Colleague says assault on Lukpan Ahmedyarov meant as strong message to anyone thinking of voicing dissent.
Media organisations in Kazakstan and abroad have urged the authorities to launch an immediate investigation into a near-fatal attack on Lukpan Ahmedyarov, a reporter in the northwest of the country.
Ahmedyarov, who reports for the Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper in the city of Uralsk, was shot twice and stabbed several times by three assailants near his home on the evening of April 19.
He was initially fighting for his life in intensive care, but has since regained consciousness and is able to speak.
Local prosecution officers looking into the case were quick to decide that Ahmedyarov was a victim of random violence, and that the attack had nothing to do with his work as a journalist.
Yet he himself told investigators that he might have been assaulted because of a report he wrote on corruption and nepotism among local government officials, published in February.
One of the officials mentioned in that article had filed a libel suit against Ahmedyarov, with the first court hearing due on April 27.
If Ahmedyarov’s suspicions prove accurate, it will not be the first time he has been targeted for criticising the authorities.
In 2009, he was sacked from his job as a TV journalst because his reporting was deemed too critical. Last year, he was sentenced to five days in jail for taking part in a demonstration against a referendum to extend President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s term in office.
Last month, he was among the organisers of a public meeting of activists and journalists to mark 100 days since police opened fire on demonstrators in the western town of Janaozen, leaving 14 people dead.
IWPR asked his colleague Sanat Urnaliev, a freelance independent journalist in Uralsk, to comment on the likely motive for an attack that Kazakstan’s culture and information minister Darkhan Mynbai has called “an act of savagery”.
Sanat Urnaliev: The particular brutality of this attack on Lukpan can be explained – they clearly wanted to kill him.
Lukpan has been writing since 2001, and has consistently criticised the authorities. He’s always provided a solid assessment of the political situation.
Over the last two months, he’s been actively involved in mobilising people for monthly meetings of dissidents, activists who are unhappy about the social and political situation in this country. He’s done so because journalistic investigations into the illegal actions of representatives of the authorities have become pointless. He’s moved from words to actions, organising peaceful protest meetings, flash-mobs and other non-violent forms of protest.
Since then, he’s been constantly followed, harassed by police who detained him using drinking and driving as a pretect, and more. Just before the attempted murder, his wife was threatened with dismissal unless she could get him to “end his involvement in politics”.
IWPR: Given Ahmedyarov’s work and his activism, there are few doubts that there is a link between this attack and his work as a critical journalist. Who exactly would want to silence him?
Urnaliev: It’s definitely the local authorities, local political groups and law-enforcement agencies who are behind this assassination attempt. It was ordered for political reasons.
IWPR: Tamara Kaleeva, head of the media rights group Adil Soz, has warned that journalists could be picked off in targeted killing unless they stand together and say such attacks must end. How dangerous is the situation for journalists? And does this attack reflect some recent political developments?
Urnaliev: Such appeals for unity among the journalistic community are mainly just words. Journalists in Kazakstan are disunited. Most of them work for the powers that be, some are with the opposition, and then there are independent journalists like Lukpan. If someone is in trouble, it’s usually the latter group who come out in support, as they are the ones who get threatened.
The political situation in this country is reminiscent of the repression of the Soviet period, when anyone who held different views or expressed their opinions, let alone engaging in opposition activity, was subjected to pressure, persecution, attacks, assassination attempts and illegal incarceration.
Under such circumstances, it becomes unbearable and extremely dangerous to be a journalist.
IWPR: Calling on the Kazak authorities to conduct transparent investigations and fair trials generally proves ineffective, particularly when government critics are targeted. Is there anything that might force them to take Ahmedyarov’s case seriously?
Urnaliev: The fact that before an investigation had even been launched, [prosecution] officers said this was the work of hooligans and in no way related to Lukpan’s profession is an indication that this case won’t be investigated in a fair and objective way. It would be absurd to expect that from the people who were persecuting Lukpan in the first place.
The only hope is that the president is unaware of the wrongdoing by people who represent the authorities in the regions. Unless he personally issues orders to track down the perpetrators and those who ordered the attack, the whole thing will be swept under the carpet.
If local officials tell their superiors that Lukpan was organising people to take part in protests, there is no chance at all. Not only will the perpetrators avoid punishment, they will be rewarded.
Vocal complaints from the media community in Kazakstan won’t have any effect. International human rights organisations exert no influence on the Kazak authorities.
IWPR: How likely is it that something similar could happen to others, for example journalists, activists who openly express criticism in Kazakstan?
Urnaliev: What happened to Lukpan can happen to any citizen of Kazakstan, not just journalists. The message that’s being sent out to the wider public is this – do whatever you like, but don’t get involved in politics, and don’t voice discontent.
Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.
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