Ukraine will be in direct violation of international law if it extradites Kazakh opposition journalist Zhanara Akhmet
Almost three years after journalist and opposition activist Zhanara Akhmet (or Akhmetova) fled to Ukraine, with her small son, she is in danger of extradition, despite clear grounds for believing she will face political persecution if forcibly returned to Kazakhstan. Prominent Ukrainian human rights groups have condemned the Ukrainian Migration Service for “shutting its eyes to the political context” of Akhmet’s case, and warned that Ukraine would be in violation of international law by extraditing her. Fellow opposition activists in Kazakhstan have also taken the courageous step of issuing a public plea to Ukraine’s leaders to not hand Akhmet over to certain persecution.
Akhmet is a journalist and also one of the leaders of the opposition movement ‘Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan’. Although the Kazakhstani authorities are claiming that their prosecution is in connection with a 7-year sentence from 2009 for ‘fraud’, that sentence had been deferred until her son turns 14 (in 2021). In fact, the sudden decision to drop this deferment and other facts appear to confirm that Akhmet is being persecuted for the journalist and opposition activities that she has been engaged in since 2013. At the beginning of 2017, for example, Akhmet faced three administrative prosecutions and fines for supposed “publications on Facebook of calls to an unauthorized protest”. It was these evidently political prosecutions that were used as the excuse for cancelling the deferment on her sentence.
In March 2017, Akhmet and her son, Ansar arrived in Ukraine and asked for political asylum. The Kazakhstani authorities then declared her on the wanted list over the 2009 sentence.
On 21 October, 2017, two men in plain clothes arrived at Akhmet’s Kyiv flat, claiming to be police officers. They tried to take her away, asserting that she was wanted for ‘fraud’, and ignoring Akhmet’s documents indicating that she was legally present in Ukraine. She called the building’s janitor, the police and also lawyer Vladislav Hryshchenko. On one of the videos she posted, Akhmet pointed out that the men had not explained in whose care her child would be while she was in detention. She told them that she believed she would be abducted and taken to Kazakhstan if she went with them and noted that the men had turned up late on Saturday evening. She believed that the aim was to detain her during the weekend when it would be easier for the Kazakhstan security service to abduct her. There were extremely disturbing aspects of this visitation and of the claimed grounds for seeking her extradition, yet she was taken into custody, and held in detention for some time.
During the detention hearing on 24 October 2017, the prosecutor produced a decision from the Migration Service rejecting her application for asylum. This was dated 18 October 2017, though neither she nor her lawyer had been informed of it. 2 November, 2017, an application from an MP Svitlana Zalishchuk and the Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Oleksandr Pavlichenko for Akhmet to be released on their guarantee was rejected, and the prosecutor’s demand for the full period of extradition arrest allowed. There were distressing scenes in court with Akhmet’s son trying to hug his mother through the glass box that she was held in.
It took until 22 November for the Kyiv Court of Appeal to allow Akhmet’s appeal against the extradition arrest. She was released from custody, with Zalishchuk and UHHRU’s Oleksandr Pavlichenko acting as guarantors.
On 9 January 2018, the Kyiv District Administrative Court allowed Akhmet’s application to have witnesses from Kazakhstan questioned during the appeal against the Kyiv Regional Migration Service’s refusal to grant Akhmet refugee status.
Nonetheless, on 6 April the same court rejected Akhmet’s suit against the Migration Service for refusing her refugee status. Akhmet told Detektor Media that the court hearing had lasted over two hours, during which, in her view, they provided ample proof that she faced political persecution in Kazakhstan. The court took 10 minutes to reject this, asserting that the reason why she had left Kazakhstan was not political and there were no threats.
In September 2018, Zalishchuk reported that Ukraine’s Supreme Court had found the refusal of the Migration Service in her case unlawful. Although Zalishchuk said that they had ordered the Migration Service to grant her asylum, the Court did in fact only oblige them to reconsider their case. This they, purportedly, did, only to again repeat their rejection of her asylum application on 22 December 2018. It failed to even consider the facts that had been mentioned at appeal level and by the Supreme Court.
Akhmet applied to the court for a new review of her application, but this was rejected on 19 September 2019.
A critical appeal hearing is due on 14 January 2020 which will once and for all determine whether Akhmet is entitled to a review of her application to the State Migration Service. If the court decides against her, she could be extradited soon afterwards – to a country where she faces persecution.
In their appeal, Ukrainian NGOs, including UHHRU and the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, point out that Akhmet’s movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, was labelled an ‘extremist’ organization by a Kazakhstan court in March 2018. A year later, in their resolution on human rights in Kazakhstan, the European Parliament spoke of the movement’s peaceful nature. The fact that the movement has been involved in only peaceful protests has not stopped the authorities from detained over six thousand people, including journalists and human rights activists.
There is every reason to believe that the Kazakhstan authorities’ attempts to get Akhmet extradited is politically-motivated, including their own words. The documents for her indictment actually call her “the leader of a banned movement”, and several Kazakhstani activists are facing criminal prosecution for reposting material from Akhmet’s Facebook page. There are equally strong grounds for believing that she would be subjected to torture if forcibly returned.
As reported here, there have been repeated occasions where the Ukrainian authorities have handed people over to countries where they face persecution, including Timur Tumgoev, a citizen of the Russian Federation who had defended Ukraine in Donbas, Russian opposition activist Vladimir Yegorov, former Belarusian political prisoner Alexander Frantskevich, Amina Babaeva, who was abducted and handed over to the Russian FSB, and others.
The appeal ends with a very clear warning to Ukraine’s authorities. “Zhanara Akhmet is facing political persecution for expressing her views and for her opposition activities. In Kazakhstan, she faces torture and an unfair trial. Under such circumstances extradition is inadmissible. This is stipulated, for example, in the UN Convention against Torture; the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees; the European Convention on Human Rights; the European Convention on Extradition; the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Ukraine is a party to all of these agreements and Akhmet’s extradition would therefore be a direct violation of Ukraine’s international commitments”.