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Kazakh Activist Jailed For Protests Says 'No Shame' And No Regrets

Maks Boqaev (right) and Talghat Ayan (second from left) in an Atyrau courtroom in November 2016
Maks Boqaev (right) and Talghat Ayan (second from left) in an Atyrau courtroom in November 2016

ASTANA -- A Kazakh activist serving a five-year prison term for his role in protests against land reforms in 2016 says he has no regrets and feels no shame.

Maks Boqaev spoke to RFE/RL via the Internet on January 26, during a break in a court hearing on his appeal against his transfer to a prison in the North Kazakhstan region -- some 3,000 kilometers from his native Atyrau region in the west.

Boqaev, who took part in the hearing via a video link from North Kazakhstan's capital, Petropavl, told RFE/RL that other inmates respect him when they learn what he was imprisoned for.

"I have never regretted what I did. In the current circumstances in our country it is not shameful or regrettable to be jailed," Boqaev, who contends his prosecution was politically motivated, told RFE/RL.

He added that he sees the authorities' decision to send him and fellow activist Talghat Ayan to serve their five-year prison terms far from Atyrau as an "intimidation."

There is no direct flight or rail connection between their native city and Petropavl, which makes any visit by a relative "an ordeal."

Boqaev also said that forced physical exercise outside the barracks in the freezing cold each morning could be considered torture.

"After I refused three times to go outside in the morning for exercises when it was minus 25 degrees Celsius, saying I have a medical condition linked to an old spinal injury, they put me in solitary confinement," he said. "I protested against that move, too."

He said that the majority of the inmates are men between 20 and 30 years of age who are from ordinary families and are wary of defending their rights because they fear serious consequences, such as disciplinary measures or denial of early release.

Boqaev also likened the food in Kazakh prisons today to the food in the camps of the Soviet gulag.

Boqaev and Ayan were detained in the city of Atyrau in April 2016, where thousands of people had gathered to protests against a bill on land privatization and land leasing to foreigners. The protest sparked similar rallies across the country.

Following the protests, President Nursultan Nazarbaev suspended implementation and created a public commission to revise the legislation. In August 2016, Nazarbaev prolonged the moratorium on land privatization until December 2021.

In November 2016, Boqaev and Ayan were convicted of inciting social unrest, spreading false information, and violating the law on public gatherings and sentenced to five years in prison each. Both men say the trial was politically motivated.

Western governments and rights watchdogs have called on Kazakh authorities to release Boqaev and Ayan, saying they have a right to express their views publicly.

Opponents and rights groups say that Nazarbaev, who has held power in the Central Asian nation since before the 1991 Soviet breakup, has taken systematic steps to suppress dissent and sideline potential political challengers.

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