ALMATY -- The chairman of Kazakhstan's Journalists Union and head of the National Press Club in Almaty has been detained for questioning, together with his son, the director of a local news agency, in a probe of alleged embezzlement and tax evasion.
The February 22 detention of Seitqazy Mataev and his son Aset Mataev, director of the KazTAG news agency, was decried as political pressure by media watchdogs, who in turn were accused by state authorities of attempting to hamper their investigation.
Aset Mataev was released after several hours of interrogation, while his father remains in custody.
During a February 22 press conference, during which the detentions were announced, the Almaty-based media rights organization Adil Soz (A Just Word) said the two men rejected the accusations against them as politically motivated.
Adil Soz Chairwoman Tamara Kaleeva and independent journalist Ermurat Bapi cited the elder Mataev as saying that he and his son were prepared to prove their innocence.
Kaleeva and Bapi also said the Mataevs had planned to hold the press conference themselves to address accusations made against them, but could not because National Anti-Corruption Agency officials detained them 1 1/2 hours before the briefing.
Adil Soz alleged that Kazakh authorities were trying "to curb operations of the National Press Club, known as a place for political dialogue and discussion," and that they also sought to tighten state control over KazTAG news agency content.
Kaleeva and Bapi also said that the major goal of the case against Mataevs is "an attempt to impose more pressure on journalists and mass media in Kazakhstan."
Anti-Corruption Service spokesman Aqzhan Rsaldinov told RFE/RL on February 22 that Mataev and his son were suspected of tax evasion and of embezzling 300 million tenges ($850,000), adding that Seitqazy Mataev's property has been impounded.
He dismissed the allegations made against the authorities as a smokescreen.
"Statements pronounced at today's press conference aim to mislead society in order to avoid punishment and to impede investigations," Rsaldinov said.
Seitqazy Mataev faces up to 12 years in jail if found guilty.
The detentions come less than a month before early parliamentary elections scheduled for March 20.
In 1991-93, Mataev worked as spokesman for authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has ruled the country since 1989.
Mataev has run the National Press Club for a number of years. The club, based in a small Almaty downtown building, is often used by businessmen, politicians, and activists to hold press conferences. The club housed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Almaty bureau from 2002-12.
Rights activists and government critics in recent years have accused Kazakh authorities of tightening already limited press freedoms.