Detention of Vladimir Kozlov. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In Kazakhstan, it’s easy enough to find yourself charged with extremism and terrorism offences. Being affiliated to a “non-traditional” religious denomination or belonging to the political opposition can lead to prosecution.
But people who face criminal prosecution on “extremism” and “terrorism” charges are subject to punishment even after release. A complex system of financial blacklisting means many find it difficult to return to their normal lives.
Extremist thoughts about God
Alexander Kharlamov is a human rights activist and public commentator who lives in Ridder, a small town in eastern Kazakhstan. In January 2013, Kharlamov, 63, was charged with “incitement to religious hatred” after sharing atheist views on his blog “The Global Party of True Communists”. Kharlamov was arrested later that year, on 17 March, after he continued publishing his thoughts on religious matters.
The prosecutor’s ruling stated that, after having studied major world religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, Kharlamov produced his own interpretation of a religious system – this essentially served as the main reason for his conviction.
The investigation concluded that Kharlamov was fully aware that his opinions radically contradicted the views and beliefs of the majority of believers in Kazakhstan, which was why his actions could have lead to negative consequences such as religious hatred and strife, as well as negative attitudes towards religions on the whole.
Meanwhile, Kharlamov had always openly declared that, in his view, true religion is in fact a science, and that Jesus was a genius scientist. In September 2013, after signing an undertaking not to leave his place of residence, he was released from a detention facility. Since his release, all efforts to get any updates on the status of his case have been in vain.
Alexander Kharlamov. Photo from personal archive.Kharlamov was lucky. In Kazakhstan, incitement to hatred belongs to a category of crimes which threaten the “peace and safety of humanity”. However, Kharlamov belongs to the 30-40% of those people charged with extremism and terrorism whose cases never reach court. The majority of cases do face trial, which means that the chance to prove one’s innocence, however absurd the charges, shrinks to less than one percent.
According to the Committee for Legal Statistics and Special Reports of the Procurator-General, in 2017 alone, there were 528 criminal investigations into terrorist propaganda, extremism and incitement to hatred, as well as three cases under the “terrorist acts” article, even though last year there were no actual events classified as terrorist or extremist. 304 legal cases reached the court, with only one known acquittal. Bearing in mind that each case can involve various numbers of defendants, in 2017 the overall number of sentenced people increased by at least one thousand.
The majority of the detainees are Kazakh Muslims convicted for possession of banned literature or reposts on social networks, which, according to the Kazakh government, threaten political stability or incite others to religious hatred. A number of detainees include civic activists, bloggers and human rights activists whose opposition simply had to be neutralised. Due to the vague formulations of Kazakhstan’s Penal Code, the latter can be applied to almost anything – just as in the case of the Ridder-based human rights activist Alexander Kharlamov.
On average, these sentences imply imprisonment from three to 10 years. In rare cases, people are given suspended sentences. However, both those whose sentences were suspended, and those released from imprisonment, still have to suffer an additional punishment which precludes their full re-integration into society. Moreover, the Kazakh government refers to recommendations made by UN and EU bodies. Namely, it refers to the list of organisations and individuals involved in funding terrorism and extremism; the list currently includes 1,343 Kazakh citizens.
Alimony was equated to terrorism financing
Olesya Khalabuzar is a resident of Almaty, a human rights activist and director of the Justice Society for Young Professionals. After receiving a one-year non-custodial sentence for incitement to hatred, Khalabuzar found that financial sanctions were not only applied to her, but her three under-aged children as well.
“This January I went to take alimony payments from my bank account, and it turned out that the money was blocked. It remains blocked to this day,” Khalabusar tells me. A single mother of three under-aged children, Olesya is number 1,140 on Kazakhstan’s terrorist/extremist list. “In the Prosecutor’s Office they told me that my funds were blocked by the Financial Monitoring Committee at the Ministry of Finance. I then sent a query to which the Committee replied that my alimony can be collected only at second-level banks (all banks apart from Kazakhstan’s National Bank). Apparently, since I am now on the terrorist list, the banks treat me as a terrorist. Banks are afraid of everything, and I am refused access to my money. I cannot even pay my taxes.”
In August 2017, Khalabuzar was sentenced on the charges of incitement to national hatred. Earlier the same year she was prosecuted on charges of extremist propaganda after she published a video containing statements by pensioners who had suffered in the Kazakh judicial system. The elderly people threatened self-immolation if their problems were not resolved.
Olesya Khalabuzar. Photo from personal archive.As part of this case, the office of the Justice association was raided without the presence of witnesses, lawyers nor staff themselves. Police stated that they found leaflets with anti-Chinese content, which served as a reason to close the previous case and institute new criminal proceedings. After being a social activist for over a decade, Khalabuzar announced her withdrawal from all public activities, and she is now handing her organisation over to other activists. During the court proceedings that lasted only one day, she admitted her guilt and added that this was a necessary measure. Consequently she received a minimum sentence as stipulated in the article on incitement to strife.
However it turned out that apart from legal prosecution, she was also included in a financial blacklist. The blacklist appeared in Kazakhstan in November 2015, in accordance with the Penal Code article “Countering the legalisation (laundering) of criminally obtained income and terrorism financing”. Today everyone convicted of extremism and terrorism is blacklisted by default.
Unlike the majority of those in a similar situation, Khalabuzar was rather lucky. She lives with her children in a house acquired when she was still running a successful business. However, both her house and her car were seized by the court in order to prevent Khalabuzar from selling them and funding terrorism. Khalabuzar has a small business, but she can only operate in cash because banks deemed her a persona non grata.
