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Trial of opposition activist Marat Zhylanbaev opens behind closed doors


On October 30 the trial of Marat Zhylanbaev, leader of the opposition party “Alga, Kazakhstan!”, opened in Astana. During this preliminary hearing, the defendant wished to open the trial to the public, but the court refused. Zhylanbaev and his lawyer denounced the court’s decision and its arguments.

Next hearing is said to be held on November 2.

An ultra-marathon runner who became an opponent

Marat Zhylanbaev is a 60 years old former world-famous Kazakh marathon runner. After retiring from his sport career, during which he set several world records, he got engaged in politics in his home country. There, as an opposition activist, he began to protest against the repressive regime in Kazakhstan, calling for democratic reforms and criticizing the authorities.

Since 2016 he was finned, arrested and detained several times for attending peaceful protests against government policies. After the bloody January 2022 events, Zhylanbaev founded his own opposition party, Alga, Kazakhstan! (“Forward, Kazakhstan!”). The registration process for new political parties remains almost closed despite President Tokayev modernization promises, therefore all 17 requests submitted to register Alga, Kazakhstan! were rejected.

Marat Zhylanbaev attempted to run as a self-nominated candidate in February 2023 parliamentary elections. His campaign was however deemed “illegal” and terminated by authorities after he asked for donations to pay candidate registration fees on social media.

The May 2023 arrest and the beginning of the prosecution

On 17 March 2023, Alga, Kazakhstan! held a peaceful protest in front of the OSCE office in Astana, calling for the registration of opposition parties and the release of political prisoners held in Kazakhstan, as well as the imposition of sanctions against Kazakh authorities for helping Russia bypass sanctions related to the war in Ukraine.

A month and a half later, on May the 3rd, Marat Zhylanbaev was arrested and placed in a 20-day long detention for organizing March 17 protest without authorization. The 25th of May, after his sentence came to its end, Zhylanbaev was not released but instead remanded to pre-trial detention on spurious criminal charges. The initial two-months pre-detention period was later prolonged.

The criminal case engaged against him falls under two charges: “coordination and participation in the activities of an organization banned for extremism or terrorism” and “financing and facilitating extremist or terrorist activities”. Zhylanbaev is incriminated for his links with the banned movement DCK and with the activist in exile Mukhtar Ablyazov, as well as for financially helping another activist to run for March 2023 elections. Mr.’s Zhylanbaev lawyer also says he has been accused of “discrediting the government” and “calling for a change in the constitutional order” because he peacefully advocated for a parliamentary form of government instead of the presidential one currently in place in Kazakhstan.

If found guilty of the charges brought against him, which have been recognized to be politically motivated, he could face a lengthy prison sentence.