The release of Bigeldy Gabdullin, president of Kazakh PEN and well-known journalist, is welcome news although concerns remain about the grounds for his arrest and the environment for free expression in Kazakhstan, PEN America said in a statement.

On January 24, 2017, Gabdullin pled guilty to the extortion of 22 million tenge (about $66,000) from various Kazakh government entities. He is accused of blackmailing state bodies with the publication of negative articles about their work in his news outlets Central Asia Monitor and According to a representative of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the purpose of the alleged blackmail was to pressure these state bodies to place more orders with Gabdullin’s media companies.

Gabdullin pled guilty and 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.

PEN America remains concerned about the dire situation regarding freedom of expression in Kazakhstan. On October 3, 2016, Seitkazy Mataev, the chair of the National Press Club of Kazakhstan and owner of the independent news agency KazTag, and his son Aset Matayev, director of KazTag, were sentenced to six and five years in prison respectively for the same charges related to state bodies faced by Gabdullin. Both denied the charges, which they said were intended to stop their independent reporting.

Also in 2016, well-known independent journalist Guzyal Baidalinova, owner of the online news site, spent almost seven months in prison before she was released when the Court of Appeals suspended her 18-month prison sentence for “deliberately publishing false information” about a bank. Several bloggers have also received prison sentences or been placed under house arrest in the last year.