By: Liga Rudzite
Date: October 14th 2016
Human rights watchdogs are asking for their release, arguing that their protests did not breach any law.
The trial of two land rights activists started this Tuesday in Atyrau, in western Kazakhstan,RFE/RL reports. They are accused of inciting social and national disorder, disseminating false information, and organizing an illegal protest, charges that stem from large-scale demonstrations that occurred this past spring and spooked a government unused to such public uproar.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan were detained in May after speaking out during a protest against land reform on 21 April. Police rounded up dozens of protestors, but most of them were released after 15 days in jail. Bokaev and Ayan, along with several other leading activists, were charged with more serious offenses.
Earlier this week HRW labeled the charges, which could lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years “unfounded,” and called for freeing the activists. "Expressing a negative opinion about government policy is not a crime," Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW, said in a statement to the Thomas Reuters Foundation.
The land reform – which sparked protests in Atyrau, Astana, Almaty, and Karaganda last April and May – initially included several controversial amendments. According to the proposed legislation, joint ventures could purchase land, but Kazakh residents had to control these companies. Foreigners could only rent land for up to 25 years (an increase from the existing restriction of 10 years). Those who protested the changes feared that Chinese and other foreigners could take over large tracts of the country and said the new land legislation posed a threat to the country’s national security.
Following the protests, Nazarbayev declared a one-year moratorium on the amendments, which was later extended to five years.
- Amnesty International reported that a prisoner of conscience, Zhanat Esentaev, was sentenced to two-and-a-half years of probation, and banned from taking part in a number of activities, such as participating in public events, or publishing information related to socio- political issues. He had also been arrested for his activity during the protests.
- Major protests in Kazakhstan are rare. The 2011 Zhanaozen protest over pay and labor rights in the oil sector, the most violent since independence, left 16 civilians dead in clashes with police.
- Human Rights Watch’s World Report described the human rights record in Kazakhstan as worsening, noting, in particular, deteriorating freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association.
- The agricultural contribution to Kazakhstan's GDP is under 10 percent, but the sector has been expanding over the last decade. Agricultural land is still considered to be underutilized due to soil degradation and lack of infrastructure, although some 70 percent of Kazakhstan's land is dedicated to crops and animal husbandry.
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