The authorities in Kazakhstan are getting a lot of use out of Article 174 of the country's Criminal Code. Article 174 is the one that outlaws actions that foment social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred and actions that insult national honor or dignity or the religious feelings of citizens.
Some inside Kazakhstan and outside feel this legal infraction is vaguely worded, open to broad interpretation and abuse. Listing those who have been detained and incarcerated on this charge, one could get the impression Article 174 is being used as a tool to remove inconvenient individuals.
On January 22, civil activists Ermek Narymbaev and Serikzhan Mambetalin were convicted for violating Article 174 and sentenced to three years and two years in prison, respectively. Narymbaev and Mambetalin were taken into custody on October 12, 2015, after posting excerpts on their Facebook pages from an unpublished book written by religious figure Murat Telibekov. When questioned, Telibekov said the passages Narymbaev and Mambetalin posted were not even from his book.
Narymbaev and Mambetalin denied their actions were meant to sow discord or incite hatred. But one week after the sentence was handed down, Mambetalin admitted his guilt publicly and apologized, following in the footsteps of Antigeptil (a group that opposes rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the grounds that the toxic rocket fuel heptyl is used) activist Bolatbek Blyayov.
Blyayov was on trial for violating Article 174 and on January 21, the day before Narymbaev and Mambetalin were convicted, Blyayov confessed in court. The court -- taking into consideration Blyayov's admission of guilt, the fact he has three children, one with disabilities, and that his wife does not work -- sentenced Blyayov to three years of restricted freedom.
Mambetalin was released from custody on January 30 but is under orders not to leave Almaty while a court hears his appeal.
Long, Varied List
Narymbaev, Mambetalin, and Blyayov were the latest victims of Article 174, but certainly not the first.
The best-known figure in Kazakhstan to have been convicted of violating Article 174 is Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered opposition political party Algha (Forward). Kozlov attempted to register as a presidential candidate in the 2011 election but was excluded from participating. In January 2012, Kozlov was part of an independent monitoring group that went to the western town of Zhanaozen to investigate the violence the previous month that led to the deaths of at least 16 people.
Kozlov informed officials from the European Parliament and European Commission of the results of this unofficial investigation and was arrested shortly afterward. In October 2012, Kozlov was found guilty of inciting hatred and sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. International and domestic rights organizations complained the trial process was biased, and evidence provided to the court failed to prove Kozlov's guilt.
Tatyana Shevtsova-Valova was charged in January 2015 with inciting ethnic hatred for posting comments on her Facebook page that promoted a Greater Russia (Russian World) and were interpreted as insulting Kazakhs and calling for Russian occupation of Kazakhstan, as in Crimea. She was found guilty in March and given a four-year suspended sentence.
Saken Baikenov was arrested in March 2015. Baikenov was an activist in the Antigeptil movement. Just a small amount of heptyl can be fatal if it comes in contact with the skin, and over the past 20 years several Russian Proton rockets, which regularly use Baikonur, have exploded shortly after liftoff, scattering heptyl over sparsely inhabited areas of Kazakhstan.
Baikenov had posted comments on his Facebook page that were deemed to be anti-Russian. Despite concerns raised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, Baikenov was found guilty of violating Article 174 in April, and sentenced to two years of restricted freedom.
Blogger Ermek Taychibekov, from the southern city of Shymkent, wrote in favor of Kazakhstan joining with Russia. Taychibekov was considered a pro-Russian blogger and he attracted the attention of a so-called national patriotic group in Almaty. The group filed a lawsuit, based on Article 174 against Taychibekov, who was convicted in November 2015 and sentenced to four years in prison. Given the opportunity by the court to say some last words, Taychibekov said he still did not understand what the charges against him were.
There was also 54-year-old Adventist Church member Yklas Kabduakasov, arrested in August 2015 for spreading "religious discord." The allegations against Kabduakasov were that he insulted Islam during a conversation with a group of students and had "pressured subordinates at work to adopt Christianity, and beat and dismissed those who refused to do so," according to report from Forum 18.
Kabduakasov's lawyer, Gulmira Shaldykova, told Forum 18 that "the prosecution provided no evidence during the trial of any employee beaten by Kabduakasov, or any facts of him dismissing his employees."
On November 9, 2015, an Astana district court sentenced Kabduakasov to seven years of restricted freedom. But on December 28, the Astana city court ruled that punishment was too lenient and added two years in a labor camp.
Really A Threat?
It's an interesting group of people. Viewed as a threat to regime, it's easy to see why opposition leader Kozlov was charged under Article 174.
It's also not difficult to see why Shevtsova-Valova and Taychibekov were charged. Since pro-Russian separatists seized parts of eastern Ukraine, Kazakhstan's government has been worried about the sizeable Russian population living in northern areas of Kazakhstan, along the 7,000-kilometer border with Russia.
The cases of Baikenov, Blyayov, Narymbaev, and Mambetalin are a bit more complicated. They are Kazakh nationalists and their activities over the course of several years either went unnoticed by the authorities, which is rather difficult to believe, or, more likely, what the four were writing and saying was condoned by Kazakh authorities.
A creeping nationalist movement in Kazakhstan was cut short when the troubles broke out in eastern Ukraine with the help of Russia.
Some people in the Kazakh government are not happy that Russian rockets explode over Kazakhstan but, as officials, they must restrain their comments. People like Baikenov and Blyayov serve as their surrogates.
So do Narymbaev, Mambetalin, Baikenov, and Taychibekov, who were the nationalist voices of those who preferred to remain anonymous.