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Kazakhstan: Opposition Journalist Barred From Practicing Craft For Five Years

  • Bruce Pannier

The editor of Kazakhstan's independent newspaper "SolDat" received a one-year suspended sentence from an Almaty court on 17 November. The editor, Ermurat Bapi, was also barred by the court from practicing journalism for five years, though the charges against the editor had to do with finances, not his writing.

Prague, 19 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � By his own reckoning, Ermurat Bapi, the chief editor at the independent Kazakh newspaper "SolDat" has been in court 17 times before his latest appearance on 17 November. But he may have still been surprised by the verdict, handed down by Judge Kanat Syrlybaev, on charges of tax evasion, fraudulent accounting, and illegal business dealings.

"Ermurat Bapi is found guilty of paragraph 118 [tax evasion] and 222 [fraudulent accounting] of the criminal code. He is ordered to pay a fine of 21,800 tenge [about $150] and sentenced to one-year imprisonment and is forbidden to work as a journalist for a period of five years," Syrlybaev said. "According to paragraph 63 [of the criminal code] the court considers his one-year jail sentence to be suspended. It is possible to appeal this verdict within 10 days."

Afterward, Bapi spoke to RFE/RL outside the Almaty courthouse to give his views on the trial.

"I do not agree with the court decision at all. The reason is, during the hearing, no investigator could prove I was guilty of these charges. There is no hint of proof in the five volumes of evidence investigators produced for this case that I was the director or accountant of 'SolDat.' In my opinion, the aim was to prohibit me from working as a journalist for five years and this proves the court decision was politically motivated," Bapi said. "If I hurt the current regime, then I hurt them as a publisher of the newspaper by proving the current government does not care about the people or the country. I admit that in that respect I hurt them very much."

Bapi and his newspaper, which was suspended from publishing in August for financial reasons, have been in trouble with the authorities for several years now. For the last four years it has been impossible for Bapi to print his newspaper in Kazakhstan, so he had it printed in Russia. Often copies of the newspaper were seized by customs officials as they were brought across the border. Bapi has often been fined by courts and the newspaper's financial records have frequently been subjected to special scrutiny as well.

But neither Bapi nor any other journalist in Kazakhstan was ever barred from practicing journalism.

Khairullo Adam-Uly, a social commentator in Kazakhstan, is an observer of the society and the system that governs society. He was present at Bapi's trial and told RFE/RL there did not seem to be sufficient evidence of any financial crimes.

"This is clearly a politically motivated decision to prevent Bapi from taking part in the coming parliamentary elections [in October 2004], to prevent him from publishing his newspaper," Adam-Uly said. "On the other hand, I understand that the judge was simply carrying out orders from above. It is clear it was a political matter."

Seidakhmet Kuttykadam, the chairman of the opposition Orleu Movement, attended the trial and agreed with Adam-Uly and told RFE/RL the following right after the verdict was rendered in Bapi's case.

"We witnessed a big show today. In my opinion, this was all a farce, a big fake. It was clear from the words of the judge that [the authorities] couldn't find any proof. It was all fake. It was ordered from above," Kuttykadam said. "The aim, in my opinion, was to blacken Bapi's reputation ahead of [Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's] visit to the OSCE. In my opinion, this will not hurt journalism at all, it will simply be another black mark against the government. This is shameful."

Nazarbaev is scheduled to go to Vienna at the end of this month and discuss the situation in Kazakhstan with representatives of the OSCE. Bapi credited his relatively light sentence with these upcoming visits and the general international outcry over other trials of opposition figures.

"Initially, I thought that [the court] would give me a really severe punishment, but the regime that rules this court maybe thought that after the Kazhegeldin, Zhakiyanov, and Duvanov trials it was not a good time to give themselves another headache. Maybe that is the reason they gave me a suspended sentence," Bapi said.

Akezhan Kazhegeldin was once Kazakhstan's foreign minister, but when he became a leader in an opposition party charges of corruption against him surfaced. Kazhegeldin was tried and convicted by a Kazakh court in absentia.

Ghalymzhan Zhakiyanov, a former regional governor, is a co-founder of Democratic Movement of Kazakhstan (DCK). He was jailed on corruption charges that surfaced shortly after he helped form the DCK.

Sergei Duvanov was an opposition journalist who was arrested and eventually jailed on charges of statutory rape. His arrest came hours before he was due to fly to the U.S. to talk about rights in Kazakhstan.

Amirzhan Kosanov is a leader in the opposition Republican People's Party who recently returned from visiting Vienna and Berlin where he spoke to organizations and government representatives about the situation in Kazakhstan ahead of Nazarbaev's visit to Vienna and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's visit to Kazakhstan next month. He agreed with Bapi's comments, saying there are people in Europe watching what has been happening in Kazakhstan.

"Not only Kazakhstan but Europe is looking at this court process. I can say this after my recent visits to Vienna and Berlin. Maybe [Bapi's sentence was] because of the fear of international reaction and because every day during the court process there were representatives of foreign embassies," Kosanov said. "On the other hand, those in the current regime do what they want to do, and according to the constitution, they can do what they want and this court decision is the latest example. In Ermurat Bapi's case, everyone could see there were no grounds for this case. His lawyer will appeal the decision, but you know and I know that none of the government offices can stand against this political decision."

That Bapi and other opposition representatives are taking the decision so well may be a sign of how bad the situation has become in Kazakhstan. There is little precedent for a court decision barring a journalist from work. It did happen in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 1997 when two journalists were prohibited from practicing journalism for about one year, but the charges against them were libel, not financial misconduct.

Bapi's lawyer said they may appeal the verdict and the sentence.

(Edige Magauin of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)