International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) regrets the recent conviction of Kazakhstani opposition party leader Zhanbolat Mamai on charges initiated in apparent retaliation for his peaceful political engagement. While serving a six-year suspended prison sentence, Mamai will be banned from conducting political, civic or social media activities, and thereby from continuing his opposition campaigning. His conviction is in violation of Kazakhstan’s international obligations with respect to the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly and should be overturned.
On 10 April 2023, a court in Almaty handed down the suspended sentence to Mamai, who leads the unregistered opposition Democratic Party, after finding him guilty of organising mass riots and knowingly spreading false information (under articles 272 and 274 of the Criminal Code). In a practice frequently seen in cases involving government critics, the court also prohibited Mamai from engaging in public, political and social media publication activities for the period of his suspended sentence. The opposition party leader will be subjected to probation and, if he is found to violate the conditions of his suspended sentence, he could face time in prison.
The main charges of organising mass riots initiated against Mamai relate to the events of January 2022, when mass protests for social and political change turned bloody in Kazakhstan as some in the crowd resorted to violence and the authorities used excessive force to quash the protests and ensuing unrest. The prosecution accused Mamai of instigating the unrest in Almaty but failed to present any credible evidence. Mamai denied the accusations, stressing that he only protested peacefully for political and social change. When the charges of organising mass riots were first brought against Mamai, IPHR and several partner organisations called on the Kazakhstani authorities to drop the charges, saying that they had clearly been initiated in retaliation for his opposition activities and criticism of the authorities.
Amid heightened international attention to Mamai’s case, the charges of organising mass riots were reclassified as violating rules for organising an assembly (under Criminal Code article 400) – a less serious crime – before his trial began in November 2022. However, in January 2023, the prosecution re-initiated the earlier charges, on which he was then convicted.
The charges of knowingly spreading false information, on which Mamai also was convicted, relate to his campaigning for measures to help people burdened by financial debt. A government agency accused him of disseminating incorrect information on this issue, although he insisted that he had only raised public awareness about how to make use of existing debt assistance programmes.
In addition to the two sets of charges mentioned above, the court also found Mamai guilty of insulting law enforcement officials (under article 378 of the Criminal Code) because of critical remarks he made during the police dispersal of a peaceful protest initiated by his party in 2021. However, the court did not issue any penalty on these charges because of the expiration of the statute of limitations.
When commenting on the verdict, Mamai criticised the court for failing to take into account defence evidence proving his innocence and said that he will appeal the sentence. He will remain under house arrest until the sentence against him has entered into legal force. Mamai was first arrested in the criminal case opened against him in March 2022 and thereafter spent several months in pre-trial detention before being transferred to house arrest in November 2022.
While IPHR notes with relief that Mamai was not imprisoned, we deplore his unfounded conviction on politically motivated charges as well as the fact that he was effectively banned from speaking out on issues of concern to him and from engaging with others to peacefully campaign for change. This attempt to silence the opposition leader violates international standards protecting the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, which the Kazakhstani government is obliged to uphold, and undermines the drive to promote political modernisation and create ‘’a new Kazakhstan’’, which the president initiated after the January 2022 events. There will be no real democratisation in Kazakhstan until citizens are allowed to undertake legitimate opposition activities without hindrance, people like Mamai can voice their opposition to the authorities without facing persecution, and opposition parties such as Mamai’s Democratic Party can freely register and operate in the country.
For more information on the current trends regarding the protection of the freedoms of expression, association and assembly in Kazakhstan, see briefing paper issued by IPHR and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) in March 2023.