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Kazakh activist Noyan Rakhymzhanov (file photo)

QONAEV, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh court has replaced another activist's prison sentence with a parole-like penalty, the latest in a series of similar moves in President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev's self-proclaimed liberalization campaign amid an outcry by human rights groups over political prisoners.

Noyan Rakhymzhanov's lawyer, Zhanar Balghabaeva, told RFE/RL on May 23 that the Qonaev City Court in Kazakhstan's southern region of Almaty had ruled that the remainder of her client’s five-year prison term will be replaced by a parole-like sentence in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Balghabaeva added that the court's decision will take effect in 15 days unless it is appealed by prosecutors.

Rakhymzhanov, along with three other activists, Abai Begimbetov, Qairat Qylyshev, and Askhat Zheksebaev, were sentenced to five years in prison each in October last year on a charge of having links with the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and its affiliate Koshe (Street) party.

The activists, who were recognized as political prisoners by human rights organizations in Kazakhstan, pleaded not guilty and claimed during their trial that they only participated in peaceful protests and exercised their constitutionally protected rights.

The case sparked protests by rights defenders and opposition activists who said the harsh sentences handed to the four activists go against Toqaev's campaign "to build a new, democratic Kazakhstan."

Toqaev has been distancing himself from his authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, following deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich nation in early January, though his critics say concrete legislation strengthening human rights in the country is needed.

In recent weeks, Begimbetov, Qylyshev, and Zheksebaev, were also released from prison after the remainders of their prison terms were replaced by parole-like sentences.

“A ‘New Kazakhstan’ is impossible without respect for freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and accountability for serious human rights violations,” Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on May 19.

Last week, another civil rights activist, Asqar Qaiyrbek, was released from prison after a court replaced the remainder of the prison term handed to him in separate high-profile case with a parole-like penalty.

DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government. Kazakh authorities labeled DVK extremist and banned the group in March 2018.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.

Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.

Trevor Reed stands inside a defendants' cage at a court hearing in Moscow in 2020.

Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years on charges that were widely condemned as being trumped-up, says he refused to let himself hope for his release up until the day he left detention as he never wanted the authorities to be able to take that away.

In his first interviews with U.S. media since his release in a prisoner swap last month, the 30-year-old Texan described the harsh conditions of his detention, which lasted 985 days, and his battle to maintain his physical and mental health.

"A lot of people are not going to like what I'm gonna say about this, but I kind of viewed their having hope as being a weakness," he said in an interview with CNN that aired on May 22.

"So, I did not want to have that hope of, like, me, you know, being released somehow and then have that taken from me."

Reed was sentenced in 2020 after being convicted of assaulting two Russian police officers in 2019. He denied the allegations, while the United States questioned the fairness of the proceedings, calling his trial a "theater of the absurd."

He returned to the United States on April 27 in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko, whose 20-year prison sentence in the United States in 2010 was commuted.

Reed said that, while in prison, he lost 45 pounds and at times was coughing up blood, raising fears he may have contracted COVID-19 or worse, tuberculosis.

Yet, he said, he never came close to breaking point, even when held in extreme conditions where blood was smeared on the walls with a hole in the floor for a toilet.

“The psychiatric treatment facility, I was in there with seven other prisoners in a cell. They all had severe, psychological health issues -- most of them," Reed said to CNN.

"So over 50 percent of them in that cell were in there for murder. Or, like, multiple murders, sexual assault and murder -- just really disturbed individuals.”

He described the inside of the cell as "not a good place."

“There was blood all over the walls there -- where prisoners had killed themselves, or killed other prisoners, or attempted to do that,” he said. “The toilet’s just a hole in the floor. And there’s, you know, crap everywhere, all over the floor, on the walls. There’s people in there also that walk around that look like zombies.”

Reed didn't sleep for several days fearing what his cellmates might do to him.

“You felt they might kill you?” host Jake Tapper asked. “Yes. I thought that was a possibility,” Reed replied.

Reed served his sentence in Mordovia, a region about 350 kilometers east of Moscow with a long reputation for being the location of Russia's toughest prisons, including Soviet-era labor camps for political prisoners.

In recent months, Reed went on two hunger strikes to protest prison conditions, including being placed in solitary confinement.

Now back in the United States, Reed said he is trying to adjust to normal life.

"I've been hanging out with the family a lot, been trying to get used to being free again," the former U.S. Marine told ABC News.

"That takes a little bit of time, that process. But I feel better every day."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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