Security agents continue to hold Kazakh editor

New York, February 4, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists called today for the immediate release of Ramazan Yesergepov, editor of the independent Almaty-based weekly Alma-Ata Info, who was seized by security agents from his hospital bed a month ago.

The Kazakhstan Security Committee (KNB) took Yesergepov on January 6 from an Almaty hospital where he was being treated for high blood pressure, and put him in a KNB detention center in Taraz, in southern Kazakhstan, according to local press freedom advocates. He is being held without charge. The KNB said they were investigating an accusation that the editor had disclosed state secrets by publishing internal KNB memos. If officially charged and convicted, Yesergepov could face up to eight years in prison.

In December, Almaty prosecutors filed a lawsuit against Alma-Ata Info on the same accusation and demanded that the newspaper be shut down. Authorities seized all editorial equipment the same month, incapacitating the publication. The case is now with the Almaty economic court, according to local news reports.

Kazakhstan will be the next chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), in 2010.

“We call on the Kazakh authorities to immediately release Ramazan Yesergepov, return all of his newspaper’s equipment, drop all investigations and lawsuits against him and Alma-Ata Info, and allow the editor and newspaper to work without fear of reprisal,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The persecution of a journalist who did nothing other than his job of serving the public interest has no place in a country that will be the next chair of the OSCE.”

KNB agents seized Yesergepov from the Almaty Cardiology Institute, where he was undergoing treatment for hypertension, and took him to the regional office in Taraz for investigation of the alleged disclosure of state secrets–a charge that carries up to three years in prison. Three days later, the KNB added another charge–abuse of office–which carries up to five years in prison, the regional news Web site Ferghana reported.

In the November 21 issue of Alma-Ata Info, Yesergepov published two internal KNB memos marked “classified,” alongside an article about a tax case. The article (headlined “Who Rules the Country–the President or the KNB?”) said the head of the agency’s Zhambyl regional office had tried to influence a local prosecutor and judge in a tax case involving a local distillery.

Rozlana Taukina, director of the Almaty-based press freedom group Journalists in Danger, which has been working on the case, told CPJ that the editor is being denied proper medical treatment. On January 28, several local press freedom groups, including Taukina’s, sent an open letter to Kazakhstan’s prosecutor-general and the head of the KNB condemning Yesergepov’s detention and calling for his release.