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Kazakhstan: Recently Released Political Prisoner Aron Atabek Dies In Hospital – OpEd

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We at International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) are deeply shocked and saddened by the news of the passing of the dissident poet and recently released political prisoner Aron Atabek, in a clinic in Almaty, Kazakhstan. May he rest in peace. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

The news of Aron Atabek’s death was published by his daughter Aidana Aidarkhan in the evening of 24 November. According to his family, Atabek died in the Sunka medical clinic in Almaty, while undergoing treatment following infection with COVID-19. Aron Atabek was released from prison in early October on grounds of poor health. He had served 15 years behind bars on politically motivated charges.

Many believe that Atabek was released in order to be allowed to die in peace at home with his family, thus avoiding an international outcry around a high-profile political prisoner perishing behind bars.

In August 2021, representatives of the National Preventive Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, including a lawyer working with KIBHR, visited Aron Atabek in prison. They found that Atabek’s health had seriously deteriorated – he had lost a lot of weight and complained about pain in his arms and not being able to lift them, as well as having difficulties walking. Atabek himself attributed these health issues to years of torture and ill-treatment.

The reports of Atabek’s poor state of health caused a public outcry, with some Kazakhstani MPs supporting a proposal to grant him amnesty in connection with Kazakhstan’s 30 years of independence celebrations, and human rights defenders petitioned the president to grant him a pardon. On 1 October 2021, the Second Pavlodar Regional Court ruled to change the remainder of Atabek’s prison term to a non-custodial sentence of restriction of freedom, due to his critical state of health. Atabek was then immediately sent to his home city Almaty, from Pavlodar, where he had been incarcerated. The family noted, in a message to the public, that when released Atabek was not given back his personal belongings and the manuscripts that he had written while in prison.

After Atabek arrived in Almaty, Atabek’s daughter announced that he had been diagnosed with pneumonia. Atabek was hospitalised, and fell into a coma for several days. After awaking from the coma, he was unable to eat, had to be fed intravenously, and could only breathe with a ventilator. His daughter Aidana was also refused permission to visit her father in hospital, despite bringing her birth certificate, documenting that she is his daughter. She was only allowed to see him in mid-November.

Aron Atabek was arrested and imprisoned following the Shanyrak uprising in an Almaty suburb in 2006, when he assisted impoverished citizens facing forced evictions during negotiations with the authorities. The events led to the death of a police officer. Following a flawed and politically motivated trial, Atabek was convicted of killing the police officer, despite inconsistent evidence and evidence allegedly extracted under torture. Atabek was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment in a “strict regime” prison. During his time in prison, Atabek was repeatedly subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including by being held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time. Atabek served 15 years of his sentence before having the remainder of it commuted into a non-custodial sentence.

As Kazakhstan’s longest serving political prisoner and a respected and prolific voice of dissent, Kazakhstan and its people has experienced a terrible loss. His legacy will live on with his writing and his supporters.

Aron Atabek’s daughter described in a social media post the conditions of her father’s death. “At the Sunkar clinic, he could no longer speak: there is a hole in his throat and in it a tube to breathe. Earlier, the poet’s hands were taken away so that he could not write. The legs so that he cannot go to his people. His poems, his dissident compositions, this is the monument that he erected for himself during his lifetime.” She also shared his famous poem “My Throat Will Die”.

My Throat Will Die  

My throat, unable to speak, will die

For the sounds of my homeland.

My ancestors’ patter will vanish

Like water into sand.

I am a storyteller of immortality

In Semitic and Etruscan tongues;

I am the dust of Turkic dialects

Writing in Russian.

Many lives’ twisted fates

Are lost inside me, mourning,

And I myself am a naked tangle of nerves

Pulsating with verses

(Translated by Alfia Nakipbekova and Niall McDevitt), poem reprinted from English Pen.

The poem was written by Aron Atabek in Almaty in the 1980s.

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IPHR

International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) is an independent, non-governmental organization founded in 2008. Based in Brussels, IPHR works closely together with civil society groups from different countries to raise human rights concerns at the international level and promote respect for the rights of vulnerable communities.

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