Kazakh journalist Aigul Utepova was arrested on September 17, 2020, and placed under house arrest on accusations of participating in an extremist organization. In April 2021, she was convicted on those charges and her house arrest was extended for another year.
From 2015 to 2019, Utepova worked as a correspondent for the Kazakh news website Newtimes.kz, where she covered political and social issues, the journalist told CPJ in a phone interview.
Utepova left that role due to health issues in 2019, she said, and started the independent political news and commentary outlet Aigul TV, which publishes on YouTube, a blog, and Instagram; she has about 8,000 subscribers on YouTube and 1,000 on Instagram. Utepova also posts news and political analysis on her Facebook account, where she has about 8,000 followers.
In the evening of September 17, 2020, police officers searched Utepova’s apartment in Nur-Sultan, the capital, confiscated her phone and computer, and took her to a local police station, where they interrogated her and placed her in pretrial detention, according to news reports.
Citing her posts on social media and materials found on her computer and phone, police accused Utepova of participating in the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and Koshe Partiasy (Party of the Street) opposition groups, which authorities banned and labeled as extremist in March 2018 and May 2020 respectively, according to case documents Utepova shared with CPJ. Both groups have been classified as “peaceful opposition movements” by the European Parliament.
Participation in a banned extremist group is a crime punishable by up to two years of imprisonment under Kazakhstan’s criminal code. Utepova denied any connection to the groups, she told CPJ.
In a hearing on September 20, the Specialized Interdistrict Investigative Court of Nur-Sultan ordered Utepova to be placed under house arrest pending an investigation, and she was transferred from a pretrial detention center to her apartment, according to reports.
Utepova’s lawyer Galym Nurpeisov told CPJ in a phone interview that the police “evidence” was irrelevant, and that Utepova collected information about the two movements as a journalist doing research. Utepova said that none of her posts or the information on her computer and phone showed that she participated in either organization.
Utepova and Nurpeisov told CPJ that they believe the charges against her are retaliation for her political coverage and criticism of the authorities. The day before her arrest, Utepova published a Facebook post criticizing the Kazakh government’s alleged mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, she published various social media posts criticizing the Kazakh president and other state officials, and also uploaded content to Aigul TV containing a speech by a lawyer affiliated with the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and commentary on state media’s coverage of unrest in Tajik villages in southern Kazakhstan.
On November 11, the Specialized Interdistrict Investigative Court ordered Utepova to be placed in a psychiatric hospital in order to conduct a mandatory mental health evaluation, according to news reports and case materials viewed by CPJ. The journalist’s daughter Togzhan Tuzel told CPJ in a phone interview at the time that the court did not allege that her mother had experienced any specific psychiatric problems that could necessitate such an evaluation; case materials reviewed by CPJ stated only that the reason for the placement was that an earlier assessment conducted on the basis of police “doubts” about Utepova’s mental health had not had time to definitively answer investigators’ questions.
On November 23, police escorted Utepova to the City Center of Psychological Health in Nur-Sultan, according to news reports and Tuzel. She remained there until December 11, according to the case materials, which showed that psychologists concluded that the journalist did not have any mental health issues. Utepova told CPJ that she believed she was placed there as retaliation for her work.
In December 2021, the City Center of Psychological Health replied to CPJ’s emailed request for comment stating that Utepova had been held at the facility in response to a court decision, and that the facility deemed her to be psychologically healthy.
CPJ emailed the Kazakhstan prosecutor-general’s office for comment in late 2020 and 2021, but did not receive any responses.
Following her release from the psychiatric hospital, Utepova returned to house arrest, which was extended on numerous occasions, the case materials show.
On March 15, 2021, Saryarkinsky District Court in Nur-Sultan commenced Utepova’s trial on charges of participating in banned political movements, according to news reports, Utepova, and a recording of the trial uploaded to Utepova’s YouTube channel.
Prosecutors cited Utepova’s social media posts that allegedly supported the banned organizations and exiled politician Mukhtar Ablyazov, whom Kazakh authorities accuse of involvement in both groups, according to the trial recording and the case documents reviewed by CPJ. Utepova and her lawyer argued that the prosecution had failed to prove that Utepova had supported those groups, let alone participated in them, and said that she covered their activities as a journalist.
Utepova and her lawyer also challenged the prosecution’s heavy reliance on testimony from a doctoral student, whom Nurpeisov argued was not qualified to give expert testimony. Nurpeisov further objected that experts were appointed by the prosecution rather than a court, in contravention of a decree by the Supreme Court.
On April 29, 2021, the court convicted Utepova of participating in the two groups, and sentenced her to one year of “restricted freedom,” thereby banning her from leaving her home except for work and to complete 100 hours of compulsory labor, which was also issued as part of her sentence, according to news reports, a video recording of the court proceeding, a copy of the verdict shared with CPJ, and the journalist and Nurpeisov, both of whom spoke to CPJ via messaging app.
The sentence also banned Utepova from conducting “public and political activities” for two years, including the use of the mass media and social media accounts, effectively making it illegal for Utepova to work as a journalist, those sources said.
About 3.5 months of her time spent under house arrest will be counted toward that one-year sentence, the verdict said.
Utepova told CPJ that she believes the two-year activities ban was the real goal of the charges against her. Nurpeisov added that Utepova will be placed on the state’s unpublished list of “extremists,” which could prevent her from accessing her bank accounts for six years.
In the court video, Judge Ibragim Alkenov is seen concluding that Utepova’s guilt was “fully demonstrated” by the evidence and the “expert” testimony.
On June 1, the Judicial Chamber for Criminal Cases of the Court of Nur-Sultan rejected Utepova’s appeal, according to the journalist and a copy of the court ruling reviewed by CPJ.
Utepova told CPJ that she no longer had any options to appeal the case in Kazakhstan, but planned to take the case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. She had not done so as of October 2021, she said.
CPJ emailed the Kazakh Ministry of Interior in October 2021 for comment on Utepova’s case, but did not receive any response.