Individual Cases

Max Bokayev: In Kazakhstan, peacefully defending land rights earns a ticket to a penal colony

*Update: Max Bokayev was released on February 4, 2021, after completing a five-year sentence in a penal colony

For Max Bokayev, this is a week of anniversaries. Last Sunday, he turned 46. Today marks three years since he was arrested for announcing on social media his intention to peacefully demonstrate. According to the court that sentenced him in November 2016, this was equal to no less than “institution of social discord”, “dissemination of knowingly false information”, and “violation of the procedure of organisation and holding of meetings, rallies, pickets, street processions and demonstrations.” Max expects to spend another two birthdays in a penal colony.

Max was sentenced to five years in prison plus a three-year ban on engaging in social activities, then, in violation of Kazakh law, dispatched to a penal colony in Petropavlovsk, at the other end of a country that is the ninth largest in the world. His elderly mother and sisters could visit him twice a year, which meant a complicated trip lasting three to four days to reach the place.

Then, all contact with his family, even by phone, was banned after Max refused to do morning exercises by -26 C.

Kazakh authorities do not take expressions of dissent lightly, despite the right to participate in rallies or demonstrations being enshrined in Article 32 of the Constitution. As recently noted by the European Parliament, Max’s case is very far from an isolated one. But it certainly didn’t help that Max, one of the most prominent environmental activists in the country, was taking issue – alongside hundreds of other protesters – with legislation allowing the transfer of agricultural land to foreign entities, a lucrative and strategic matter for the authorities.

Max Bokayev’s strong sense of justice started in childhood. So did his passion for human rights and the environment. “He was always the protector, ever since he was a small boy”, says a relative. His activism led him to every front, a strong voice among those courageous enough to ask for transparency from the extractive industry, for freedom of the press, a free internet, or to challenge the practice of torture in prisons. He led Arlan (which means“the wolf leading the pack”), an NGO focusing on public scrutiny of the government’s actions and on environmental protection, particularly the operations by oil companies. He taught himself English, and avidly read whatever book he could lay his hands on, earning a reputation for “encyclopaedic knowledge”.

Max’s peaceful activism had brought him in the crosshairs of officialdom before May 2016, but at that point the reaction of the authorities reached a new threshold. Three days after his arrest, officers raided the house of Max’s mother, who was 75 at the time, breaking her door and manhandling her.

The initial sentence against Max was confirmed by a higher court, and the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan dismissed the application for review filed by his defence team.

In August 2017, following a submission byOMCT and the FIDH, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Max’s detention to be arbitrary, related to his “exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly” and thus contrary to international law, and asked for his immediate release and appropriate compensation.

Twenty-one months later, however, Max is still detained. His mother’s and sister’s journey to visit him is now shorter – 15 hours – as he was recently transferred to a penal colony closer to home. But his health is poor, as he suffers from chronic hepatitis C and a spinal disc condition, which have further deteriorated in detention. OMCT, Kadyr Kassiyet (Dignity), the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR), and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and have brought his case to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. As Kazakhstan will be heading to the polls to elect a new president in June, an innocent man is wasting away in prison.