Aset Matayev

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A Kazakh court on October 3, 2016, sentenced Aset Matayev, the director of independent news agency KazTag, and his father, Seytkazy Matayev, the head of the Kazakh Journalists’ Union and chairman of the National Press Club, to five and six years in prison respectively in a joint trial, according to press reports.

Kazakh authorities detained the pair in Almaty in February 2016 on charges of tax fraud and embezzlement of state funds.

The country’s anticorruption bureau initially accused Seytkazy Matayev of embezzling 380 million Kazakh tenge (US$1 million) through the Kazakh Information Committee and state monopoly KazakhTelecom to the National Press Club and KazTag under a contract to promote national policies, local and international media reported.

Authorities also accused Seytkazy Matayev of failing to pay 327 million tenge in taxes related to an unnamed, allegedly illegal enterprise. The same charges were brought against Aset Matayev.

Aset Matayev was released after his initial arrest in February number of days in detention, but re-arrested in March.

Aset Matayev told CPJ in February 2016 that the charges were in retaliation for the pair’s journalistic work. “We always reported the truth. [We] depicted the facts about developments in Kazakhstan as they really were. Someone in power did not like it,” he said.

On the day of the Matayevs’ initial arrest, the pair had planned to hold a press conference in Almaty accusing the government of politically motivated harassment.

Seytkazy Matayev is a veteran journalist who worked as President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s spokesperson in 1991-93. In recent years, he headed the National Press Club in Almaty, where he hosted media events, debates, and press briefings by politicians, opposition members, and activists as well as businessmen and journalists. The club provided a rare platform of discussion in a country where freedom of speech has been under attack. It shared information on its website and on Twitter, and posted videos of its events on YouTube. The site also published investigative pieces, including commentary on the president’s agricultural reforms, and a report on a gas station allegedly built illegally in Almaty. Seytkazy Matayev often said that he provides a platform for anybody who has anything interesting to say, and he denied being in opposition to the government.

During a hearing on September 27, 2016, Seytkazy Matayev said the reasons behind the prosecution were to “limit our professional activity, oppose the defense of the freedom of expression, and civil activism of journalists in Kazakhstan.”

In addition to sentencing the Matayevs to prison, the court confiscated property, including the premises of the National Press Club. Seytkazy and Aset Matayev will be barred for life from holding managerial positions, according to media reports. Their attorneys have filed an appeal, which is due to be heard December 5, 2016.

The trial was held in the Kazakh capital Astana, where both defendants were transferred following the indictment. In Astana, they were kept under house arrest in a rental apartment during the trial, barred from using the internet or other means of communication, and allowed only visits from close family members, local media reported.

Seytkazy Matayev, who spoke to journalists at the airport while being transferred to Astana and at his trial hearings, told reporters that while under house arrest his health had deteriorated, and on at least one occasion guards denied him access to a doctor. He suffers from hypertension and heart palpitations, according to media reports. The first hearing in the trial, on August 23, 2016, was postponed after he was taken to a hospital to be treated for high blood pressure, according to press reports.

Daniil Kislov, chief editor of the Moscow-based independent regional news website, Ferghana News, told CPJ in September 2016 that the National Press Club and KazTag agency were “the last platforms for expressing free and independent voices in Kazakhstan.” He said that, in his opinion, “The authorities are behind the prosecution. They want to turn KazTag, the country’s largest news agency, into a propaganda machine.”

The European Parliament, in a March 2016 resolution on freedom of expression in Kazakhstan, expressed concern about the pressure on independent media outlets and called on the Kazakh authorities to end the judicial targeting of Seytkazy and Aset Matayev.

Tamara Kaleyyeva, who heads a local press freedom group, Adil Soz, told CPJ on September 8, 2017, that both Matayevs were being held in a prison colony near Almaty. She said that Aset Matayev had no health problems.

On November 16, 2017, media reported that a court granted Seytkazy Matayev an early release because of his health problems. The decision was to come into force in 15 days. Matayev will be banned from heading any business entities for 10 years after his release.