another journalist, the Kazakh government is making clear its contempt for free speech and critical expression.”

Kazakhstan’s international partners should challenge Mamay’s prosecution and call on the government to allow independent and critical media outlets to carry out their important work without retaliation or undue interference, Human Rights Watch said.

Mamay, 29, worked as editor-in-chief of Sayasy Kalam: Tribuna, an opposition newspaper in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Mamay had previously been an activist and the leader of an opposition youth group, Rukh Pen Til (Spirit and Language). In early 2012, authorities charged Mamay with “inciting social discord” following violent clashes between striking oil workers, other people, and law enforcement in Zhanaozen, an oil town in western Kazakhstan, in December 2011. After several months in detention, Mamay was released, and charges against him were not pursued.

Authorities arrested Mamay on February 10, 2017, on suspicion of using Tribuna to launder approximately US$110,000 over a three-to-four-year period.

Mamay was arrested the day the government’s anti-corruption agency released a statement claiming that in the course of its embezzlement investigation into former top officials of the Kazakhstan bank, BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Zhaksylyk Zharymbetov, and others, the agency identified “Ablyazov’s accomplice in Kazakhstan [as] Zhanbolat Mamayuly Mamay.”

The prosecution claimed that in 2011 Ablyazov and Zharymbetov involved Mamay in their efforts to whitewash embezzled BTA bank money, and that, from 2011 to 2014, they gave Mamay a total of US$110,000 in incremental amounts. According to the indictment, this sum is alleged to be just a part of a total of over US$7 billion in embezzled funds.

In June, an Almaty court convicted Ablyazov and several of his colleagues, including Zharymbetov, on multiple criminal charges, including membership of a criminal group, and large-scale embezzlement. Ablyazov was tried in absentia and sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Zharymbetov, who had been extradited to Kazakhstan from Turkey in January 2017, was given a five-year suspended sentence.

Zharymbetov testified in court that Ablyazov initially directed him to give money to Mamay in 2011, and that he asked his sister in Almaty to give Mamay the money. Zharymbetov said that after he and Ablyazov parted ways in 2012, Zharymbetov also provided funds to Mamay on his own. Both Zharymbetov’s sister and her former husband testified they helped facilitate getting cash to Mamay.

Given that Zharymbetov gave this testimony after he was extradited from Turkey, and as he faced heavy criminal charges, it cannot be ruled out that he testified under duress, Human Rights Watch said.

Mamay acknowledged to the court that Zharymbetov supported his newspaper, but rejected the accusation that in accepting the financial donation from Zharymbetov, he helped launder money.

Mamay’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution relied on Zharymbetov’s testimony to seek to establish Mamay’s guilt, and produced no evidence that Mamay himself ever knowingly took part in any illegal or criminal activity. Mamay denies having ever met Ablyazov.

Many domestic and international media and human rights watchdogs expressed concern about the charges brought against Mamay and his arrest. In February 2017, Reporters Without Borders called on Kazakh authorities to drop the charges and release Mamay. In March, following worrying reports that Mamay had been beaten in custody, IFEX, the global free speech network, called on authorities to “stop the persecution of Zhanbolat Mamay and ensure his fair trial” and to “investigate thoroughly Mamay’s beating in the detention center.”

Kazakhstan is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and as such, has an obligation to respect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom. The use of questionable financial charges to bar Mamay from working as a journalist – a sanction not directly provided for money laundering in the Kazakh Criminal Code – indicates the authorities’ primary intent was to silence free speech in violation of those obligations.

“Kazakhstan’s concerted crackdown on critical media has been going on for several years, but it is never too late for the authorities to reverse course, uphold the country’s international obligations, and support press freedom,” Rittmann said. “Acknowledging that Mamay’s prosecution was designed to remove him from journalism, and cancelling the penalties imposed on him would be a great place to start.