Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Court Releases Activist in Kazakhstan in High-Profile Case

A judge in Kazakhstan handed an activist a 1.5 year suspended sentence after she knocked off the hat of a policeman during a scuffle in June. 

Paolo Sorbello
Court Releases Activist in Kazakhstan in High-Profile Case
Credit: Pixabay

“I am OK, at home with my mother,” Asya Tulesova wrote on Facebook hours after she was released from the detention center where she was held for 66 days for “insulting a police officer” and “non-life-threatening violence against the police” during an unsanctioned rally in early June. Friends of Tulesova, a civic activist, gathered on August 12 and cheered at the court verdict, although she was still found guilty on both charges.

Tulesova will now face a one-and-a-half year conditional discharge on probation for the “violence” and a $130 fine for the “insults.” Her lawyers have already announced that they will appeal the verdict.

On June 6 in Almaty, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kazakhstan, civic activists and members of various unregistered movements agreed to gather by the statue of Abai, the country’s national poet, to show their dissatisfaction with the first year in power of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the successor to long-time president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The authorities fenced off a large area of the city center in an effort to block the rallies at the margins, staging alleged disinfections of the streets in order to disperse the protesters. A few confused speeches near the iconic Hotel Kazakhstan, however, were the calm counterpart to the storm that was unfolding about one mile away, at the intersection of Abai and Nazarbayev street.

There, police had started forcibly hurling activists and passers-by into police vans before they could even approach the fences.

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Asya Tulesova was there, as she typically participates in and documents these rallies, curious to learn about other activists and always fighting for justice. She stood behind a groundbreaking civic project to monitor pollution in Almaty’s air. She also was the co-author of one of the most memorable protests in Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev resigned, as she unfolded a banner saying “you cannot run from the truth” during Almaty’s 2019 marathon.

In her testimony in court, Tulesova said that she was surprised by the chaos and the severity with which the police were dragging elderly people to the vans. As emotions ran high, she turned to the line of police beside her and said that they were “vile” and “do not deserve to wear that uniform” (she was sentenced for “insults” for these words). In a sudden scuffle with the police, which landed her on the ground, she knocked off the hat of one policeman. She was then dragged by several policemen and secret service personnel into a police van. The hat incident proved a point of no return for Tulesova, as it was captured on video and became the main charge against her in court.

For “insults” and “violence” against the police, Kazakhstan’s law establishes a maximum punishment of three years in prison and a maximum pre-trial detention period of 15 days. Tulesova was arrested on June 8 and her trial started on August 3, in clear violation of the judicial process.

The online trial was followed closely by civic activists and journalists. Both Vlast.kz and Mediazona thoroughly reported on the hearings, while activists staged digital protests as well as filing thousands of petitions for her release.

Six police officers were heard as both victims and key witnesses. During the trial, the judge had to reprimand the victims several times because they seemed to be taking suggestions from other unidentified people in the room when speaking into the conference call. This, along with a possibly doctored video testimony and various other violations, upset the lawyers and the activists following the trial.

The six policemen fit the typical profile of crowd management officers sent to stand for hours at street corners to block off protesters: young and in their first year in service, often brought in from other provinces, and following direct orders from the top. In tense circumstances, they often bypass legal procedures, such as their obligation to identify themselves, to communicate the reason for the arrest to the detainees, and to use proportionate force in their actions. Scenes of policemen silently grabbing and hurling peaceful protesters into police vans and releasing them later without charges are commonplace in Kazakhstan. Alongside Tulesova, 52 others were detained during the June 6 protests.

“I perceived the policemen as the aggressors, because they attacked me first,” said Tulesova in the second day of the trial.

The odds at the trial were against Tulesova, as the falling hat became a symbol of her illegal conduct for the prosecution. Yet, the judge dismissed the prosecutor’s request to sentence Tulesova to one year in prison and punish her with a hefty fine.

Now reunited with her family, Tulesova is likely to prepare an appeal to achieve a full discharge.

For this one high-profile case, however, there are countless other cases of miscarriage of justice and abuse of power by officials across Kazakhstan. Yet, should this case set a precedent in the public eye, the judicial process could become progressively more transparent and fair.