November 17, 2016 – PEN International today expressed its serious concern over the arrest on November 15, 2016 of journalist Bigeldy Gabdullin, the President of the Kazakh PEN Club in connection with alleged extortion. The organization fears he may have been targeted for his reporting critical of government officials. It is calling for him to be released unless clear evidence of a criminal offence is made available and he is charged and tried promptly and fairly in accordance with international fair trial standards.
Gabdullin, the Chief Editor of the independent online media outlet CAMonitor.kz and Radio Toschka, was arrested on November 15, 2016 under Article 128 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on investigative detention and is held in the Temporary Detention Facility of the Department of Internal Affairs in the capital Astana.
“Gabdullin’s arrest is deeply worrisome because it comes following his publishing reports critical of government officials’ business dealings. Prosecuting and intimidating journalists on charges of corruption because they write critically of government figures is an emerging trend whose intent is to chill free speech.
The onus is on the state to promptly provide clear evidence of wrongdoing on Gabdullin’s part, and conduct a fair trial meeting international standards quickly. Gabdullin must be provided the evidence that the State says it has against him, and granted access to his lawyers,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair, Writers-in-Prison Committee at PEN International.
According to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an investigation has been launched into allegations of extortion. The statement claimed that Gabdullin had published articles defaming various government officials in connection with their business dealings and had then extorted state money in return for not publishing similar articles.
Gabdullin’s arrest is particularly concerning in light of the dire situation of freedom of expression in the country. Several other journalists have been arrested and prosecuted on dubious grounds in the last year. They include well-known independent journalist Guzyal Baidalinova, owner of the Nakanune.kz online news site, who spent almost seven months in prison before she was released when the Court of Appeals suspended her 18 month prison sentence for “deliberately publishing false information” about a bank; and Seytkazy Matayev, Chair of the National Press Club of Kazakhstan and owner of the independent news agency KazTag, and his son Aset Matayev, director of KazTag, who were sentenced to six and five years in prison respectively in October 2016 after conviction of tax fraud and embezzlement of state funds in Kazakhstan. Both denied the charges, which they said were intended to stop their independent reporting. Several bloggers have also been received prison sentences or been placed under house arrest.
International and domestic NGOs have highlighted a long-standing practice of torture in detention. PEN International is calling on the Kazakhstan authorities to ensure that Bigdely Gabdullin is protected from harm while held.
International and regional institutions have also highlighted concerns for free expression in Kazakhstan. In March 2016, the European Parliament issued a resolution on freedom of expression in the country. In August 2016, the UN Human Rights Committee which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights expressed concern in its concluding observations on its review of Kazakhstan about restrictions on freedom of expression, including ‘the extensive application of criminal law provisions to individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression’ as well as torture and other ill-treatment and lack of independence of the judiciary.
In addition to his work as a journalist, Gabdullin is a prominent novelist, essayist and translator in Kazakhstan. He is the author of Serious Conversation (2007), the award-winning The Great Nomads (2011) and more than 300 journalistic articles. He has also translated into Russian the works of several Kazakh authors. In 2015, under his leadership, the Kazakh PEN Club launched a series called ‘We the Kazakh People’ aiming to translate Kazakh authors into English in order to bring Kazakh literature to the attention of a wider international audience.