Kazakhstan: Eight Muslim Prisoners of Conscience Sentenced

On 7 April, at the end of a closed trial, a court in the north-eastern city of Pavlodar sentenced Sunni Muslim Kuanysh Bashpayev to four and a half years’ imprisonment to punish him for talks he gave on his faith between 2008 and 2011. He had been arrested in October 2016 on his return to Kazakhstan from Saudi Arabia.

The 30-year-old Bashpayev – who is married with six children – denied inciting religious hatred and will appeal against his conviction, his lawyer told Forum 18. One of the two Prosecutor’s Office officials who led the case in court refused to say what harm Bashpayev might have done to anyone else.

A growing number of Muslims who have studied their faith in Saudi Arabia – like Bashpayev – have been arrested and are awaiting trial. Among those is Nariman Seitzhanov, who has been held in pre-trial detention in Kokshetau in Akmola Region since 15 January.

And in a separate case, a court in South Kazakhstan Region imprisoned seven Sunni Muslims for between one and four years on 4 April. They were also banned from conducting certain activities – which the court would not reveal – after their release. All seven were convicted for alleged membership of the Muslim missionary movement Tabligh Jamaat, which the Kazakh authorities banned in 2013.

Sairam District Prosecutor Orazali Abdramanov – who led the prosecution of the seven men in court – denied that they had been punished for their faith. He refused to say who – if anyone – the men might have harmed.

One of the seven men had been given an administrative fine in August 2016 to punish him for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Seven sentenced Sunni Muslims

The seven men sentenced in Sairam in South Kazakhstan Region under Criminal Code Article 405 are:

  1. Bakhytzhan Esimkhanovich Baimusayev, 4 years’ imprisonment, plus four-year ban on activities.

  2. Abduvakhab Salibekovich Shakirov, born 21 December 1962, 4 years’ imprisonment, plus four-year ban on activities.

  3. Furkhat Farkhadovich Abatayev, 1 year imprisonment, plus two-year ban on activities.

  4. Abdivasit Abdikakharovich Abdirazakov, 1 year imprisonment, plus two-year ban on activities.

  5. Murodzhon Abdivakhabovich Abdullayev, 1 year imprisonment, plus two-year ban on activities.

  6. Zhenisbek Erakhmetovich Manbetov; born 16 July 1983, 1 year imprisonment, plus two-year ban on activities.

  7. Meirambek Amalbekuli Sarymsak; born 8 March 1965, 1 year imprisonment, plus two-year ban on activities.

All seven men are married with children.

53 Tabligh Jamaat convictions since December 2014

A court in the capital Astana banned Tabligh Jamaat in Kazakhstan as “extremist” in February 2013. Until the movement was banned, it used to send members on short-term missions to other towns and villages where they slept in mosques and addressed local Muslims, both door to door and in the mosque, a close observer of the movement in Central Asia told Forum 18. Male adherents are often identified by their beards and wearing of South Asian clothing. If Muslims are thought by the authorities to agree with some of Tabligh Jamaat’s teachings or practices, possess religious books often used in the movement, or meet others close to the movement, this can be enough to trigger a criminal prosecution.

The new sentences in Sairam bring to 53 the number of alleged Tabligh Jamaat adherents (all of them Kazakh citizens) known to have been given criminal convictions since December 2014. Of these, 39 were given prison terms while 14 were given restricted freedom sentences. In the most recent known previous sentences, five Sunni Muslims in Almaty Region were sentenced in late December 2016 to between 18 months’ and three years’ imprisonment.

Organising, participating in a “banned religious association”

Like the previous 46 convicted Sunni Muslims, all seven Sairam defendants were convicted under Criminal Code Article 405 (or its equivalent in the old Criminal Code).

Article 405, Part 1 punishes “organising the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation after a court decision banning their activity or their liquidation in connection with extremism or terrorism they have carried out” with a fine or up to six years’ imprisonment.

Article 405, Part 2 punishes “participation in the activity of a social or religious association or other organisation after a court decision banning their activity or their liquidation in connection with extremism or terrorism they have carried out” with a fine or up to two years’ imprisonment.

Two of the 53 Sunni Muslims – Saken Tulbayev and Khalambakhi Khalym – were also convicted and imprisoned under the broadly-framed Criminal Code Article 174, Part 1. This punishes “incitement of social, national, clan, racial, or religious hatred or antagonism” with imprisonment or restricted freedom for between two and seven years.

As well as Tulbayev, Khalym and the newly-sentenced Bashpayev, Seventh-day Adventist prisoner of conscience Yklas Kabduakasov is among many other individuals serving a prison sentence under Article 174, Part 1. Jehovah’s Witness Teymur Akhmedov is currently on trial in the capital Astana under Article 174, Part 2, which punishes such incitement by groups of people. All reject the accusations.

