Four years ago, a court in Kazakhstan convicted seven men for their peaceful discussion of religious topics on a WhatsApp group, handing them prison sentences of five and a half to eight years. Prosecutors claimed, without any corroborating evidence, that the sharing and discussion of religious texts and concepts on the WhatsApp group incited social discord, that the group members follow Salafi Islam, and that following Salafism meant that they were terrorists. These men, persecuted because they participated in a religious chat, are prisoners of conscience, a fact supported by the UN which found their arrest and detention a violation of their internationally protected human rights “on the ground of discrimination based on their religion aimed at and resulting in ignoring the equality of human beings.”
Three of the seven men – Beket Mynbasov, Samat Adilov, and Ernar Samatov – are still in prison, suffering indignities such as being held in isolation cells and torture. The four group participants who have been released – Azamat Umbetaliyev, Zhasulan Iskakov, Nazim Abdrakhmanov, and Bolatbek Nurgaliyev – suffered no less while they were imprisoned, often far from their families. Unfortunately, even after their release the men are unable to resume their lives due to the strict parole conditions and being blacklisted by being placed on Kazakhstan’s list of organizations and individuals involved in funding terrorism and extremism.
Unfortunately, the plight of the “free” men is not uncommon. In Kazakhstan, authorities often extend the punishment of people targeted with politically motivated convictions long after their release from prison through highly restrictive parole conditions or restrictions on the activities of people considered “extremists” by the state. Under the probation terms, the men generally can leave home only during the day, are prohibited from traveling far from home, and are unable to change their residence without permission, restrictions that would frustrate any person’s normal life. Unfortunately, the restrictions get much worse. Because the group members are on the blacklist, they are prohibited from doing normal daily things like owning a car (because they cannot get insurance), sending packages, using banking services, or even getting formal employment (because salaries must be paid by electronic transfer to an employee’s account).
In other words, the Kazakhstani authorities stole more than 19 years and counting of these men’s lives while they have been imprisoned and continues to do so after their release. This deprivation of liberty and restriction on their activities runs counter to Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations, obligations which the government claims to prioritize. In its ruling on their case, the UN called for the men to be released and for them to be provided reparations to repair the harm done to them. In the recent report Duty to Rehabilitate, Freedom Now found that Kazakhstan routinely violates the rights of former political prisoners by not rehabilitating them, compensating them, or otherwise repairing the harm inflicted upon them by their political imprisonment. One of the key problems identified in the report is that the Kazakhstani authorities refuse to annul their unjust convictions, a necessary requirement for rehabilitation under existing Kazakhstani law.
While some of the men were released years late, it was in the normal course of Kazakhstan’s judicial system, not because the authorities recognized the wrongfulness of their conviction and detention. In addition to annulling their convictions and releasing those still imprisoned, Kazakhstan should compensate these men for being deprived prime years of their lives, and remove all probation- and extremism-related limitations on their movement and activities. Only then will Kazakhstan be complying with its international obligations, respecting the rights of the WhatsApp group participants, and contributing to repairing the harm done to these men.