On January 22, Narymbayev and Mambetalin were arrested and charged with “incitement to social, ethnic, tribal, racial, class or religious strife,” an offence the Kazakh government routinely uses against activists and journalists to stifle free speech. Narymbayev and Mambetalin were charged after they published Facebook posts discussing an unpublished book written two decades ago by an activist who is now under investigation for the same charge.
“Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s dictatorial rule, no one is safe to speak their mind. The slightest criticism of the government lands journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens in jail on vague charges of ‘incitement,’” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “The charges against these activists are groundless and appalling. Their trial is a warning to other vocal critics; it sends the message that even casual online comments will not be tolerated by the dictatorship. Narymbayev and Mambetalin should be released and their charges should be dropped immediately,” added Halvorssen.
The local community was concerned about the health of Narymbayev, who was taken to the hospital earlier this month for high blood pressure and a heart condition. The Almaty court disregarded the state of his health and proceeded to trial. Narymbayev spent the trial lying down in the courtroom. His father, who traveled from Astana to attend his son’s trial, was denied access to the legal proceedings. Narymbayev faces up to ten years in jail.
In recent years, Nazarbayev’s government shut down opposition parties and independent media outlets, arrested journalists, and banned protests and demonstrations. Under the harsh crackdown, many have taken to the internet to voice their criticism against the ruling government. Narymbayev and Mambetalin are vocal critics of Nazarbayev on the web, but have not organized any protests on the ground.
Human rights activists in Kazakhstan have been calling for the repeal of two articles in the Criminal Code that are frequently used to muzzle activists. Article 174 of the Criminal Code makes it illegal to incite “social, national, tribal, racial, class or religious hatred.” The punishment ranges from two to 20 years of imprisonment depending on the circumstances. Article 274 makes illegal the “dissemination of false information, which creates the danger of public disorder or substantial harm to rights.” Eugene Zhovtis, a Kazakh lawyer, states that there is no legal definition of incitement in Kazakh law, which makes the articles susceptible to highly subjective interpretation by the authorities.
“The incitement charges against Narymbayev and Mambetalin are precisely the kind of vaguely written charges that are often abused by authoritarian regimes to silence legitimate criticism,” said Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer of HRF. “Overly broad offences such as those penalized by Articles 174 and 274 are in violation of international law. In order to comply with Kazakhstan's international obligations, the legislative branch must repeal these articles and abolish the bogus crime of ‘incitement’ as it is defined in the Criminal Code,” El-Hage added.
HRF published a legal report in July 2013 concluding that Kazakhstan violated international law by using overbroad and vague incitement charges to crack down on the independent media. Read HRF's legal report here.
Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. HRF’s International Council includes human rights advocates George Ayittey, Vladimir Bukovsky, Palden Gyatso, Garry Kasparov, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu.