Kazakhstan court sentences journalist to jail over reports on bank

New York, May 23, 2016–A Kazakhstan court today convicted and sentenced Guzyal Baydalinova, the editor of the independent news website Nakanune, to a year and a half in prison for deliberately distributing false information, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the verdict and calls for Baydalinova’s immediate release.

The conviction relates to reports published in Nakanune about Kazkommertsbank, the country’s largest bank, according to local press reports. CPJ was unable to determine if Baydalinova, who has been in pretrial detention since December, will appeal the decision by the Almaty district court or whether the sentence includes time already served.

“CPJ condemns today’s sentencing of Guzyal Baydalinova, who has already spent five months behind bars merely for doing her job,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “We call on Kazakh authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the journalist, and to cease their campaign to eradicate critical voices in the Central Asian nation.”

A few days before Baydalinova was arrested on December 23, police searched her apartment and that of a colleague, as well as the Nakanune newsroom in Almaty, according to the independent regional news website Fergana News. During the raids on December 18, authorities confiscated reporting equipment and financial records, reports said.

In a civil defamation case against Baydalinova in June 2015, also connected to Nakanune’s reporting on Kazkommertsbank, an Almaty court ordered the journalist to pay 20 million tenge (US$60,689) in damages after the bank claimed that the articles undermined its reputation, according to the Kazakh service of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Baydalinova heads one of a handful of publications in Kazakhstan that are still critical of the policies of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government. Nakanune was founded by Baydalinova and journalists from the independent news websites Respublika and the Assandi Times, which were were banned by Kazakh authorities in 2012 and 2014 respectively, for being “extremist,” according to news reports.

Kazkommertsbank suffered financial losses in 2015, and has been struggling due to bad loans and because of a weak exchange rate for the local currency, according to Reuters. The bank says it has no liquidity problems, Reuters reported.

In a separate development, Kazakh police detained more than 40 journalists who tried to cover rallies across the country on Saturday, according to a list of those who were detained, compiled by the independent Almaty-based press freedom group Adil Soz. Hundreds of protesters gathered across Kazakhstan to oppose the policies of Nazarbayev, who has headed the country since 1989. Police dispersed the protests and detained several activists and reporters, according to Reuters. The journalists were later released, the president of Adil Soz, Tamara Kaleyeva, told CPJ.