Aron Atabek is a poet, journalist and social activist. He has written several books of poetry and prose inspired by Tengriist spirituality and was the founder, in 1992, of the monthly newspaper Khak (The Truth). Atabek was awarded the literary ‘Almas Kylysh’ prize in 2004 and the Freedom to Create: Imprisoned Artist prize in 2010.
Atabek was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment in 2007, following his involvement in a 2006 protest against an attempt by Kazakh authorities to flatten a shanty town called Shanyrak to make way for luxury apartments; the protest ended in violent clashes and the death of a police officer.
Atabek was arrested in July 2006 and charged with organising mass disorder, complicity in hostage-taking, and complicity in the murder of a police officer. He denied all charges against him. In October 2007 he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. After the conviction, and shortly before a hearing of the case at the Supreme Court, the two main witnesses for the prosecution withdrew their testimony. They claimed that they had been tortured and blackmailed into testifying against Atabek. The Supreme Court declined their new testimony as unsubstantiated. In December 2015, a court in Astana dismissed Atabek’s appeal against his sentence. In December 2015, shortly after the launch of an English translation of a book of his poetry, Atabek’s family cat was attacked and shot twice times outside his family home in Almaty, which his family consider to be a threat.
Atabek has been in prison since 2006 and has spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. UN Human Rights mechanism have concluded that prolonged solitary confinement amounts to a violation on the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. In December 2012, following the online publication of The Heart of Eurasia, a critique of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime (written in prison by Atabek and smuggled out for publication), the poet was sentenced to spend two years in solitary confinement at a high security prison in Arkalyk. Throughout his detention, Atabek was kept in extremely harsh conditions: he was denied access to natural light, communication with other prisoners, writing materials and telephone calls; family visits were severely restricted, resulting in only one successful visit between 2010 and the current date; he was kept under constant video surveillance.
PEN Centres have campaigned vigorously to have Atabek released from solitary confinement and moved to a prison within reasonable visiting distance for his family. In early October 2013, Atabek’s family received an anonymous telephone call informing them that the poet was to be transferred from Arkalyk to Karazhal Prison in the Kargandy region (over 1,000km from his family). The authorities refused to confirm or deny this news and Atabek’s family knew nothing of the poet’s whereabouts until several weeks later when his location was confirmed by a local human rights organisation.
In August 2015 local media reported that Atabek had been moved out of solitary confinement and into a cell with three other inmates. In December 2015 there were reports that the conditions in the shared cell had become too difficult for Atabek who has suffers from health issues, and he had personally requested to be returned to solitary confinement, although his family doubt that he would have requested this.
Atabek’s solitary confinement and the harsh conditions in which he has been held qualify as a cruel and inhuman punishment that violates the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment under international human rights standards and runs contrary to the recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. By denying Atabek access to visits from his family and to regular correspondence with them, Kazakhstan is also violating the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
PEN has worked with Atabek’s family and a small group of translators to bring public attention to Atabek’s poems, and his case.
My Throat Will Die – by Aron Atabek
My throat, unable to speak, will die
For the sounds of my homeland.
My ancestors’ patter will vanish
Like water into sand.
I am a storyteller of immortality
In Semitic and Etruscan tongues;
I am the dust of Turkic dialects
Writing in Russian.
Many lives’ twisted fates
Are lost inside me, mourning,
And I myself am a naked tangle of nerves Pulsating with verses.
Translated by Niall McDevitt and Alfia Nakipbekova and published in the literary magazine, Ambit.
Please send appeals to the authorities in Kazakhstan:
Calling for him to be taken out of solitary confinement and allowed to interact with others prisoners.
President of Kazakhstan
President Nursultan Nazarbayev
Fax: +7 7172 559338
Minister of Internal Affairs
Kassymov Kalmukhanbet Kassymov
Ministry of Internal Affairs
Tauelsizdik Avenue, 1
Republik of Kazakhstan
(Please copy your letters to the President and Minister of Internal Affairs to the Kazakh ambassador to your country and to your own Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
You can find your ambassador to Kazakhstan here.
For writers in the European Union: Please write letters to your MEP, asking him to raise Atabek’s case in the European Parliament. You can find your MEP here.
PEN members are encouraged to: