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Kazakh activist Danaya Kaliyeva (left) and lawyer Zhanar Balgabayeva during her online trial on charges of contempt toward officials. She lost her case and had to pay a fine.

Almaty-based activist Danaya Kalieva is among dozens of government critics who have been tried and sentenced in an "online trial" since Kazakhstan ordered all courts to hold their proceedings only via video due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kalieva told RFE/RL that a weak Internet signal throughout the trial held by the Zhetysu district court using the Zoom application was a major problem, as the prosecutor appeared not to properly hear the defendant.

"I had to repeat my words five, seven, even 10 times, but the…[prosecution] still pretended they couldn't hear me. The judge just silently watched all of this. I believe [such a thing] is convenient for them," Kalieva said.

In a country where the government clamps down on critics and courts are accused of pro-government bias, many activists believe that online trials with bad Internet connections have made it easier for authorities to punish its opponents.

Kalieva was found guilty of contempt toward officials and was ordered to pay about $130 in fines and compensation for the victim. The charge stemmed from an incident in February when she posted a video on social media showing men in plain clothes detaining a fellow activist.

Kalieva said she demanded the men show their official security IDs, which they refused to do.

As part of measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Kazakhstan banned face-to-face court proceedings in March and replaced them with video conferences using platforms such as Zoom, WhatsApp, and TrueConf.

Supporters see it as the reality of life in the COVID-19 era and praise the Kazakh courts for adapting themselves to the new system in a relatively short time.

Conducting trials online -- as opposed to simply postponing them -- could spare some suspects held in detention from waiting a long period for their trial. It also prevents courts from having a backlog of cases.

But the trials risk not allowing defendants or their attorneys to properly present their cases, which can lead to rights violations and make it easier for them to be convicted of a crime.

Kazakhstan initially introduced virtual courts in 2017 and they are being held in many countries around the world. But until the pandemic, the video links were used mainly when a witness in a case was based in another location.

Many defendants and their lawyers say their recent experiences show that Kazakhstan's court system isn't ready to hold online trials or is unwilling to address certain problems to ensure defendants' rights are upheld.

Witness Tampering, Forged Document Risks

Like Kalieva's trial in Zhetysu, many Kazakh courts use Zoom in which group calls are capped at 40 minutes and the meetings cannot be recorded. A fee is required to use the platform longer for uninterrupted meetings.

Kazakh courts also widely use WhatsApp video calls, with most of the participants accessing the service on their mobile phones. WhatsApp group calls allow up to eight participants at a time.

Leading defense lawyer Gulnar Suleimanova is concerned about many potential problems with holding court proceedings on WhatsApp, such as witness tampering.

"In a WhatsApp call, it's impossible to know where the witness is speaking from. You can only see his face. There could be a person near them who is putting pressure on the witness, influencing their testimony," Suleimanova said.

"Or maybe another witness in the same case is sitting nearby and hearing the first witness's testimony. We can't monitor that," the lawyer said.

In real courts, witnesses are excluded from the courtrooms and communication among witnesses during trials is prohibited to avoid any influence on their testimony.

Defense lawyer Serik Aitbaev told local media that virtual courts have also made it impossible to verify the authenticity of the documents.

"Apart from the court secretary, nobody else sees the originals. One could forge documents. Through WhatsApp, you only get scanned copies. The judges don't even ask if there is an original or not, they say: 'Send the copies,'" Aitbaev said.

Yury Malnykh is another Kazakh activist who was convicted in an online court. He was given two days' detention for breaching public order. (file photo)
Yury Malnykh is another Kazakh activist who was convicted in an online court. He was given two days' detention for breaching public order. (file photo)

Kazakh defense lawyers also complain that online trials have deprived defendants of having confidential discussions with their lawyers. Defense lawyers and defendants participate in the same group call in which all sides can hear each other.

Since March, Kazakhstan has banned all visits -- including by family and lawyers -- to prisons and detention centers. The ban means that detainees can only contact their lawyers via video links, running the risk that their confidential conversations are being recorded or monitored.

To connect to trials, defendants who are in custody must use the jail WiFi where the signal is often weak.

Several defendants noted that the Internet connection is generally very weak -- not only in detention facilities.

Activist Yury Malenkikh was recently sentenced in an online court for two days for breaching public order.

"The connection was being interrupted constantly, at some points it was impossible to hear the others," he said of his trial.

Malls Reopened, Courts Remain Shut

Kazakhstan has gradually eased its lockdown, reopening many businesses, including shopping centers and restaurants. But courtrooms remain closed.

Many defense lawyers are calling on authorities to allow courts to have in-person proceedings while using social-distancing measures and mandatory face masks.

But the Supreme Court has ruled that the risks to public health still remain high.

"When 15-20 people attend a criminal case hearing, it already amounts to a large gathering of people. Also, judges and prosecutors must attend several different courts every day, potentially spreading the virus," spokesman Aidos Saduakasov told reporters.

He also noted that many courthouses in Kazakhstan are not big enough to accommodate social-distancing rules.

The Human Element

With all their critics and supporters, it's expected that online trials are here to stay in Kazakhstan and perhaps elsewhere, even post pandemic.

Many court lawyers say they are getting increasingly accustomed to virtual court proceedings, which they see as a necessity.

