Government wields criminal libel laws against opposition press

April 17, 2001

His Excellency Nursultan Nazarbayev
President of Kazakhstan
Beibitshlik Street 11
Astana, Kazakhstan 473000

VIA FAX: 011-7-3172-323-073; 011-7-3172-327-274

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomes the recent decision of the Almaty prosecutor’s office to drop criminal defamation charges against Bigeldy Gabdullin, editor of the opposition weekly XXI Vek. However, we remain deeply concerned about your government’s frequent use of politically-motivated criminal charges to harass opposition journalists.

The formal charges against Gabdullin were based on two articles about Your Excellency’s alleged personal corruption that he published in the October 20, 2000, edition of XXI Vek. The prosecutor claimed that the articles had “negative connotations and aimed at harming the honor and dignity of the President,” local sources reported.

On April 6, the prosecutor’s office issued a press release stating that it had dropped the case due to the “absence of [a] crime,” although the newspaper has not yet received formal notification to this effect.

On April 3, meanwhile, Gabdullin’s colleague Yermurat Bapi, editor of the opposition weekly SolDat, was convicted of “publicly insulting the dignity and honor of the President,” an offense under Article 318.2 of the Criminal Code. The charges were based on two articles that he published in the May 30 and July 6 issues of SolDat.

The first article held Your Excellency responsible for violent ethnic clashes in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, in December 1986. The second article was written by prominent Kazakh historian and dissident Karishal Asanov, who was Bapi’s co-defendant at the trial. The prosecution claimed that Asanov described Your Excellency as illiterate, incompetent, and corrupt. On April 3, the court found Bapi guilty as charged, sentenced him to one year in jail, and ordered him to pay some US$280 in court expenses (Asanov was acquitted for lack of evidence).

The court also ordered that the July 6 print run of SolDat be burned.

Bapi was immediately pardoned under a presidential amnesty. Unless the court verdict is overturned, however, he will remain a convicted criminal who is banned from traveling abroad, among other restrictions. Bapi is appealing the verdict.

Although both editors are currently at liberty, neither paper is able to publish in Kazakhstan because local printers will not risk incurring the wrath of local officials, CPJ sources say.

While the two editors were formally prosecuted for their published work, CPJ sources in Almaty believe they also angered Kazakh authorities by endorsing a United States Justice Department investigation into tens of millions of dollars in bribes that U.S. oil companies allegedly paid to senior Kazakh officials.

In early January, Gabdullin, Bapi, and 30 other prominent Kazakh citizens signed an open letter to the Justice Department and the U.S. Congress, expressing their support for the investigation. The letter was published in the Kazakh press and in the January 15 edition of Roll Call, a U.S. newspaper that covers the Congress.

As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues around the world, CPJ protests your government’s efforts to silence Bapi and Gabdullin. We remind Your Excellency that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everybody, including journalists, the freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” There is no justification for restricting legitimate news coverage simply because it may be critical of Your Excellency’s government.

We trust you will agree that Bapi’s unjust conviction should be reversed and that SolDat and XXI Vek should be allowed to publish and distribute in Kazakhstan without further restriction. We also call on Your Excellency to use the powers of your office to end the criminal prosecution of journalists for libel, and to create an atmosphere in which all journalists may work without fear of reprisal.

Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director