Blasphemy with prison sentencesKazakhstan’s “religious hatred” law includes a ban on offending “religious feelings”, which has been used in fact to bring prosecutions for what should be legitimate free speech.

Despite broad constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression, the right is limited on religious issues by Criminal Code Article 164, Part 1, in terms that are unclear and wide-ranging. Article 164 criminalises:

“Deliberate actions aimed at the incitement of social, national, clan, racial, or religious enmity or antagonism, or at offence to the national honour and dignity, or religious feelings of citizens, as well as propaganda of exclusiveness, superiority, or inferiority of citizens based on their attitude towards religion, or their genetic or racial belonging, if these acts are committed publicly or with the use of the mass information media.”

Punishments for violating Article 164 range from a fine to imprisonment of up to seven years and have been used in practice to prosecute the non-religious ostensibly for “religious hatred”.

For example, on March 14, 2013, atheist writer and anti-corruption campaigner Aleksandr Kharlamov was arrested for “inciting religious hatred”. The indictment against him claimed that Kharlamov “in his articles on newspapers and the internet put his personal opinions above the opinions and faith of the majority of the public and thus incited religious animosity”. Kharlamov states that “the principle of freedom of conscience has been violated. “I have the right to believe, and I have the right not to believe. They’re making me believe, show respect toward religion, respect God. What is this, a theocratic state? No. So [it is] violating my rights.”

In a step reminiscent of Soviet-era abuses of the psychiatric system, Kharlamov was confined to a psychiatric hospital for “psychiatric evaluation” of his opinions and writings on religion. Kharlamov reportedly lost 20 kgs during just the first three months of his incarceration. He was detained for five months including one month of forced psychiatric examination. He has since been released on bail, Kharlamov himself believes due to international pressure on the Kazakhstani government, but still faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.