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Rights Defenders Accuse Kazakh Authorities Of Using Coronavirus Restrictions To Stifle Dissent

People rushed to the bazars on April 15 after the local authorities announced their imminent closure as part of widespread coronavirus restrictions.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Rights defenders in Kazakhstan say the government is using restrictions imposed to slow the coronavirus outbreak to crack down on dissent.

Several leading civil and human rights activists in the Central Asian nation were arrested over the weekend on charges of distributing fake news about the pandemic.

Almaty-based human rights activist Marzhan Aspandiyarova told RFE/RL on April 20 that the activists were arrested on what she called politically motivated charges.

"The authorities are using the state of emergency to arrest, persecute, and muzzle prominent and well-known activists. This is what real repression looks like, nothing else," Aspandiyarova said.

Activists known for their criticism of the government, Alnur Ilyashev, Arman Shuraev, and Ulan Shamshet, were arrested over the weekend and charged with violating coronavirus restrictions and spreading fake news about COVID-19. Ilyashev was sentenced to two months in jail on April 18, after a court in Almaty found him guilty of the charges.

Shuraev, Shamshet, and several other activists detained days earlier on the same charges are still awaiting trial.

The director of Kazakhstan's Bureau for Human Rights, Yevgeny Zhovtis, told RFE/RL on April 20 that all those arrested were very active in social networks and by arresting them, the authorities are trying to remove them from social-media platforms.

"The authorities are simply eager to isolate potential leaders. What we have in our country is an authoritarian system and the authoritarian regime by such measures tries to preserve control and minimize any challenges they may face," Zhovtis said.

The Adil Soz (A Just Word) group in Almaty that defends the rights of journalists and bloggers has expressed concerns over the arrests.

In an open letter addressed to Prosecutor-General Ghizat Nurdauletov, the group demanded the immediate release of all those arrested.

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