Kazakh editor imprisoned for collecting state secrets

New York, August 26, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Taraz Regional Court in southern Kazakhstan to overturn on appeal a jail sentence given to Ramazan Yesergepov, the editor of the independent Almaty-based weekly Alma-Ata Info

On August 8, the court sentenced Yesergepov to three years in prison on a criminal charge of “collecting information that contains state secrets,” the local press reported. Rozlana Taukina, head of the Almaty-based Journalists in Danger foundation, told CPJ that Yesergepov was sentenced in the absence of a lawyer, his family, and the press.

Yesergepov spent eight months in detention in Taraz, the capital of Zhambyl region, after agents with the Kazakh security service, known as the KNB, seized him in January from a hospital bed in Almaty. His arrest followed a 2008 publication of KNB internal memos alongside an article he wrote in Alma-Ata Info, in which Yesergepov accused the agency’s local branch of trying to influence a prosecutor and a judge in a criminal tax evasion case that involved a Taraz distillery.

Raushan Yesergepova, the journalist’s wife, told the Kazakh Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that a state-appointed lawyer did not attend Yesergepov’s final hearing, and that armed police officers prevented her and Yesergepov’s supporters from entering the court. A lawyer who initially defended Yesergepov quit the case in June without explanation and left Kazakhstan, Taukina told CPJ. Yesergepov filed his appeal without legal counsel, she said.

“We are outraged by the imprisonment of Ramazan Yesergepov and the lack of due process in his case,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Kazakhstan’s treatment of Yesergepov has been appalling. We call on the authorities to immediately release him and for the court to overturn his conviction on appeal.”

Taukina told CPJ that regional prosecutors in Taraz initially held Yesergepov as a member of an organized criminal group, who they believed assisted the distillery owner to avoid tax evasion charges by publishing the KNB memos. Although Yesergepov and the owner insisted in court that they had not met before, prosecutors did not separate their cases.

According to Taukina, prosecutors modified the initial charges against Yesergepov, from “dissemination of state secrets” to “collection of classified information.” Taukina said the prosecutors failed to prove that the two KNB memos published in the weekly had ever been classified or contained any information sensitive to state security. In the published memos, KNB officers discussed the distillery owner’s attempts to meet with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Taraz, and suggested the meeting should be prevented, Taukina said.

Yesergepov’s co-defendant’s lawyer told Taukina that the allegedly classified memos KNB presented as evidence in court did not match the ones published by Yesergepov’s paper. “The case collapsed in court, but officials decided to jail him nonetheless,” she said.

Kazakhstan has been chosen to chair the pan-European human rights monitoring group the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2010 amid international concern about its human rights and press freedom record.