An activist who criticized Kazakhstan’s ruling party on social media has been convicted of spreading “false information” about the coronavirus and banned from social or political activism for five years, even as the government itself warns of a worsening outbreak.
An Almaty court on June 22 convicted Alnur Ilyashev of the “dissemination of knowingly false information that threatens public order during the state of emergency” implemented because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The court sentenced him to three years of restricted freedom and banned him from political activities for five years. Any violation of the court terms means he will likely face imprisonment.
Ilyashev was detained on April 17 after he wrote on Facebook that authorities in Kazakhstan, including the ruling Nur Otan party, are corrupt and have been incompetent in their response to the coronavirus.
The 43-year-old activist spent more than two months in custody until being released after the verdict.
During the court hearing, held online because of the coronavirus, prosecutors brought in witnesses who claimed Ilyashev’s social-media posts would “alarm” the public.
Rights group Amnesty International slammed the sentence as “absurd” and as a sign that the government will continue to not allow criticism of the government.
“The Kazakhstani authorities have shamelessly exploited the state of emergency that was called to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic to clamp down on voices of dissent. Alnur Ilyashev has committed no crime. He has only expressed his opinions peacefully, which the authorities and their ‘experts’ have portrayed as a criminal act and severely penalized,” Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s Central Asia researcher, said.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported in May that Kazakh authorities have hired firms to keep track of what is being said on social networks accessible in Kazakhstan.
These firms are contracted to search for posts that could create a "threat" to sociopolitical stability and also, as part of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, the dissemination of false information about the virus or government measures to battle it. But in the process they also find people's messages criticizing the government.
Ilyashev had been helping to organize protests against the government since 2019 and took the Almaty mayor's office to court, unsuccessfully, after his requests to hold peaceful public meetings were rejected some 35 times.
In May, Kazakhstan reformed laws on protests that define how many people can attend a demonstration, what venues are available for rallies, and what permission is needed to conduct such public events.
Critics say the law falls short of international human rights and is replete with numerous restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles to prevent protests.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev came to power in 2019 pledging reforms in the energy-rich Central Asian country following three decades of rule by his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Nazarbaev still maintains key positions of power, including head of the country’s Security Council and ruling Nur Otan party.
On June 18, Nazarbaev's press service said that the former president had tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the latest top official -- including the health minister and speaker of the lower house of parliament -- to become infected.
Kazakhstan imposed a state of emergency over the pandemic on March 16 and lifted it on May 11. The government slowly removed restrictions to help stop the spread of the virus, but health authorities tightened coronavirus restrictions last week in response to a worsening situation.
Kazakhstan has reported nearly 23,000 cases, including more than 100 deaths from the coronavirus, although total fatalities are believed to be higher.