(Berlin, February 8, 2024) – A journalist in Kazakhstan is to face trial on February 12, 2024 on unfounded extremism-related charges, as authorities there ramp up prosecutions against critics on similar charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should drop their unfounded case against the journalist and activist, Duman Mukhammedkarim, and immediately release him.
Mukhammedkarim faces up to nine years in prison on charges of “financing extremist activities” and “participating in the activities of a banned extremist organization.” A court ordered holding him in pretrial detention in June 2023, and he remains in custody,
“The Kazakhstan authorities are trying to muzzle an outspoken, independent journalist who has repeatedly criticized the authorities and sought to exercise his right to peaceful assembly,” said Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kazakhstan authorities need to narrow the definition of ‘extremism’ in the country’s criminal law and end the pernicious misuse of these charges against government critics.”
Mukhammedkarim, 45, is the founder of the ND YouTube media channel, or Ne Deydi (What Are They Saying?), which has approximately 145,000 subscribers. Over the last two years, he has reported on major antigovernment protests in January 2022, and the deadly response by the authorities and aftermath. Mukhammedkarim also ran as an independent candidate in local parliamentary elections in March 2023, but did not win a seat.
The criminal extremism-related charges Mukhammedkarim faces stem from a December 20 video interview with Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker who is the exiled head of the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). A court labeled the movement “extremist” in 2018 leading to its ban in Kazakhstan. Ablyazov was prosecuted in absentia on serious criminal charges, including fraud and extortion, and separately on one count of murder. Ablyazov has rejected the charges, saying they are politically motivated.
A state-commissioned psychological and philological expert analysis of Mukhammedkarim’s interview with Ablyazov claimed that some of Mukhammedkarim’s words in the video “promoted extremist ideas and views” and “showed signs of participation in the activities of the extremist DVK organization.” However, the analysis also concludes that the men talked about how “political change should be made peacefully” and that “the material presented for analysis does not contain appeals to organize a rally and seize power by force.” The conclusions were summarized in the indictment, a copy of which Human Rights Watch has on file.
The authorities also allege that Mukhammedkarim “financed extremist activities” by posting in a comment under the video bank information connected to Ablyazov’s call for donations, apparently to help cover his legal fees.
The indictment also identifies two other videos Mukhammedkarim filmed of himself, dated April 29 and 30, 2023 about a then-upcoming May 1 rally. A state-commissioned expert analysis claimed that Mukhammedkarim’s words in the videos “contain signs of propaganda of extremist ideas and attitudes.”
His lawyer, Galym Nurpiesov, told Human Rights Watch that in his videos, Mukhammedkarim “talked about political events in Kazakhstan, and that’s it.”
The authorities have repeatedly accused Mukhammedkarim of violating Kazakhstan’s restrictive law on peaceful assemblies. Between March 21 and June 22, 2023, he spent a total of 75 days under administrative arrest for sharing information about a planned protest or announcing his intent to take to the streets in protest.
Mukhammedkarim is the second government critic to go on trial on overbroad extremism-related charges in recent months. On November 30, an Astana court sentenced Marat Zhylanbaev, an outspoken government critic and head of the unregistered “Alga, Kazakhstan!” party, to 7 years in prison on the same bogus charges. In January, Zhylanbaev’s sentence was upheld on appeal.
Between 2018 and 2022, the authorities harassed and prosecuted many dozens of government critics on vague and overbroad criminal charges relating to the crime of “extremism.” Human Rights Watch documented that such prosecutions violate the rights to freedom of expression, association, and fair trial.
In May 2019, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, upon concluding her visit to Kazakhstan, expressed her “serious concern about the use of the terminology of ‘extremism’ in national law and practice.” She found that when “extremism” is a “criminal legal category,” it lacks legal certainty and thus is “incompatible with the exercise of certain fundamental human rights.”
Ní Aoláin highlighted arrests on criminal charges under article 405 of the Criminal Code as evidence of the government’s heavy-handed approach to civil society.
In a January 3 interview with a local media outlet in Kazakhstan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev claimed: “Our legislation does not contain a single decree, a single law, [or] regulatory document that could be used to prosecute citizens for their political views.”
Yet, criminal prosecutions of government critics on overbroad extremism-related charges for nonviolent actions or speech, such as Zhylanbaev calling for political change or Mukhammedkarim conducting an interview with Ablyazov, violates internationally protected human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
“Both Duman Mukhammedkarim and Marat Zhylanbaev have already spent many days unjustifiably behind bars,” Rittmann said. “Both men should be released immediately.”