During the 2021’s Write for Rights Campaign thousands of concerned people took action in support of Temirlan Ensebek, a 25-year-old blogger from Almaty, Kazakhstan. In classrooms and groups all over the world, young and old people learned about his story and wrote letters in his defence. Why? Because he was unjustly prosecuted by his government for running a satirical Instagram account.
In April 2021, Temirlan started his blog Qaznews24, a mock account of non-existent news that quickly gained popularity. The blog was active online only for three weeks, yet in this short time it gained more than 5,000 subscribers. Temirlan’s publications were viewed more than a million times, a huge number for Kazakhstan with a population of 18 million people. Some of the most popular posts addressed poverty, corruption, and discrimination.
Temirlan had no political agenda, he just wanted to show the absurdity of some news broadcasted by official TV channels. On his Instagram page he had a disclaimer warning that the news was a parody and not real. Despite that, the police officers searched his house, seized his laptop, two mobile phones and a modem, and took him to the police station where they subjected him to a five-hour interrogation. He was threatened and investigated for spreading ‘deliberately false information’, a criminal offense punishable by a fine of approximately 17,000 euros or imprisonment for up to three years.
Amnesty has been running a Human Rights Education (HRE) project in Central Asia since 2019 and established good relationships with civil society organizations in Kazakhstan, including Public Foundation Erkindik Qanaty and Public Fund Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan. It was their suggestion to choose Temirlan’s case for the regional Write for Rights campaign. This inclusive and participatory approach was identified by all partners as the key to its success.
And as a key part of the campaign, Amnesty developed an educational activity that was implemented by educators and facilitators all over Europe and Central Asia. More than 4,000 children and young people who participated in the educational events learnt about Temirlan’s story and decided to show solidarity with Temirlan by writing him letters.
“The activity was aimed at high schoolers and unpacked the right to freedom of expression. Satire or satirical news against the government do not usually endanger anyone; parody against corruption, and other societal problems can be an important means of expressing your opinion and communicating ideas on matters of public interest. Writing letters of solidarity to Temirlan and petitions to authorities were integral parts of the educational activity”, explains Stasya Denisova, Human Rights Education Coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.
Within a year of being featured in the Write for Rights Campaign, the criminal investigation against Temirlan was stopped. On 22 July 2022, the Prosecutor General of Almaty closed the investigation, and the court fully agreed with the arguments of the defence and of an independent expert who confirmed that “political satire cannot be qualified as fake news or disinformation with intent to harm society.”
All the letters that I received from all over the world gave me strength and support! I considered the closure of the case as a victory and a triumph of justice.Temirlan
Ahead of the 2022 W4R campaign launch, Temirlan joined Amnesty’s HRE training workshop in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and shared his personal experience of surveillance, intimidation, fear of prosecution and how the campaign had helped him. Temirlan’s testimony bolstered a civil society increasingly under threat in the region. Activists from other Central Asia countries, facing similar threats to their liberty for exercising their right to speak out, found great inspiration in Temirlan’s story of resilience in the face of persecution and ultimate triumph.
Stasya Denisova highlighted how “Education plus action equals transformative power; and storytelling is a powerful HRE approach. If combined with an opportunity to take human rights actions for protagonists of these stories, it can change their lives and reinforce our commitment to human rights”.