The Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) has urged Kazakh authorities to review the conviction of activist Alnur Ilyashev, who was handed a parole-like three-year sentence and banned from social or political activism for five years for openly criticizing the Kazakh government's response to the coronavirus.
"[Ilyashev's] conviction is an example of how Kazakhstan is using COVID-19 as a pretextual ground to clamp down on speech, in particular on the Internet -- often the only space left for dissent during the pandemic," CFJ's TrialWatch Fairness Report, released on March 11, said.
The CFJ is a human rights watchdog founded by Hollywood star George Clooney and his wife, Lebanese-British lawyer Amal Clooney.
Ilyashev, who used social media to criticize Kazakhstan’s ruling Nur-Otan party, led by former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was convicted of spreading “false information” about the coronavirus in June 2020.
An Almaty court found Ilyashev guilty of the “dissemination of knowingly false information that threatens public order during the state of emergency” implemented because of the coronavirus pandemic. The trial was held online due to coronavirus precautions.
Ilyashev was detained on April 17, 2020, after he wrote on Facebook that authorities in Kazakhstan, including Nur-Otan, were corrupt and had been incompetent in their response to the coronavirus.
“This case shows the pitfalls of virtual trials. The defendant’s rights were repeatedly violated as a result of poor connectivity and the authorities’ failure to provide a way for him to consult with his lawyers. Kazakhstan needs to take immediate steps to ensure that virtual proceedings protect the rights of defendants,” said Vania Costa Ramos, the TrialWatch expert who authored the report along with staff at the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights.
The report also concluded that Ilyashev "was kept in arbitrary pretrial detention and denied medical care while in custody, in violation of his right to humane treatment."
The CFJ's report says that Ilyashev has exhausted all possibilities to appeal his sentence in Kazakhstan, adding that if Kazakhstan’s prosecutor-general does not take action, the "CFJ will work with Mr. Ilyashev and his counsel to submit a communication to the United Nations Human Rights Committee."
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 dozens of times.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, who was handpicked by Nazarbaev in March 2019 following almost three decades of his rule, has pledged reforms in the energy-rich Central Asian country.
In May 2020, 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 standards and is replete with numerous restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles to prevent protests.
Nazarbaev still maintains key positions of power, including head of Nur-Otan and the country’s influential Security Council.