Kazakhstan journalist Makhambet Abzhan was recently detained as part of an extortion investigation. (Screenshot: Abzhan News/YouTube)

Kazakhstan journalist Makhambet Abzhan detained for alleged extortion

Stockholm, July 6, 2022 – Kazakhstan authorities should release journalist Makhambet Abzhan immediately, and ensure that members of the press are not prosecuted in retaliation for their work, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

On the morning of Sunday, July 3, officers from the official Anticorruption Agency in the capital, Nur-Sultan, detained Abzhan, an independent journalist and founder of the Telegram-based news outlet Abzhan News, according to news reports, statements by the Anticorruption Agency and local free speech organization Adil Soz, and the journalist’s lawyer Bauyrzhan Azanov, who spoke to CPJ by phone.

The Anticorruption Agency statement said officers had caught Abzhan “red-handed” receiving 50 million tenge (US$108,000) in cash from a businessman in return for not publishing compromising material about him. Officers also searched the journalist’s home and the home of his mother, confiscating cell phones and papers, Azanov said.

Abzhan denies the accusations, his lawyer told CPJ. Two days before his arrest, Abzhan shared a post from another Telegram channel claiming that Kazakh law enforcement sought to open a case against him for insulting President Qasym-Zhomart Toqayev in his reporting, but the administration had objected to the optics of such a case, so authorities would likely reopen an old case against the journalist or charge him with some “economic” offense.

“The detention of Kazakh journalist Makhambet Abzhan is deeply concerning, given that he is a critical reporter who has previously been subjected to police harassment and criminal investigation in connection with his work,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program coordinator, in New York. “Authorities should release Abzhan and ensure that any investigation into alleged economic offenses is conducted transparently and fairly.”

On July 5, the Specialized Interdistrict Investigative Court in Nur-Sultan ordered the journalist to be held in custody for two months pending investigation into extortion “on an especially large scale,” according to those news reports and Azanov. If convicted, he could face seven to 15 years in prison under Article 194 of the Kazakh criminal code.

Abzhan contributes reporting to various independent outlets and is known for his reporting on topics considered taboo by Kazakh authorities, those news reports said. Abzhan News has about 20,000 subscribers and has recently covered topics including mass riots, alleged improper business practices by a relative of President Toqayev, and ongoing unrest in Karakalpakstan, a semi-autonomous republic in Uzbekistan that borders Kazakhstan, according to a CPJ review of its work.

Maksat Abzhanov, the journalist’s brother, told CPJ via messaging app that he believed Abzhan was detained in retaliation for his frequent critical coverage of government officials.

In its statement, the Anticorruption Agency said it was also investigating Abzhan’s alleged involvement in “other analogous crimes.” Azanov told CPJ that it was unclear why the Anticorruption Agency was investigating the case and not the Interior Ministry, which under Kazakh law is tasked with investigating extortion.

CPJ emailed the Anticorruption Agency for comment, but did not receive any reply.

Independent regional news website Eurasianet also reported that Uzbek officials had objected to Abzhan’s coverage of protests in Karakalpakstan.

In January, police in Nur-Sultan surrounded Abzhan’s home amid his reporting on protests that were ongoing at the time, leading the journalist to go into hiding for two weeks, as CPJ documented. Police subsequently opened a case against Abzhan for allegedly spreading false information in an interview he gave to Russian TV about the protests, before later withdrawing the case, Azanov told CPJ.