Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has urged Kazakhstan to quash a prison sentence handed to journalist Amangeldy Batyrbekov on criminal libel charges last month, calling the ruling the latest example of how the country "persecutes" journalists.
"This harsh sentence was imposed at the end of a trial marred by many procedural flaws," Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement on October 22.
Bihr also called on the authorities to "decriminalize press offenses if they want their talk of reform to be taken seriously."
A court in the southern town of Saryaghash on September 23 sentenced Batyrbekov to 27-months in prison after finding him guilty of insulting the dignity and honor of a local education official in a Facebook post.
Batyrbekov, the editor of a Saryagash-based daily newspaper, was also ordered to pay a heavy fine in damages, reports said.
The journalist has denied the charges, saying he was being prosecuted in retaliation for his critical reporting, including on the judge who presided over his case.
Bihr called on the judicial authorities to hear Batyrbekov’s appeal in a different jurisdiction and to issue "a decision that conforms to international free speech standards."
Last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the authorities to immediately release Batyrbekov, drop all charges against him, and allow him to work freely and safely.
"Kazakhstan should also scrap its criminal libel and insult laws; such issues should be handled as civil cases," it said in a statement.
According to the Almaty-based Adil Soz (A Just Word) human rights group, at least nine journalists in Kazakhstan have faced criminal persecution on libel charges in the first four months of 2019.
The country is ranked 158th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2019 World Press Freedom Index.