ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Human rights activists in Kazakhstan have launched a campaign to collect signatures for a petition demanding that President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev release jailed dissident poet Aron Atabek, who has been behind bars since 2007 and is said to be in failing health.
Bakhytzhan Toreghozhina, a leading member of the Almaty-based human rights group Ar, Rukh, Khaq (Dignity, Spirit, Truth), told RFE/RL that the signatures will be collected for five days and then will be sent to Toqaev, who has the authority to pardon inmates.
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The 68-year-old poet, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted of helping organize protests that resulted in the death of a police officer, is said to be suffering from heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis.
Atabek has maintained his innocence. He rejected a 2012 government pardon offer that would have required him to admit guilt.
"The president of the republic may, at his own discretion, pardon a convict or a person who has served the sentence," the petition says. "We ask you to exercise this right and have mercy on Aron Yedigeev (Atabek)."
Within hours of its posting on Facebook on September 15, the petition had dozens of signatures.
Kazakh authorities have shown little, if any, tolerance toward criticism, whether it comes from the independent press, activists, or political opponents.
Human rights groups in Kazakhstan have said that Atabek has been constantly tortured in prison, with guards intentionally splashing water with high concentrations of chlorine on the floor of his cell to damage his health.
For years, domestic and international rights organizations have demanded the Kazakh government release Atabek.
Last month, a picture of Atabek, taken by human rights activists who visited the dissident poet in prison, caused a public outcry. The poet looked exhausted and ill.
Atabek was transferred to solitary confinement in December 2012 and spent two years there after an article he wrote critical of then-President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his government was smuggled out of prison and published online.
Atabek and his relatives said in 2014 that prison guards had broken his leg, which the authorities denied.