Five years in prison for quoting commentaries on the Quran
In September last year, after having served a five-year prison sentence, Ablaykhan Chalimbayev (number 320 on Kazakhstan’s terrorism and extremism list.) became the first person among those blacklisted to raise the question of additional punishments.
Chalimbayev was charged with incitement to religious hatred after he quoted the book Tafsir Saadi, a collection of comments on the Quran by Saudi theologian Abd ar-Rahman as-Sa’di. Published by the Salafi-related religious centre Al-Barakat, the book is publicly available in Kazakhstan. In spite of the Salafi movement being legal, Salafism is still regarded as a non-traditional religion in Kazakhstan, and both security services and the police never miss a chance to pay extra attention to it. During a meetings, a Kazakh secret service agent wearing a concealed camera filmed Chalimbayev reading lines containing offensive statements towards other religions from Tafsir Saadi. Even though this became the basis for Chalimbayev being sentenced to five years, the book itself remained publicly available. Furthermore, this did not affect the religious centre (allegedly supported by a Kazakh MP), nor the Kazakh publishers who published the translation of Tafsir.
Ablaykhan Chalimbayev. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.
After his release, Chalimbayev attempted to draw the Kazakh authorities’s attention to the existence of both the religious centre and the book that cost him five years in prison. Nine months after submitting a statement to the police, he still is waiting for a reply. Chalimbayev has now come to a realisation that the views he got from the Al-Bakarat centre were wrong, however he is unable to return to normal life because of his being blacklisted. “I tried to get a job multiple times, but because of that kind of criminal record nobody wants to take me. I’m now publicly blacklisted, and everybody knows they have no right to sign any legal contracts with me,” says Chalimbayev.
Chalimbayev was forced to move to his mother’s house on the outskirts of Almaty, where he now makes a living as an illegal cab driver, picking up odd jobs with his old car. “I cannot even buy train tickets, my identity needs to be confirmed for that too,” complains Chalimbayev.
The actions of the Ministry of Finance are illogical
In August 2016, Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unofficial opposition party Alga! (“Forward!”), was released on parole after a 4.5 year prison sentence. He is currently number 950 in the blacklist. As a party leader, he was accused of provoking the Zhanaozen events, when, after eight months, a 2011 strike by oil workers in the west of the country ended with armed police opening fire on the strikers. Kozlov’s party was in fact giving the strikers media support, as well as providing them with tents and sleeping bags. Vladimir Kozlov himself publicly addressed the striking oilmen, which was later interpreted as an extremist act.
The organisers of the massacre that left 17 dead (according to official statistics) still remain unpunished. Meanwhile, prosecutors targeted many participants in the strike, including people wounded and those who had experienced torture, as well as opposition activists. Kozlov was acknowledged by the international community as a prisoner of conscience and was released before he could complete a 7.5 year sentence. However, because he was prosecuted for incitement to social hatred and calls to overthrow the constitutional power, after his release he was also included in the financial blacklist.
“Those included in the blacklist are deprived of any means of survival, not to mention the ability to lead a normal life,” says Kozlov.
Vladimir Kozlov. Photo from personal archive.“The monitoring of financial operations might make sense in cases involving real funders of terrorism. But instead, we have a universal ban on any financial operations. As a blacklisted person – an ‘extremist’ – I cannot even get a bank card, nor can I pay my taxes for any kind of service. Apparently, I am also banned from using notarial services and all kinds of insurance. I am constantly getting a ‘the following person is banned’ message.”
Kozlov is surprised by the lack of logic: “It’s not so much wrong, rather it rather deliberately contradicts the aims of Kazakhstan’s counter-terrorism law as such. I would enable essential financial operations in cashless payments,” adds Kozlov. “Meanwhile, today almost 1,500 Kazakh citizens are driven into the shadow economy. I cannot get an official job that pays into bank accounts, only one that pays in cash, and I am forced to pay my utility bills on the side. I am banned from making financial operations transparently!”
Kazakh government is referring to UN
The creation of the blacklist was justified with reference to Kazakhstan’s membership of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering. This was what Ardak Tengebayev, ex-Vice Minister of Finance, referred to in May 2015. In addition, Tengebayev noted that the legislation would include a mechanism to freeze the assets of both individuals and organisations associated with terrorism and extremism financing; and, in accordance with the so-called “humanitarian” amendment to UN Security Council Resolution 1452, it would allow access only to the funds necessary for the basic needs of life.
Indeed, in defence of this initiative, the Kazakh government refers to four UN conventions, a UN Security Council resolution and a Council of Europe convention. There are also other counter-terrorism treaties affecting both the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – the international security alliance that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, despite promises made by Ardak Tengebayev, Kazakh citizens included on the blacklist are not offered any kind of opportunities that would ensure a normal way of life. So far, 84 people have been removed from the list, but it continues to grow at a much higher rate. Among those blacklisted, 30 people are civic activists, human rights activists and bloggers. There are also two members of Christian organisations deemed as belonging to a “nontraditional” religion in Kazakhstan. The majority of those blacklisted are Muslims convicted mostly on questionable legal grounds. Obviously, the list also includes people convicted for attacking members of the Kazakh police or military, or participation in “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria.
The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law is currently preparing a collective appeal to the Ministry of Finance, demanding that they stop including convicted people on the blacklist, and to recognise the list itself as illegal. To date, the organisation has received only four statements: people previously on the list are afraid of the consequences of speaking out.