A campaign is underway to free the Kazakh opposition writer Aron Atabek, who is serving an 18-year jail sentence after championing the cause of the shanty-town dwellers of Shanyrak, near Almaty, who resisted violent clearance of their homes in 2006.
Atabek’s sentencing in 2007 was a grim forerunner of the clampdown on oil worker activists and those who spoke out in their defence in 2012, the writer’s family points out. Askar Aidarkhan, Atabek’s son, has said that “what is happening in Kazakhstan now [in the aftermath of the Zhanaozen massacre] follows on from what happened at Shanyrak”.
Atabek was jailed along with 23 other activists and shanty-town dwellers, who were sentenced to between one and 14 years on a variety of charges.
In addition to his original sentence for “orchestrating mass disorder”, Atabek
was last year sentenced to two years of solitary confinement for “insubordination” to the prison authorities.
In December 2012, as Atabek was transferred back to the Arkalyk prison in Kostanai region to serve the two years, Aidarkhan wrote to international campaign groups urging them to protest against his ill treatment.
Pen International has taken up Atabek’s case, publicising his writings the world over and co-ordinating a campaign demanding his release from solitary confinement. In November 2013, it was reported that Atabek had been returned to an ordinary prison.
Aidarkhan says that his father’s health is suffering, and that he feared for his father’s life after the recent on-line publication of a book by him criticising Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev and other powerful figures in Kazakhstan. Since being jailed in 2007, Atabek has frequently been deprived of proper food and water, deprived of access to fresh air and sunlight, deprived of access to sports facilities, deprived of writing materials – and had manuscripts confiscated.
Atabek became a political activist in Soviet times, and has been a vocal critic of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev since then. In December 1986 he participated in the Zheltoksan demonstration, the first open protest against Soviet dictatorship to be held in Kazakhstan, and afterwards campaigned for the truth about those killed when the security services broke it up.
In 1992, shortly after Kazakhstan became independent, Atabek became active in “national patriotic” political groups. He was given political asylum in Azerbaijan after publishing opposition newspapers, and returned to Kazakhstan in 1996.
But it was Atabek’s outspoken defence of the shanty-town dwellers at Shanryak – whose homes were destroyed in a violent, illegal police operation – that finally moved the regime to take revenge on him.
Shanyrak became a sanctuary for homeless families during the rapid expansion of Almaty in the early 2000s. It is estimated that when it was destroyed it comprised more than 2000 dwellings with up to 10,000 residents.
The notorious clearance of Shanyrak took place shortly after the promulgation on 5 July 2006 of the law “On Amnesty and Legalisation of Property”. The city authorities, citing shanty-town dwellers’ failure to register their properties correctly, ordered them to leave. Atabek and other oppositionists argued that the real reason was that the authorities wanted to make the land available to property developers.
Atabek lobbied parliamentarians, wrote articles, organised petitions and reminded the shanty-town dwellers of constitutional rights that protected them. But pleas by Atabek and other activists went unheeded. The police tried to clear the shanty-town forcibly, and a violent clash ensued in which a police officer died. A round-up of activists followed.
Atabek was tried and convicted in October 2007 of “orchestrating mass disorder” – despite there being no evidence that he was nearby when the clashes occurred. Atabek was offered a pardon in exchange for admitting guilt, but he vehemently refused.
Atabek has continued to write in prison, detailing illegal and inhumane prison conditions on his website, aronatabek.com, set up by friends and family to whom he sent his writings. (Temporarily down at the time of writing.) There’s also information in the International Times and elsewhere.