Thursday, September 5, 2013

Kharlamov's House Arrest In Kazkhstan Should Only Increase Vigilance

Alexander Kharlamov (Courtesy RSF)


Kazakh journalist Alexander Kharlamov, who has been detained from March this year allegedly for “inciting religious hatred,” was placed under house arrest yesterday. While this is certainly welcome news for any person detained under Kazakhstan’s signature method of confining dissidents – keeping them in psychiatric hospitals – it is also a ruse whereby the regime wards off international scrutiny, while effectively keeping dissent in check. 


Kharlamov was arrested on March 14 and detained in a psychiatric clinic for several weeks before his trail began on July 19 for “inciting religious hatred” in his blogs, a charge that can jail him for seven years. While he is indicted for ‘spreading atheist ideas’ and ‘displaying a negative attitude towards religion,’ RSF said the charges were “trumped up” in retaliation for Kharlamov’s denunciation of corrupt local authorities and the judicial system.

In its statement September 5, RSF said, “Kharlamov’s ordeal has dragged on for too long. After six months in pre-trial detention, including several weeks in a psychiatric clinic against his will, no hard evidence has been produced to support the grave accusations made against him. We hope that, after the additional investigation requested by the prosecution, the judicial authorities will recognize that the charges were trumped-up and will compensate him…”

 
Lukpan Akhmedyarov (Courtesy RSF)
The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism has kept track of fast-eroding media freedom in Kazakhstan, which ranks 160th of 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index. The winner of last year’s award was the Kazakh journalist Lukpan Akhmedyarov. Akhmedyarov was stabbed, shot and bludgeoned by assailants in April 2012 for exposing corruption and abuse of power.

Both Akhmedyarov in his interviews as well as RSF in its observations expressed scepticism that his assailants would be apprehended. However, there was a distinct change in the latter part of 2012. Four persons were arrested, charged with attempted murder. Akhmedyarov later told RSF “he had every reason to trust the new investigation.” They were eventually convicted in July 11 this year and sentenced to jail terms between 11 and 15 years.

However, Muzaffar Suleymanov, Committee to Protect Journalists’ Europe and Central Asia researcher said in a statement released soon after their conviction, “Authorities deserve credit for bringing the assailants to justice, but their work is not done. The people who plotted this vicious assault must be apprehended and prosecuted.

“Akhmedyarov told Uralskaya Nedelya in an April interview that he believed regional authorities had ordered the attack. ‘The probe against masterminds is ongoing, and I hope that we will learn the overall picture of the crime,’” said the CPJ.

But interestingly there has been no resolution of the investigation of the regional authorities or the masterminds of the crime. And as long as they remain free, the culture of impunity in Kazakhstan will not be broken and violence against the independent media will continue.

Kazakhstan is notorious for detaining dissidents in psychiatric clinics. Human Rights Watch in a statement on August 16, voiced outrage about Zinaida Mukhortova, a lawyer who had been imprisoned by Kazakh authorities from February 2010, including “at least twice in psychiatric hospitals.” Mukhortova had written to the president complaining of political interference in a case in which she was involved.

“Each and every minute Zinaida Mukhortova is kept unlawfully locked up in a psychiatric hospital, her fundamental rights are being gravely violated,” said Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should free Mukhortova immediately.”

“In a video interview posted online in November 2011 by Andrei Tsukanov, a civil society activist in Kazakhstan, Mukhortova stated that she was ill-treated by the hospital staff: ‘They gave me two pills – I didn’t know what the pills were – without even checking my reaction to these pills… and when I refused [to swallow them], they beat me and… tied my legs and hands to the bed,’” HRW says.

Writing an op-ed in the August 15 issue of the Moscow Times, Katrina Lantos Swett and Zuhidi Jasser of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom said, “While during the Soviet era, the false diagnosis of psychiatric illness was used against many who shared their belief in God, today the psychiatric profession is once again being hijacked — this time to persecute and falsely label those who reject a belief in a deity. For example, Alexander Kharlamov, an atheist writer in Kazakhstan, has been held against his will and forced to undergo psychiatric examination.”

An interesting pattern emerges in countries like Kazakhstan, which is only different from other authoritarian countries in the details. When repression continues for long periods at an elevated degree, even small gestures that reduce the level of terror on the public and civil society is construed as acts of great benevolence and charity. The arrest of the small fry in the Akhmedyarov case and placing Kharlamov under house arrest are such. But all autocratic regimes see to it that the ‘gesture’ does not change the basic rules of the game – which is that dissent remains unheard.

These ‘gestures’ mean also serve to persuade the international community, including human rights monitors and media watchdogs to drop their guard believing that things would soon return to normal, or that the worst of the suffering and discomfort for the victim is past. But that is exactly what autocratic regimes want: that the heat is off them. Once that happens they can continue to torment the victim without attracting attention to the issue.  It is continued vigilance that HRW, USCIRF and RSF have to ensure. 

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