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The case of Aleksandr Kharlamov: the civic activist has been released, but is still under investigation

The journalist and civil activist, Aleksandr Kharlamov was taken into custody on charges of inciting religious hatred during March, 2013. He has undergone psychiatric examination several times during the period of incarceration. Now, the case of Aleksandr Kharlamov is under further investigation, while a preventive measure in the form of house arrest has been applied. The international community calls for the dismissal of the charges against Aleksandr Kharlamov.

On 4 September, 2013, Aleksandr Kharlamov was released from the detention centre of the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk. The day before, on 3 September, 2013, at the request of the prosecutor’s office, Ridder City Court (East Kazakhstan Province) ruled to change the measure of Kharlamov’s restraint from remand in prison to house arrest. The 63-year-old civil activist was first incarcerated on 14 March, 2013.

Due to its absurdity and groundlessness, the criminal case against Aleksandr Kharlamov gained widespread international publicity and has become one of the best examples of how Kazakhstan deals with undesirable civil activists.

1. The initiation of the criminal case and arrest

 According to investigators, on 19 September, 2012, during an operation  named ‘Police station’, police workers of the city of Ridder revealed that the head of the human rights organisation ‘Secret Service’, Aleksandr Kharlamov had disseminated religious materials, he had authored, on the Internet. The materials of the investigative body read that “Aleksandr Kharlamov was exposed in the commission of criminal acts by means of the detection and removal, from his Internet blog, of texts pertaining to religious issues”.

Civil activist

A. Kharlamov

under psychiatric examination

The journalist and civil activist, Aleksandr Kharlamov was taken into custody on charges of inciting religious hatred during March, 2013. He has undergone psychiatric examination several times during the period of incarceration. Now, the case of Aleksandr Kharlamov is under further investigation.

On 17 October, 2012, a forensic psychological and philological examination concluded the presence of “negative information aimed at inciting religious hatred and discord” in the articles. On 11 March, 2013, further major psychological and philological expertise was sought, which also recognised that certain publications disseminated by Kharlamov, included negative information, designed to stir up religious hatred. However, the examination did not identify any calls for violence against individuals or religious communities in his articles.

In connection with this fact, on 25 January, 2013, a criminal case was instituted under Article 164 section 1 (incitement to religious hatred) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

On 6 February, 2013, the police conducted searches in Aleksandr Kharlamov’s apartment and in the office of the ‘Ridderskiye vesti’ (‘The Ridder news’) newspaper, resulting in the seizure of Aleksandr Kharlamov’s personal computer as well as 7 newspapers containing his articles, which subsequently served as the evidentiary foundation of the prosecutors.

On 14 March, 2013, Aleksandr Kharlamov appeared personally at the police station and demanded that his computer be returned to him, but instead, he was arrested. On 17 March, 2013, a court sanctioned his detention for 2 months.

In the decision to indict him it was stated that “over a period of time, undetermined by the prosecution, A.M. Kharlamov, having studied world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, has given his own interpretation of religious systems”. Aleksandr Kharlamov has laid out his philosophical views in publications. Next, the investigator states, “Being aware of the fact that his opinion is fundamentally opposed to the opinion and belief of the majority of religious people, and his actions may bring about adverse effects in the form of religious enmity and hatred and will result in a negative attitude among people towards religions, which might lead to a conflict between the people, A.M. Kharlamov has nevertheless decided to publish his ‘works’”. Aleksandr Kharlamov published his rhetoric in the media, which, in the opinion of the investigator, “could have changed the thinking and behaviour of a certain category of citizens”. 

For nearly a month, from 29 April, 2013 to 27 May, 2013, Aleksander Kharlamov was subjected to forced psychiatric examination at the National Research Centre of Psychiatry, Psychology and Addiction in Almaty. According to Kharlamov, the cell and the conditions, under which he was detained in the psychiatric hospital, were not dissimilar to those in the prison; for safety reasons, he was not permitted to wear glasses or even possess a toothbrush. The psychiatric examination concluded that Aleksandr Kharlamov was sane and of sound mental health. However, the charges against him were not dropped, and therefore, further stay in custody awaited him.

On 11 June, 2013, Aleksandr Kharlamov was transported under escort from the city of Almaty to the detention centre in the city of Ridder.

On 1 July, 2013, an 11-page indictment was drawn up in Aleksandr Kharlamov’s case and was subsequently filed in court.

2. The court trial

 The trial of Aleksandr Kharlamov commenced on 19 July, 2013. The trial was open to the public; however, Judge Kairbek Elemesov banned journalists from taking photos in the courtroom. At the first hearing, Aleksandr Kharlamov stated that he considered himself completely innocent. 

