Fate of Kazakh Land Reform Protesters Likely ‘Sealed’

Fraudulent Arbitral Awards - Anatolie Stati and others v Republic of Kazakhstan [2017] EWHC 1348 (Comm)

Observers feel a guilty verdict is inevitable, as critics accuse government of launching a smear campaign against activists through friendly media.

The ongoing trial of two Kazakh land rights activists accused of inciting social and national disorder, spreading false information, and organizing an illegal protest in Atyrau, western Kazakhstan, hinges on “dubious testimonies,” Eurasianet reports.

Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan were detained in May a few weeks after speaking out during a protest against land reform. If found guilty of the charges – which rights watchdogs have labelled unfounded – they could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

“After a week of hearings, the trial … has revealed numerous cracks in the state’s case, although it is unlikely this will make a guilty verdict any less probable,” Eurasianet writes, citing cases where the government has extracted “useful testimony” from other activists by striking plea bargains.

Prosecutors charge that Bokaev and Ayan acted on behalf of an allegedly “power-hungry” tycoon, Tohtar Tuleshov, who authorities claim was looking to sow instability as a prelude to seizing power. Being tried separately in closed doors proceedings in Astana, Tuleshov testified 17 October via video link that his assistants gave $100,000 to Ayan to organize the protests.

Bokaev and Ayan were among many arrested ahead of planned nationwide demonstrations scheduled for 21 May – after filing the appropriate requests with local authorities to legally hold protests.

The government launched a smear campaign via the media, accusing the protesters of having planned violent attacks, The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights said on 19 October in a detailed account of the trial proceedings.

“The Observatory strongly condemns the ongoing judicial harassment in the politically-motivated trial against [Bokaev and Ayan] and calls on the Kazakhstani authorities to respect due process and fair trial standards, as well as to immediately and unconditionally release and drop all charges against them,” the watchdog said.

Bokaev, a human rights defender working for the protection of the environment, freedom of expression, and the fight against torture, and Ayan, a lawyer and activist, played a key role in organizing the peaceful protests in Atyrau, which were followed by mass protests across Kazakhstan for nearly two weeks.

Tuleshov was arrested in January along with three associates following a crackdown by Astana on both pro-Russian and nationalist activists. Ahead of his trial, a documentary aired on a Kazakh TV channel detailing his reputed, shadowy criminal past, The Diplomat reports.

The land reform – which sparked protests in Atyrau, Astana, Almaty, and Karaganda this spring–would allow joint ventures to purchase land as long as Kazakh residents controlled these companies, while foreigners could only rent land for up to 25 years (up from the existing restriction of 10 years).

“The criminal prosecution of activists for exercising their right to peaceful protest has no place in a society that respects human rights and rule of law,” Human Rights Watch said ahead of the trial.