Bigeldy Gabdullin, journalist and President of the Kazakh PEN Club, was detained on November 15, 2016, and formally arrested on November 16, on charges of extortion. The international community views his arrest as suspicious, as the charges came one day after he expressed support for Seytkazy Matayev, and on the heels of his publishing reports critical of government officials’ business dealings. On January 24, 2017, Gabdullin pled guilty and was sentenced to 5 years of probationary supervision; he was released the same day.

Case History

In addition to his work as a journalist, Gabdullin is a prominent novelist, essayist, and translator. He is the author of Serious Conversation (2007), the award-winning The Great Nomads (2011) and more than 300 journalistic articles. He has also translated into Russian the works of several Kazakh authors. In 2015, under his leadership, the Kazakh PEN Club launched a series called “We the Kazakh People,” aiming to translate Kazakh authors into English in order to bring Kazakh literature to the attention of a wider international audience.

In the 1990s, Gabdullin became a well-known figure in Kazakhstan through his leadership of the TV Channel Tan, the newspapers Novoe Pokolenie (New Generation) and the opposition weekly XXI Vek (21st Century), and his position as deputy chairman of the Republican People’s Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK) under then-Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. However, in October 2000 he came to the authorities’ attention as the editor of XXI Vek for publishing critical articles about President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Gabdullin was charged with criminal defamation for two articles in the October 20 issue which alleged that the president was involved in corruption; according to prosecution, Gabdullin “aimed at harming the honor and dignity of the President.” The case was dismissed in April 2001 due to “absence of [a] crime,” but due to continued harassment and legal defamation cases (including a 5 million tenge fine in January 2001–about US$34,500 at the time–for slandering a company owned by the president’s son-in-law, and the eventual shutdown of the newspaper XXI Vek) he fled Kazakhstan for the United States later in 2001.

Gabdullin returned to Kazakhstan in 2004, seemingly a changed man: he offered his apologies to the government and no longer actively opposed their policies. His relationship with the government healed, he received the Prize of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the field of journalism in 2008, and in the spring of 2016 he was elected to the city council of Almaty as a member of Our Otan, the ruling party. Upon his return in 2004, he founded the socio-political newspaper Central Asia Monitor, and in 2013 he founded Radiotochka.kz, an online news portal. Although his new publications were not opposition papers, he continued to publish the occasional piece about government officials, refusing to back off completely. In 2013 he became the president of the Kazakh PEN Club.

On November 15, 2016, Bigeldy Gabdullin was detained and on November 16 he was arrested under Article 128 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on Investigative Detention. He is being held under a two-month pre-trial detention order, the longest period allowable under Kazakh law, concurrent with the ongoing pre-trial investigation. In the Temporary Detention Facility of the Department of Internal Affairs in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, he is reportedly only allowed communication with his lawyer, and no family members are able to see or speak to him. His lawyer appealed against the detention order but the appeal was denied on November 24.

Gabdullin is accused of extortion of government officials through the use of his media resources. According to Kazakhstan’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, he has “launched an information attack on heads of state bodies” by publishing negative articles damaging their reputation. In order to stop the criticism officials were forced to lobby on behalf of Gabdullin’s mass media outlets for government contracts known as state orders, at which point, if successful, his publications would print “exclusively positive material about their activities.”

On January 24, 2017, Gabdullin pled guilty to the extortion of 22 million tenge (about $66,000) from various Kazakh government entities. He was sentenced to five years of probationary supervision without confiscation of property. Gabdullin was also deprived of the right to hold positions in local government and management positions in private companies for 10 years. He was released after sentencing.