According to Kharlamov, the cell and the conditions, under which he was detained in the psychiatric hospital, were not dissimilar to those in the prison; for safety reasons, he was not permitted to wear glasses or even possess a toothbrush.

On the first day of the trial, prosecutor Rustam Sadvokasov read out the indictment against Aleksandr Kharlamov. In its conclusive part, one statement, when referring to the results of psychological and philological examination, was repeated several times:

“The presence of negative and critical evaluation in the materials, due to the heterogeneity of the audience, i.e. the readers, to whom the materials are addressed, their different cultural background, educational level, world view and life experience may lead to a point where the analysed texts achieve not only a functional effect, but also a dysfunctional effect, resulting in the formation of a negative and critical attitude towards the existing religious system and religion in general”.   This means that, in fact, Aleksandr Kharlamov was accused of having a negative attitude towards religion, and that this attitude may be adopted by people who read his publications.

At the first hearing, Aleksandr Kharlamov’s spouse, Marina Kaplunskaya, was interviewed as a witness. During the cross-examination, the judge asked about her own attitude to religion. “I was asked whether I believe in God, go to church, and whether I baptised my children”, – Marina Kaplunskaya testified.

On 2 August, 2013, the second hearing was held. Counsel Magauiya Taukenov filed a motion, requesting a change of the measure of Kharlamov’s restraint for  the period of the trial from arrest to house arrest, citing the poor health condition of the 63-year-old defendant. The judge dismissed the motion on the grounds that Article 164 of the Criminal Code, under which Kharlamov is accused, pertains to a serious criminal offence.

At trial, Magauiya Taukenov also read out the findings of an independent assessment, which concluded that Aleksandr Kharlamov’s publications bear no signs of incitement to religious hatred.  During the hearing, on 7 August, 2013, the judge attached the findings to Aleksandr Kharlamov’s case file.

On 9 August, 2013, during the pleadings of the parties, the prosecutor sought the punishment of 4 years’ imprisonment for Aleksandr Kharlamov.

This fact caused a surge of criticism aimed at Kazakhstan from international and Kazakh civil society. On 13 August, 2013, on the request of the Prosecutor’s Office, the judge transferred the case file for further investigation, but on 3 September, 2013, he ruled to change the measure of restraint for Aleksandr Kharlamov from arrest to house arrest. This was done  in accordance with a request made by the prosecutor. Lest we forget that the petition of the counsel, requesting that the measure of restraint be changed from arrest to house arrest, filed one month previously, was dismissed.

On 4 September, 2013, Aleksandr Kharlamov was released from the Ust-Kamenogorsk detention centre.

3. Human rights defenders elaborate on the ungrounded criminal prosecution of the civil activist

Human rights defenders believe that the true reason behind the oppression of Kharlamov is his active engagement in human rights work. Before his arrest, Aleksandr Kharlamov provided legal assistance and consultations to residents of the city of Ridder regarding matters relating to illegal acts of the local authorities. He also published his investigative reports in the media, exposing corruption in the city. Shortly before his arrest, Aleksandr Kharlamov wrote an article about a high-profile court case in the city of Ridder, in which he gave a negative assessment of the actions of the judge and the prosecutor. It was after the article had been published that Aleksandr Kharlamov began to have problems with the law

The journalist is supported by:

  • The Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law
  • The human rights foundation ‘Liberty’
  • ‘Reporters Without Borders’
  • ‘Human Rights Watch’
  • The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
  • The Open Dialog Foundation

The Head of the Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Yevgeniy  Zhovtis, sharply criticised the criminal investigation and trial against Aleksandr Kharlamov: “In the modern civilised world, it is impossible to imagine that a man is tried only because of his negative attitude towards religion. Moreover, it is unacceptable to base charges on the findings of linguists and psychologists. They are not lawyers and therefore, they cannot assess the presence of elements of a crime, and their subjective evaluations are beyond the area of legal conclusions”. Additionally, Yevgeniy Zhovtis drew attention to the fact that both the psychological and philological reports from the examinations of Kharlamov (of 17 October, 2012 and 11 March, 2013) contain the same expressions, even though they were supposed to have been carried out independently and objectively.

The head of the human rights foundation ‘Liberty’, Galim Ageleuov, who was present at the trial as an observer, expressed his opinion about the criminal case against Aleksandr Kharlamov: “Kharlamov’s actions cannot contain any serious elements of a crime, as they constitute his personal assessment of religion… There have been no complaints filed by believers… it was solely the initiative of the police, which considered it necessary to initiate the criminal case”.

Aleksandr Kharlamov’s forced incarceration in a psychiatric clinic acutely raised the question of the existence of punitive psychiatry in Kazakhstan. This is not the first time that civil society activists have been remanded in a psychiatric clinic in Kazakhstan.

