Kazakh journalists face years in prison on retaliatory charges

New York, September 30, 2016– Kazakh authorities should immediately drop all charges against Seytkazy Matayev, head of the Kazakh Journalists’ Union and chair of the National Press Club of Kazakhstan, and his son Aset Matayev, director of the independent news agency KazTag, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. A verdict in their trial is expected on October 3, according to press reports.

Both Matayevs were detained in late February on charges of tax fraud and embezzlement of state funds, CPJ reported at the time. The Anticorruption Bureau initially accused Seytkazy Matayev of embezzling 380 million Kazakh tenge ($1 million) funds transferred by the Kazakh Information Committee and state monopoly KazakhTelecom to the National Press Club and KazTag under a contract to promote national policies. Authorities also accused Seytkazy Matayev of failing to pay 327 million tenge ($974 million) in taxes related to an unnamed, allegedly illegal enterprise. Aset Matayev, who was releaed after his initial arrest in February, but then re-arrested in March, is charged with the same accusations.

“The Kazakh government is only shaming itself with this prosecution and detention of a father-son team of independent journalists,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “The Matayevs’ outlets provide a much-needed platform for alternative news and information in Kazakhstan. We call on authorities to drop this case and release Seytkazy and Aset Matayev without delay.”

Aset Matayev told CPJ earlier this year that the charges against the two were retaliatory. “We always reported the truth. [We] depicted the facts about developments in Kazakhstan as they really were. Someone in power did not like it,” he said.

Speaking during a trial hearing on September 27, Seytkazy Matayev said the reasons behind the persecution were to “limit our professional activity, oppose the defense of the freedom of expression and civil activism of journalists in Kazakhstan.”

The prosecution has asked for lengthy prison sentences, of six years and eight months, and six years, respectively, for Seytkazy and Aset Matayev, if the two are found guilty. The prosecution has also asked that all the journalists’ property be seized, and that Aset Matayev be banned from conducting any business activity for three years after serving a prison sentence, according to local press reports. The property includes the premises of the National Press Club.

The Matayevs’ indictment took place in the city of Almaty, where both of them worked and lived prior to the arrest. The case as well as both defendants were then transferred to the Kazakh capital, Astana, and police put the Matayevs under house arrest in a rental apartment there.

Seytkazy Matayev repeatedly told reporters his health had deteriorated in recent months, and on at least one occasion guards inside the rental apartment denied him access to a doctor. The first hearing in the trial, on August 23, was postponed after the elder Matayev was taken to a hospital to be treated for high blood pressure, according to press reports. Matayev suffers from hypertension and heart palpitations, according to media reports.

The Matayev Committee, a group Seytkazy Matayev’s colleagues and friends formed after his arrest, has repeatedly called on the Kazakh authorities to drop all the charges and allow Seytkazy Matayev to get medical treatment.

“Matayev is an iconic figure in Kazakhstan’s journalism. The authorities have been trying to eliminate him physically [by not allowing him to get medical treatment] but they can never kill his spirit. His colleagues, friends and even acquaintances know Seytkazy is innocent. He and his son are professionals with exemplary integrity,” Daniil Kislov, chief editor of the Moscow-based independent regional news website, Ferghana, told CPJ.

Kislov told CPJ the National Press Club and KazTag agency were “the last platforms for expressing free and independent voices in Kazakhstan.” He also said that, in his opinion, “The authorities are behind the prosecution. They want to turn KazTag, the country’s largest news agency, into a propaganda machine.”

Following Matayevs’ detention, the European Parliament, in a March resolution on freedom of expression in Kazakhstan, expressed concern about the pressure on independent media outlets and called on the Kazakh authorities to end the judicial harassment of Seytkazy and Aset Matayev.