New York, March 31, 2021 – Kazakh authorities should immediately release journalist Aigul Utepova from house arrest, drop all charges against her, and allow her to work safely and freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On March 15, the Saryarkinsky District Court in Nur-Sultan, the capital, commenced Utepova’s trial on charges of participating in banned political movements, which the journalist’s lawyer, Galym Nurpeisov, says are retaliation for her political coverage, according to news reports and Nurpeisov, who spoke to CPJ in a phone interview.
Utepova has attended court remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she told CPJ in a phone interview, saying that hearings have been held on March 15, 25, and 29, and the court is scheduled to convene again on April 5.
If convicted, Utepova could face up to two years of imprisonment, according to Kazakhstan’s criminal code.
Police arrested Utepova on September 17, 2020, after searching her apartment and confiscating her phone and computer, according to news reports. On September 20, the Specialized Interdistrict Investigative Court of Nur-Sultan ordered her to be placed under house arrest pending an investigation; she has remained under house arrest or other forms of government supervision since then, she told CPJ.
“Kazakh authorities should immediately release journalist Aigul Utepova from house arrest, drop all charges against her, and allow all members of the press to work freely and without fear,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna. “Journalists in Kazakhstan should not be persecuted for their independent reporting, and it is authorities’ responsibility to ensure journalists’ safety, not to intimidate and pressure them.”
Authorities charged Utepova with participating in Koshe Partiyasy and Demokraticheskiy Vybor Kazakhstana, two political opposition groups labeled by the government as “extremist,” according to Utepova and a copy of her indictment, which CPJ reviewed. The indictment cites Utepova’s posts on social media commenting on those groups, and materials about the groups that authorities found on her computer and phone.
The journalist told CPJ that she does not admit any guilt and denies participating in any political movements.
Nurpeisov told CPJ that the government’s “evidence” was irrelevant, and that Utepova collected information about those movements as a journalist doing research, not as a participant. Utepova said that none of her posts or the information on her computer and phone proved her participation in those organizations.
Utepova worked as a correspondent for the Kazakh news website Newtimes.kz until 2019, when she left due to health issues and started the independent political news and commentary outlet Aigul TV, which now has about 8,000 subscribers on YouTube and 1,000 on Instagram, according to CPJ research.
Prior to her arrest in September 2020, Aigul TV published commentary on Kazakh state media’s coverage of unrest in the country, a video of women picketing the Ministry of Labor in Nur-Sultan, and a video about the persecution of opposition political activist Marat Duisenbiev.
Utepova also publishes commentary and reporting on her personal Facebook account, where she has about 8,000 followers; in the days before her arrest, she posted criticism of the Kazakh government’s alleged mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, and published other social media posts criticizing the Kazakh president and other state officials.
From November 23 to December 11, authorities held Utepova in the City Center of Psychological Health in Nur-Sultan for a mandatory mental health evaluation, according to news reports and CPJ’s research. Utepova told CPJ that she believed she was placed there as retaliation for her work.
CPJ emailed the Kazakhstan prosecutor general’s office for comment, but did not receive any response.
[Editors’ note: This article has been changed in its second paragraph to correct the spelling of the Saryarkinsky District Court.]