Aigul Utepova

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Kazakh journalist Aigul Utepova was arrested on September 17, 2020, and placed under house arrest on accusations of participating in an extremist organization. On November 23, she was confined to a psychiatric hospital for a mandatory mental health evaluation.

From 2015 to 2019, Utepova worked as a correspondent for the Kazakh news website, where she covered political and social issues, according to her daughter Togzhan Tuzel, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview. 

Utepova left that role due to health issues in 2019, Tuzel 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, 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 in pretrial detention, according to news reports.

Citing her posts on social media, police accused Utepova of participating in the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan opposition movement, which authorities banned and labeled as an extremist group in May 2020, according to Tuzel. Utepova denied any connection to the group, according to Tuzel and those news reports. 

If charged and convicted of participating in a banned extremist group, Utepova could face up to two years of imprisonment, according to Kazakhstan’s criminal code.

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.

On November 12, that court ordered Utepova to be placed in a psychiatric hospital in order to conduct a mandatory mental health evaluation, according to news reports. Tuzel said that the court did not allege that her mother had experienced any specific psychiatric problems that could necessitate such an evaluation.

During a November 16 hearing, the court granted authorities’ request to prolong Utepova’s house arrest until December 17, but said that decision did not contradict the order to place her in a psychiatric facility, according to reports

On November 23, police escorted Utepova to the City Center of Psychological Health in Nur-Sultan, according to news reports and Tuzel, who said that her mother would be required to stay in that facility until at least December 11.

Tuzel said that she believes her mother is being persecuted for her journalism and criticism of 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 uploaded content to Aigul TV containing a speech by a lawyer affiliated with the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, commentary on state media’s coverage of unrest in Tajik villages in southern Kazakhstan, and various social media posts criticizing the Kazakh president and other state officials.

Utepova previously worked as an observer at Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections in 2016, and was vocal about alleged fraud that she witnessed; her daughter said it was possible that Utepova was arrested out of authorities’ fear that she would question the legitimacy of upcoming parliamentary elections in her reporting in January 2021.

Tuzel told CPJ that Utepova has not had any health-related complaints in detention, but that she suffers from asthma, and Tuzel was concerned that her condition could worsen in the psychiatric hospital. 

CPJ emailed the Kazakhstan prosecutor general’s office and the City Center of Psychological Health in Nur-Sultan for comment, but did not receive any responses.