A court in the southern city of Taraz has upheld independent newspaper owner and editor Ramazan Esergepov’s three-year jail term and two-year publishing ban. The sentence was confirmed at a secret hearing on 22 October which, like his original trial, was marked by irregularities.
Except for the first 15 minutes, the appeal hearing was conducted behind closed doors and in Esergepov’s absence. Although Esergepov had disowned his defence attorney, the lawyer nonetheless spoke at the hearing as if he was still empowered to represent him.
“This appeal ruling shows that the Kazakh authorities are bent on silencing all their media critics,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Kazakhstan will take over the rotating presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in just two months, yet it is clearly still more dangerous to expose bribery and corruption in this country than to engage in it.”
The press freedom organisation added: “The OSCE and France should condemn this court ruling just as they condemned the jailing of human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, and should draw all the appropriate conclusions from it.”
The editor of the weekly Alma Ata Info, Esergepov was arrested in January after publishing an article about alleged influence-trafficking involving a Taraz-based businessman and local representatives of the National Security Committee (KNB), the KGB’s successor.
He was convicted on 8 August of gathering and divulging classified documents under articles 172 and 339 of the criminal code.
02.09.2009 - Civil society presses for jailed editor’s release
Around 300 people took part in a nationwide protest in defence of Alma Ata Info editor Ramazan Esergepov on 25 August, handing in letters to the office of the National Security Committee (KNB) in each regional capital calling on the KNB to stop violating his rights. Esergepov was sentenced to three years in prison and a two-year publishing ban on 8 August as a result of a prosecution brought by the KNB.
The day of action was organised by the Ramazan Esergepov Support Committee, which has been formed by journalists and human rights activists. The authorities have not so far responded.
A statement condemning the “unwarranted toughening of judicial procedures against journalists” has meanwhile been issued by a total of 31 journalists and NGO representatives, including leaders of the Kazakhstan Union of Journalists. Published as an op-ed piece, it urges the courts and parliament to put a stop to judicial harassment of the press and to define media offences more narrowly.
Esergepov was arrested in January over an article headlined “Who really runs our country, the President or the KNB?” which raised questions about the links between KNB officials and a powerful businessman.
Esergepov’s appeal against his conviction has still not been heard and, contrary to previous information, no date has so far been set for the hearing.
10.08.2009 - Supreme court loses no time in upholding ban on newspaper
Reporters Without Borders deplores the Kazakh supreme court’s decision on 11 August to uphold the two-year ban that a court in the southern city of Taraz imposed on the weekly Alma Ata Info on 8 August at the same time as it sentenced its editor, Ramazan Esergepov, to three years in prison. The press freedom organisation had called on 9 August for the ban and Esergepov’s conviction to be overturned.
“This disgraceful sentence should have been quashed because of all the irregularities during the trial,” Reporters Without Borders said today. “Esergepov was not convicted for divulging stage secrets but for criticising leading figures who illegally abuse their authority. The entire trial was rigged and the aim of the sentence was to silence the press in a country in the grip of corruption.”
Recalling that the Kazakh government promised to embark on deep-seated democratic reforms for when it takes over the rotating presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe next January, Reporters Without Borders points out that freedom of expression is one of the pillars of democracy.
“The government could have begun to implement these promises by quashing Esergepov’s conviction,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We urge the international community and the OSCE in particular to step up pressure on the government to free Esergepov and lift the ban on his newspaper.”
The French foreign ministry has urged the Kazakh government to respects the commitments it made as an OSCE member.
Esergepov’s appeal against his three-year sentence is being heard by the supreme court of the southern province of Jambyl, which is expected to issued its ruling on 18 August. Esergepov was convicted on charges of gathering and divulging classified documents.
10.08.2009 - Three years in jail for newspaper editor who exposed security agency’s links with businessman
Reporters Without Borders is “appalled” by the three-year jail sentence which a court in the southern city of Taraz passed on Ramazan Esergepov, the owner and editor of the weekly Alma Ata Info, on 8 August on charges of gathering and divulging classified documents under articles 172 and 339 of the Kazakh criminal code.
The trial, which ended with Esergepov also being banned from publishing a newspaper for two years, had been held behind closed doors since it began on 23 April on the grounds that state secrets were involved. He was arrested last January after publishing a letter revealing the links between a businessman and the National Security Committee (KNB).
“This outrageous sentence ends a prosecution that was marred by irregularities from the outset,” Reporters Without Borders said, urging the court that hears Esergepov’s appeal to overturn his conviction on the grounds that it violates free expression and democracy.
“Esergepov was just doing his professional and civic duty by exposing the complicity between businessmen and the KNB,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is the KNB’s representatives who should have been on trial, not the journalist.”
Among the many serious irregularities was Esergepov’s detention from the time of his arrest on 6 January until now and the authorities’ refusal to let him see this family during these past seven months or receive appropriate medical attention his cardio-vascular problems.
All this violated article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Kazakhstan ratified in 2006. Article 9, which concerns the rights of people being prosecuted, condemns arbitrary detention. Esergepov also had to defend himself during the trial, although the Kazakh constitution gives everyone the right to be defended by the lawyer of their choice.
The court also refused to hear key defence witnesses such as Rozlana Taukina, the head of Journalist in Danger, and Sergey Utkin, a legal expert who had examined the documents gathered and published by Esergepov and had concluded that they were not classified because they had not been included in any register of classified documents as required by Kazakh law.
Although it was the KNB that lodged a complaint against Esergepov with the Taraz court, the court allowed the KNB to act as expert witness in the case. The KNB was also represented by the lawyer of its choice, a right that Esergepov was denied.
Esergepov was arrested by KNB members while hospitalised in Almaty on 6 January. His arrest was prompted by a report he had published in his newspaper on 21 November 2008 under the headline “Who really runs our country, the president or the KNB?” It included a letter exposing the ties between businessman Sultan Makhmadov and KNB officials.
Esergepov, who always denied the charges, is planning to appeal.
Kazakhstan is scheduled to take over the rotating presidency of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe next year. It was ranked 125th out of 173 countries in last year’s Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.