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.