But they point out that in online courts they miss the human element -- the feeling and emotions -- that cannot be judged on the screen of the computer or phone.

"After a couple of months, I got used to the online court," said Almaty-based Judge Yernar Kasymkhanov. "But it's definitely better for all parties to conduct the proceedings face-to-face because I need to observe the emotional state of the person."

"After years of experience as a judge, I can tell -- by looking at the person -- if they're giving false testimony," the judge continued. "I need to see face-to-face how the person behaves, what they are trying to say, what do they mean. The video doesn't give you the complete picture."

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.
Transgender people are "one of the most socially vulnerable minorities in Russia," activists say. (file photo)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- In June, a high school student discovered a decapitated and dismembered body in a swimming hole on the Mga River just outside St. Petersburg, Russia's second largest city.

Using the serial numbers of Irish-made breast implants found on the body, police identified the victim as 23-year-old Jamshid Hatamjonov, a transgender sex worker from Uzbekistan who preferred the name Tamara. She had disappeared in St. Petersburg five months earlier, on the night of January 12-13.

Last week, a court sanctioned the arrest of 53-year-old actor and theater producer Yury Yanovsky in connection with the case. Investigators allege that Yanovsky was Hatamjonov's last client and that he killed her in a St. Petersburg hotel using a knife and a saw.

Yury Yanovsky, who has been accused of murdering Jamshid Hatamjonov.
Yury Yanovsky, who has been accused of murdering Jamshid Hatamjonov.

The case, which has been all but ignored by local media, highlights the perilous vulnerability of transgender people in Russia, particularly those who have come to the country to escape even more dangerous intolerance in their home countries, activists say.

"The victim was a transsexual sex worker, a person who survived because of commercial sex," said Dzhonni Dzhibladze, the coordinator for transgender support of the St. Petersburg lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) group Vykhod (Escape). "This is a common story for transgender women from the near abroad, particularly Central Asia. In Uzbekistan, there is no procedure for changing the documents of transgender people."

In their home countries, many trans people face homophobia, as well as hostility and violence from relatives who feel "dishonored."

"Sometimes, if a story becomes public, [relatives] might even murder them," Dzhibladze added.

Unwilling To Turn To The Police

In Russia, however, transgender people from other countries often find themselves in vulnerable positions, victims of both homophobia and xenophobia.

"They have to go to their home countries every 90 days [under Russian migration law]," Dzhibladze said. "That costs money and, also, they can be victimized at the border by border and customs officials…. These women with men's passports can be cross-prosecuted on two criminal counts -- violating migration law and providing sex services. And deportation to Uzbekistan means a five-year ban on reentering Russia."

This predicament means that they are very often unwilling to turn to the police, even in cases when their lives are in danger.

"For them, the state is a greater threat than even the most insane client," Dzhibladze said.

Many transgender people in Russia say they are afraid to report crimes committed against them to the police. (file photo)
Many transgender people in Russia say they are afraid to report crimes committed against them to the police. (file photo)

"We know people who knew this murdered trans woman, who lived with her and, most likely, worked with her," Dzhibladze added. "But none of her acquaintances are willing to testify in court or even to admit that they knew the victim."

"No one knows what happened between the murdered trans woman and her client," he added. "But the important thing is that even if he threatened her, she couldn't turn to the police, whom she almost certainly feared more than even the most aggressive client."

A Vykhod report on the LBGT community in St. Petersburg in 2019 found that the vast majority of the survey's 342 respondents did not report incidents of hate-based discrimination or violence to the police. Fifty-four percent said they did not believe the police would help them effectively; 37 percent said they avoided all interaction with the police; 18 percent said they were unwilling to discuss their sexual orientation or transgender status with the police, while 9 percent said they feared their tormentor would find out that they had turned to the police and the situation would be made worse.

'Trans-Panic' Aggression

Transgender sex workers frequently encounter rage from clients who feel ashamed after interacting with them, said psychologist Dmitry Isayev.

"He doesn't like such feelings and does not accept them in himself," Isayev told RFE/RL, describing a phenomenon that is known by the term "trans-panic." "By destroying the object of his attraction, he tries to destroy this negative thing within himself. This mechanism leads transgender people to be the objects of aggression. We don't know how many are killed in Russia each year. Two or three cases are identified every year, but it is clear that there are many more that are hidden among the general murder statistics…."

"Many trans women are pushed into sex work because they can't find any other employment," said St. Petersburg trans woman Yekaterina Messorosh. "And this sphere is dangerous in general and fraught with violence, even without the element of transphobia. I have encountered instances of trans-panic myself and the aggression that comes with it."

Aleksei Sergeyev, coordinator of the Heterosexual-LGBT Alliance for Equality, said transgender people often encounter intolerance even within the LGBT community.

"I recently met a man from Kyrgyzstan who is gay, but who does not accept transgender people," Sergeyev said. "He said he would hand them over to be executed himself. Transphobia remains pretty strong even inside the LGBT community."

Activist Dzhibladze describes transgender people as "one of the most socially vulnerable minorities in Russia, particularly those who are not able to change their documents."

"For years they cannot get official work simply because their appearance does not match their passport," he said. "Only the most dangerous activity is open to them -- commercial sex work."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by Tatyana Voltskaya, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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