New York, October 18, 2019 – Kazakhstan authorities should immediately release journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov, drop all charges against him, and allow him to work freely and safely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On September 23, a district court in Saryagash, a town in southern Kazakhstan, sentenced Batyrbekov, chief editor of the Saryagash-based daily newspaper S-Inform, to two years and three months in jail on criminal charges of insult and libel, and ordered him to pay 2.1 million Kazakh tenge ($5,300) in damages, according to media reports and court documents, which CPJ reviewed.
Tamara Kaleeva, who heads the local press freedom organization Adil Soz, told CPJ via email that the charges were retaliatory for Batyrbekov’s many years of reporting on alleged corruption among local officials. The journalist’s lawyer, Shynar Yermekova, told CPJ via messaging app that she had filed an appeal on October 7, but a date for the appeal hearing had not been set.
“Kazakhstan authorities should immediately release journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov and not contest his appeal,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Kazakhstan should also scrap its criminal libel and insult laws; such issues should be handled as civil cases.”
The criminal charges against Batyrbekov stem from a complaint filed by a local education ministry official, Bakhtiyar Abdiyev, over allegedly insulting posts on Batyrbekov’s Facebook page, according to those media reports. One of the alleged insults was made in a comments section by a user other than Batyrbekov, according to those reports.
Batyrbekov, who is being held in a detention center in Saryagash, denied the charges in a letter from prison published in local media. He wrote that he was being prosecuted in retaliation for his critical reporting, including on the judge who presided over his case and the judge’s supervisor, who was the subject of critical reports in S-Inform and in the journalist’s Facebook posts about alleged corruption.
The journalist missed the first two hearings in the case because he had not been informed that the trial was ongoing, according to those media reports. At the third hearing, Batyrbekov requested the judge recuse herself in light of his previous reporting, but the judge denied that request, Yermekova told CPJ.
In the letter, Batyrbekov wrote that many officials wanted to silence him because of his reporting on corruption, including stories that resulted in the dismissal of police and education ministry officials.
CPJ called and emailed the central and regional branches of the Ministry of Interior, but did not receive any responses. CPJ also called Abdiyev, but he did not answer.