ATYRAU, Kazakhstan -- Maks Boqaev, a well-known Kazakh rights activist and outspoken government critic, has been released from prison and he immediately held a rally demanding a new constitution for the Central Asian nation.
The 48-year-old activist, who was recognized as a political prisoner by Kazakh rights groups, held the rally in the western city of Atyrau on February 4, just hours after leaving the prison where he served almost five years on an extremism charge he says was politically motivated.
"I express my gratitude to the people and international organizations that supported me. Without the people's support, I would have been destroyed [by officials.] Even my bones would be untraceable...There have been no changes in the country so I will continue my civil activities," Boqaev said after he left the prison and came to Atyrau's central Isatai-Makhambet square.
Boqaev was highly critical of January 10 parliamentary elections, which he called "fake" given no opposition groups were allowed to take part in them.
"Unfortunately, [Kazakhstan's former President Nursultan] Nazarbaev has turned our constitution into toilet paper. What we need is a new constitution. This is what we must demand from Nazarbaev and [Kazakhstan's current President Qasym-Zhomart] Toqaev," Boqaev said, adding that such a demand will be put forward at rallies he plans to hold each weekend.
"If the government remains deaf, we will set up tents at squares in all of the cities," Boqaev said.
Dozens of activists and journalists from Kazakhstan’s other regions came to greet Boqaev upon his release. Some, however, were blocked by police on their way to Atyrau and not allowed to reach the city.
Boqaev was arrested and sentenced on extremism charges in 2016 after he organized unsanctioned protests against land reform in Atyrau.
While serving his term, Boqaev refused to ask for clemency, insisting that the case against him was politically motivated.
The United States, European Union, and the United Nations had urged Kazakh authorities to release Boqaev.
Human rights organizations in Kazakhstan have recognized Boqaev as a political prisoner.
Kazakhstan's government has insisted that there are no political prisoners in the country.