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Kazakh Court Extends Karakalpak Activist Muratbai’s Detention to 1 Year

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Kazakh Court Extends Karakalpak Activist Muratbai’s Detention to 1 Year

The extension of Muratbai’s detention follows a pattern in which Kazakh authorities detain Karakalpak activists pending extradition requests from Uzbekistan for the maximum time allowed by law.

Kazakh Court Extends Karakalpak Activist Muratbai’s Detention to 1 Year
Credit: @muratbaiman / X

A court in Almaty, Kazakhstan, has extended the detention of outspoken Karakalpak activist Aqylbek Muratbai to February 15, 2025 – a full year.

Muratbai (also known as Muratov) was detained on February 15, 2024 in Almaty, initially for 40 days while Kazakh authorities considered an extradition request from Uzbekistan.

While Muratbai holds an Uzbek passport, he has lived legally in Kazakhstan for a decade. In the nearly two years since violence broke out in Nukus, the capital of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, in July 2022 after Tashkent proposed a constitutional change that would have eliminated the autonomous republic’s sovereignty, Muratbai has become a significant voice for the Karakalpak people. 

According to Freedom for Eurasia, a Vienna-based human rights organization, and documents viewed by The Diplomat, Uzbek authorities have charged Muratbai with public calls for mass disorder and violence (Article 244 part 2 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan) and production or demonstration of materials containing a threat to public safety (Article 244-1 part 3). The charges, however, apparently stem from his posting of a video of Koshkarbai Toremuratov, another Karakalpak activist who had been living Kazakhstan, delivering a speech at the October 2023 Warsaw Human Dimension Conference, a major human rights conference convened annually by the OSCE. The case against Muratbai also centers on his promotion of a memorial event held 500 days after the July 2022 events in Nukus – in which Karakalpak activists urged people to turn off their lights for 16 minutes, representing the number of years in prison that Karakalpak lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov was sentenced to by an Uzbek court. Apparently, Uzbekistan sees this as a “public call for mass unrest and violence.”

The extension of Muratbai’s detention follows a pattern in which Kazakh authorities detain Karakalpak activists pending extradition requests for the maximum time allowed by law. Under Kazakh law, detention related to extradition requests can last for up to a year. Five Karakalpak activists who were detained between September and November 2022 in Kazakhstan – Ziuar Mirmanbetova, Koshkarbai Toremuratov, Zhangeldi Dzhaksymbetov,  Raisa Kudaibergenova, and Tleubike Yuldasheva – all spent a year in jail before being released. On the one hand, none were extradited to Uzbekistan, where they would have arguably been put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to possibly extensive prison terms; on the other hand, Kazakh authorities also denied their asylum requests.

Four of the five remain in Kazakhstan, pending appeals on their asylum application rejections. Toremuratov is in Poland awaiting a ruling on his asylum application there

In late February, Muratbai was reportedly given an asylum seeker’s certificate by the Almaty Department of Coordination of Employment and Social Programs. The certificate presumably prevents his extradition, at least temporarily. 

Muratbai’s detention has drawn sharp criticism from human rights organizations. In late February, Human Rights Watch’s senior Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittmann said in a statement, “The criminal case brought against Muratbai in Uzbekistan is a clear-cut case of retaliation against an outspoken human rights activist… The charges have no merit and should be dropped, and Kazakhstan should release him from custody immediately.”

On March 18, the Office of the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Kazakhstan sent a letter to the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be transmitted to, among other bodies, the Kazakh Supreme Court, the government of Kazakhstan, and a variety of relevant ministries. The letter raised the issue of Karakalpak asylum seekers in Kazakhstan, referencing four of the activists detained in 2022 who are still in Kazakhstan – Mirmanbetova, Dzhaksymbetov, Kudaibergenova, and Yuldasheva – and Muratbai.

“The United Nations in Kazakhstan calls on the Government of Kazakhstan to ensure that the asylum applications of all aforementioned individuals are treated in accordance with the principles of national and international law, including through fair and efficient asylum procedures, and appeals, in light of the most updated information on the situation in the country of origin,” the letter read.

The letter went on to note that “the granting of asylum is a non-political humanitarian act” and called on Kazakhstan to “ensure that no person is expelled in any manner or returned against his or her will to the borders of territories where his/her life or freedom is threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, regardless of the circumstances of their entry into Kazakhstan or the presence of identity documents.” Such a return “could constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement,” the letter warned.

Kazakhstan is notoriously stingy with asylum and refugee requests.