Also, the decision on Zinaida Mukhortova’s stay in the mental hospital in the town of Balkhash (Karaganda Province) is yet to be announced. On 20 August, 2013, the Balkhash city court handed down a ruling to grant the motion filed by the prosecutor’s office who had requested the compulsory treatment of the human rights activist(she has stayed in the clinic since 9 August, 2013, when she was forcibly admitted for psychiatric examination).

On 2 September, 2013, the medical consultation commission of the Karaganda Province Health Department issued a medical opinion stating that Zinaida Muhortova does not require compulsory treatment. However, the human rights activist is still in the clinic, as the doctors of the institution consider Mukhortova mentally unhealthy.

The criminal, and later, psychiatric persecution of Zinaida Mukhortova began back in 2009. Then, she was one of the authors of a letter addressed to Nursultan Nazarbayev, which reported illegal actions of the then, member of the Majilis, Erlan Nigmatulin (his brother, Nurlan Nigmatulin, is currently the Chairman of the Majilis of the Kazakh Parliament). A criminal case “for filing misleading information about the commission of a corruption offence” (Article 351, section 2 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan) was instituted against Mukhortova. The court deemed Mukhortova guilty of criminal responsibility but she was released, as, on the basis of a comprehensive inpatient psychiatric examination, she was referred to a psychiatric hospital for compulsory treatment.

On 26 July, 2012, the Balkhash City Court handed down a decision to dismiss a case against Zinaida Mukhortova and free her from coercive measures of a medical nature.  Now, the oppression of the human rights defender continues.

On 9 September, 2013, the international organisation ‘Front Line Defenders’ issued a statement, expressing its concern over the fact that Zinaida Mukhortova’s forced stay in the mental hospital is a consequence of her civic engagement.

4. The reaction of the international community

It is unknown how the case of Aleksandr Kharlamov would have developed if it hadn’t been for the close monitoring of events carried out by Kazakh and international human rights activists.

The international human rights organisations: ‘Reporters Without Borders’ and ‘Human Rights Watch’ stood up in defence of the civil activist, urging the authorities of Kazakhstan to drop the charges of incitement to religious hatred, presented to Kharlamov. “This is not the first time that the authorities are using Article 164 in order to suppress peaceful criticism. They also cruelly send people for forced psychiatric examination. Kharlamov should be released immediately and charges against him should be dropped“,- stated Mira Rittmann, representative of ‘Human Rights Watch’ for Central Asia.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged the Kazakh authorities to release the atheist blogger, Aleksandr Kharlamov from custody. The organisation believes that the case of Kharlamov (along with the case of the protestant pastor of the church ‘Grace’, Bahtzhan Kashkumbayev) damaged the international image of Kazakhstan in the sphere of freedom of religion.

Aleksandr Kharlamov himself considers that he was released only due to the wide publicity of his case in the mass media and the intervention of both the Kazakh and international community. The civil society activist stated that he was not going to change his views. “As soon as I go back to Ridder, I will go to the investigator to collect my computer. I will keep writing, as throughout this time, many things accumulated which I want to write about“, – announced Aleksandr Kharlamov.

Despite the release of Aleksandr Kharlamov from custody, the criminal case against him is still open, and he still has the status of ‘accused’. In violation of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which guarantees the right not to profess any religion, the Ridder civil activist faces up to 10 years in prison.

The Open Dialog Foundation hereby calls on the authorities of Kazakhstan to drop all charges against Aleksandr Kharlamov. We also call on the local and international community to continue to demand that the competent authorities of the Republic of Kazakhstan promptly withdraw all charges against Aleksandr Kharlamov.

You are welcome to send your appeals to the following addresses:

  • The Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Kazakhstan – 010000, Republic of Kazakhstan, Astana, 1 Tauelsizdik Prospekt. Tel.: +7 (7172) 71-40-12 (reception room of Marat Demeuov, First Deputy Minister), e-mail: [email protected].
  • The General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Kazakhstan (010000, Astana, House of Ministries, entrance No. 2, 8 Orynborg Street, tel.: +7 (7172) 71-26-20, +7 (7172) 71-28-68);
  • The Commissioner for Human Rights in the Republic of Kazakhstan – 010000, Astana, Left Bank, House of Ministries, entrance No. 15; e-mail: [email protected]. TheCommissionerforHumanRights–A.O. Shakirov, tel. +7 (7172) 74 01 69, Fax: +7 (7172) 74 05 48;
  • The Investigation Division of the state institution ‘Department of the Interior of the City of Ridder’ – 071300, Ridder, 8 Tokhtarova Street, the police investigator, captain A.R. Turakpayev, tel:  +7 (7233) 64-41-00, +7 (7233) 64-31-17.