NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh activist Asqar Qaiyrbek has launched a hunger strike to demand a new trial one month after he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for organizing activities of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), a banned opposition group.
Lawyer Gulshat Duisenova told RFE/RL on August 6 that her client has been refusing food and drinking only water since August 1.
She said Qaiyrbek’s health has dramatically worsened.
The warden of the minimum security penal colony in the Kazakh capital where he is being held confirmed to RFE/RL that the activist has been on hunger strike for several days.
The warden, Baghdat Amangeldiev, said the facility's medical staff were ready to provide assistance to Qaiyrbek if needed.
The 44-year-old activist was sentenced on June 21 after a court in the Central Asian nation found him guilty of organizing the activities of an extremist group and taking part in such activities.
Meanwhile in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, a court resumed the trial on August 6 of 13 activists, including four women, also accused of links with the DVK and an associated party, Koshe (Street).
The activists' trial had been adjourned after the defendants and their lawyers accused Judge Ernar Qasymbekov of intentionally switching off microphones when one of the lawyers raised the issue of political prisoners in the country.
All of the defendants were charged with participation in the activities of extremist organizations, while 10 of them were additionally charged with organizing the activities of extremist groups.
Due to coronavirus precautions, the trial is being held online.
Kazakh human rights groups have labeled four of the defendants -- Diana Baimaghambetova, Askhat Zheksebaev, Noyan Rakhymzhanov, and Qairat Qylyshev -- political prisoners.
In recent years, Kazakh courts routinely order prison or parole-like sentences for involvement in the activities of the DVK and the Koshe party, or for taking part in rallies organized by the two groups.
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 banned the DVK as an extremist group in 2018.
In early July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized Kazakh authorities, saying they had targeted at least 135 people across the country with criminal investigations and prosecutions for allegedly participating in banned “extremist” political opposition groups.
Rights groups in Kazakhstan say at least 300 men and women in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic have been convicted for ties to the DVK and Koshe or for taking part in events they organized.
Critics say Kazakhstan’s law on public gatherings violates international standards, as it requires preliminary permission from authorities to hold rallies and it prosecutes organizing and participating in unsanctioned rallies despite a constitutional guarantee to the right of free assembly.
Kazakh authorities have insisted that there are no political prisoners in the country.