Journalist flees Kazakhstan after court orders her arrest

New York, March 28, 2014–Authorities should drop all charges against a Kazakh journalist who has been accused of libel in connection with a story she has denied writing, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. If convicted, Natalya Sadykova faces up to three years in jail under Kazakhstan’s criminal libel law. 

Sadykova, a regional correspondent for the independent Kazakh newspaper Assandi Times, told the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that she and her family fled to Ukraine on March 9 after she was told by police sources that she could be arrested. On March 17, a regional court in the western city of Aktobe, issued an arrest warrant for Sadykova, news reports said.

Sadykova can stay in Ukraine without a visa for up to three months, reports said.

The arrest warrant stemmed from two lawsuits filed against Sadykova by Maral Itegulov, a former parliament member and a businessman, who accused the journalist of libel and said she had damaged his business reputation, news reports said. Itegulov asked the court to impose damages of 10 million tenge (about US$55,000), according to court documents.

Itegulov objected to an article under the penname Bakhyt Ilyasova published on the independent news website Respublika, which is banned in Kazakhstan, according to the Almaty-based press freedom group Adil Soz which cites the lawsuit. The article alleged that Itegulov used corrupt means to win regional government contracts. Itegulov claimed that Sadykova was the author of the article, which she denies.

In 2012, Kazakh authorities cracked down on Respublika and several other news outlets in retaliation for their coverage of violent police clampdowns against protesting oil workers in western Kazakhstan. Authorities raided newsrooms, interrogated journalists, and imprisoned one editor, according to reports. By year’s end, Kazakh courts declared dozens of news outlets, including Respublika and its 30 affiliate publications, guilty of extremism and banned them in the country.

“Kazakh authorities’ desire to suppress Respublika and harass its journalists has taken on new dimensions with these false criminal accusations,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call for all charges against Natalya Sadykova to be dropped and for Kazakhstan’s government and its allies to stop persecuting critical journalists.”

In an interview with Forbes-Kazakhstan from Ukraine, Sadykova said she told regional prosecutors in February that she did contribute articles to Respublika, but that she had not written the article about Itegulov.

Forbes-Kazakhstan also reported that it reached out to an individual cited by authorities as a witness to Itegulov’s claim–journalist Olga Tsyganova, who denied that she had confirmed the allegations to prosecutors. The magazine could not locate a second witness.