ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A court in Kazakhstan's largest city has sentenced 13 political activists to up to five years in prison on extremism-related charges that they reject.
All 13 were activists with the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) of fugitive businessman and former Energy Minister Mukhtar Ablyazov, who was convicted in absentia of murder and embezzlement, and the Koshe party.
The court sentenced four of the activists -- Abai Begimbetov, Askhat Zheksebaev, Qairat Qylyshev, and Noyan Rakhymzhanov -- to five years in prison.
The other nine got various parole-like restrictions on their freedom for terms from one to two years, with seven also sentenced to 100 hours of compulsory labor per year. The nine sentenced to restricted liberty will not be allowed to change their place of residence or leave the Almaty city limits.
The hearing, which was conducted online with the defendants appearing virtually from a remand prison, was interrupted several times as the defendants chanted, "We are not extremists!"
During their trial, the defendants claimed they only participated in peaceful protests and exercised their constitutionally protected rights.
The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law issued a statement condemning the sentences and saying they showed that "the ossified authoritarian system will not allow people intent on democratic change to join together."
Ablyazov is an exiled former head of BTA Bank and an outspoken critic of the Kazakh authorities who has fought multiple extradition battles over accusations that he embezzled billions. The government designated the DVK an "extremist' organization in March 2018.
Human Rights Watch earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists. Several hundred people have been prosecuted for membership in the Koshe party.
The Kazakh authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the Central Asian country.