Debevoise and Clooney Foundation Seek Justice for Kazakh Journalist Aigul Utepova and Call for Reform of Anti-Extremism Laws

27 April 2022

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP has partnered with the Clooney Foundation for Justice (“CFJ”) to file a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee on behalf of Kazakh journalist, Aigul Utepova. Ms. Utepova is one of the many journalists and others in Kazakhstan who have suffered from the State’s abuse of its anti-extremism laws.

Ms. Utepova is an independent journalist regularly reporting on the political opposition in Kazakhstan, including on social media. Following years of harassment by the police, Ms. Utepova was arrested in September 2020, committed to a psychiatric institution against her will and then placed under house arrest. After a blatantly unfair trial, Ms. Utepova was convicted under Article 405 of the Kazakh Criminal Code for “participation” in opposition movements that were banned as “extremis[t]” in unpublished court decisions. Ms. Utepova was sentenced to restricted freedom in the form of house arrest, banned from working as a journalist and accessing her bank account. Her appeal was denied in June 2021.

For years, Kazakhstan has been using its anti-extremism laws to prosecute speech critical of the Government. In particular, it has used Article 405, which criminalizes “participation” in an “extremis[t]” organization but nowhere defines the term “participation,” and Law No. 31-III “On Countering Extremism,” which contains a broad definition of “extremism.” In effect, these two anti-extremism laws, when read together, enable Kazakhstan to transform harmless and non-violent speech into an extremism offense.

The complaint argues that Ms. Utepova’s conviction violates international human rights law, including her rights to (1) freedom of expression, (2) liberty and security, (3) fair trial, (4) peaceful assembly, and (5) freedom from unlawful or arbitrary interference with privacy. The complaint also requests that her conviction be reversed and calls on the Committee to urge Kazakhstan to reform or repeal its anti-extremism laws.

Debevoise’s partnership with CFJ is part of CFJ’s TrialWatch® initiative, which monitors criminal trials globally against those who are most vulnerable—journalists, women, LGBTQ+ persons and minorities—and advocates for the rights of the unfairly convicted. TrialWatch monitored Ms. Utepova’s trial and published a report available here.

Stephen Townley, Legal Director of the TrialWatch® initiative at CFJ, said: “The Human Rights Committee should not only find that Kazakhstan has violated Ms. Utepova’s rights, but also build on its prior findings and order reforms of the country’s anti-extremism laws.”

Catherine Amirfar, Debevoise partner and Co-Chair of the International Dispute Resolution Group, who also serves as Deputy Co-Chair of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, said: “The team at Debevoise is honored to join TrialWatch to represent Ms. Utepova, who—like many journalists in Kazakhstan—has suffered from the Kazakh Government’s abuse of its anti-extremism laws. We hope this communication presents Kazakhstan with an opportunity to reform its laws to ensure that independent journalists are not maliciously prosecuted for exercising their right of free expression.”

The Debevoise team is led by partner Catherine Amirfar, counsel Floriane Lavaud, and associate Alma Mozetič, and includes associates Olga Nesterova, Matthew French, Michelle Huang, and law clerk Clara Correa. For more information on CFJ’s TrialWatch® initiative, please see here.