The number of such prosecutions – all initiated by the National Security Committee (KNB) secret police or with its close involvement – appears to be growing.

Bank accounts likely to be blocked

All eight newly-sentenced prisoners of conscience – Bashpayev in Pavlodar and the seven in Sairam – are likely to be added to the Finance Ministry Financial Monitoring Committee List of individuals “connected with the financing of terrorism or extremism”, thus blocking any bank accounts they might have, without any additional due legal process.

As individuals are not told when they are added to the List, they normally only find out they have been added when they or relatives attempt to withdraw money from their bank.

Pavlodar: “Inciting religious hatred”?

Bashpayev gained a first degree and then began studies for a Master’s degree in Islamic theology at Medina University in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi authorities detained him from December 2015 to autumn 2016 at the request of Kazakhstan’s authorities. They freed him with no charge and apologised to him, his lawyer Bauyrzhan Azanov told Forum 18 on 10 April 2017.

Bashpayev returned from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan on 12 October 2016 on what he intended to be a short visit. However, he was arrested as soon as his flight landed at Astana Airport and taken to a prison in Pavlodar, Azanov added.

Captain Gabit Bakirov of Pavlodar Region KNB secret police had already launched a case against Bashpayev under Criminal Code Article 174, Part 1 (“incitement of social, national, clan, racial, or religious hatred or antagonism”).

Captain Bakirov launched the case after officers found recordings of Bashpayev’s talks on Islam on the Russian social network VKontakte on 7 April 2016, according to the 24-page indictment seen by Forum 18. Further online talks were found on 22 May 2016. “Expert analyses” of 15 April 2016 and 20 June 2016 claim to have found Bashpayev inciting religious hatred in the talks.

In some of his remarks, Bashpayev criticised the state-controlled Muslim Board. Colonel Bekezhan Kalkomanov of Pavlodar KNB claimed to Forum 18 in January that he had “insulted the religious feelings of Kazakhstan’s traditional Muslims”.

Bashpayev said the recordings of the talks, which he gave in a mosque in Ekibastuz in 2008 and in a cafe in Almaty in 2011, were later placed online without his knowledge. He denied inciting hatred of any sort.

One of those who claimed in the investigation that Bashpayev had incited hatred was Asiya Abitova, a religious studies specialist at the state-financed Centre for Analysis and Development of Inter-confessional Relations in Pavlodar. She refused to answer any of Forum 18’s questions about her analysis.

Dulat Beisembyaev, the lead Prosecutor’s Office official at the trial, refused to explain who – if anyone – had suffered from Bashpayev’s exercise of his right to freedom of religion or belief. “I can’t answer any questions by telephone,” he told Forum 18 on 10 April. He then put the phone down.

Pavlodar: Closed trial

Bashpayev’s closed trial began under Judge Kayirbek Yelemesov at Pavlodar City Court No. 2 with a preliminary hearing on 14 February. The full trial began on 6 March. The prosecution case was presented by two officials of Pavlodar Regional Prosecutor’s Office, led by Beisembayev.

The Judge ordered the trial closed, claiming that this was at the request of a “victim”, the prominent Almaty Muslim Board imam Ersin Amire. The Judge’s assistant refused to tell Forum 18 in what way Amire needed protecting.

Bashpayev’s lawyer Azanov described the decision to order the trial closed as “a violation of the law”. He noted that only the Judge, two prosecutors, Bashpayev and himself as his lawyer were present, apart from witnesses questioned.

The acting head of the Pavlodar branch of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Ruslan Issenov, had been intending to observe Bashpayev’s trial. “The Judge read my appeal to be allowed into the trial and rejected it,” Issenov told Forum 18 from Pavlodar in early March. “I asked for a copy of the ruling declaring the trial closed, but he replied that a ruling is an internal document and cannot be handed out”.

Bashpayev was brought to court for each hearing by four masked and armed guards. “Observers from the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law’s branch in Pavlodar were denied entry, as were Bashpayev’s relatives,” his lawyer, Azanov, told Forum 18. “His mother appealed to the Judge to let her even see her son, but he refused.”

Azanov pointed out to the court that his client’s alleged “crimes” had taken place under the old Criminal Code, which had been replaced in January 2015. The case was then heard under Article 164, Part 1 (“incitement of social, national, clan, racial, or religious hatred or antagonism”) of the then Criminal Code in force at that time. Although the wording of the crime was almost the same as the current Article 174, Part 1, the maximum Article 164, Part 1 punishment was – between 2002 and 2011 – five years’ imprisonment.