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Marat Asipov is now a "suspect."

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on Kazakh authorities to dismiss criminal defamation suits against two popular independent media outlets and their journalists.

In a statement on April 13, the New York-based media watchdog urged the authorities to “stop this campaign of harassment” against the news site Ratel.kz and the local edition of Forbes magazine.

Almaty police on April 2 raided the editorial offices of both media outlets, confiscating computers and documents from both. The homes of several journalists working for the outlets were also searched.

Police later said the raids were part of a criminal investigation based on a suit filed on March 30 by Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, a businessman and former finance minister, who claimed that the outlets published false information that damaged his reputation and that of his son.

Four journalists with Forbes Kazakhstan and Ratel.kz were questioned on April 2 and told that they were they were “witnesses with the right to defense.”

And on April 4, Ratel's chief editor, Marat Asipov, was questioned again and his "witness" status was changed to “suspect.”

Meanwhile, Ratel's website and Facebook page have been blocked.

CPJ said Ratel.kz and Forbes Kazakhstan have reported on the alleged corrupt business practices of the Kakimzhanovs between May and December 2016.

"The space for independent information and critical commentary in Kazakhstan has severely contracted over the past few years,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Astana should start reversing this trend by abolishing criminal defamation as a first step."

Opponents and rights groups say that President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has held power in Kazakhstan since before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, has taken systematic steps to suppress dissent and sideline potential opponents.

Human Rights Watch on April 6 issued a statement on the case, urging Kazakh authorities to stop using libel laws "to harass journalists who are doing their jobs."

Maksim Borodin

Russian investigative journalist Maksim Borodin of Yekaterinburg has died of injuries sustained on April 12 when he fell from the window of his fifth-floor apartment.

Borodin, 32, died on April 15 in a hospital without recovering consciousness. Officially, his death was being investigated as a suicide.

A Sverdlovsk Oblast police spokesman said it was "unlikely that this story is of a criminal nature."

He said the door to Borodin's apartment was locked from the inside and there was no sign of forced entry. He added that the keys to the apartment were found inside and no suicide note has been found.

Polina Rumyantseva, the editor in chief of Novy Den, where Borodin worked, said the same day that she did not believe Borodin committed suicide.

A friend of Borodin's, Vyacheslav Bashkov, wrote on Facebook on April 15 that Borodin contacted him at 5 a.m. on April 11 and said his building was surrounded by "security forces" wearing camouflage and face masks.

He said that Borodin was alarmed, but not hysterical or drunk. Borodin reportedly said that he believed his apartment was about to be searched and that the security officers were waiting for a court order. He asked Bashkov to find him a lawyer.

An hour later, however, Borodin called back and said he had been mistaken and that the security officers were conducting some sort of drill.

"I didn't call him after that," Bashkov wrote, "although I was waiting for him to write something on Facebook. But he didn't write anything and on the 13th the media reported that Maksim had been found under his balcony and he was in the emergency room."

Borodin regularly wrote on crime and corruption. In recent weeks, he wrote extensively about the deaths in February of Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria, identifying several fighters from the Urals city of Asbest who had been killed.

On February 7, a group of Russian mercenaries with tanks and artillery attacked territory held by U.S.-backed opponents of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S.-led international coalition responded with air strikes that are believed to have killed dozens of Russian fighters.

According to some media reports, more than 200 Russian mercenaries died in the incident, although the Russian government has not confirmed the casualty toll.

With reporting by Novy Den, RIA Novosti, and Grani.ru

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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