Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Aktobe Regional Court, Kazakhstan, upheld a limitation on a human rights activist’s freedom of movement after she refused to publicly apologize for language used in a confidential report that criticized the administration of a Center for the Adaptation of Juveniles (Center). In 2014, Ms. Abdirova, as a member of a committee responsible for monitoring preventative measures against torture, co-authored a monitoring report that declared that the Center’s administration had “fallen into depravity.” In 2016, the Director of the Center successfully filed a defamation complaint against Ms. Abdirova for the use of the word “depravity,” arguing that it implied that the she was sexually deviant and morally corrupt. Ms. Abdirova was ordered to apologize for the report, which she never did. In 2017, Ms. Abdirova was convicted for having failed to comply with a court judgment and was subject to a travel ban.
Global FoE could not identify official legal and government records on the case and information on the case was derived from secondary sources. Global FoE notes that media outlets may not provide complete information about this case. Additional information regarding legal matters will be updated as an official source becomes available.
Ms. Alima Abdirova is a civil rights activist from Aktobe city, Kazakhstan. She served on the Aktobe committee of the National Preventative Mechanism (NPM), which was tasked with monitoring preventative measures against torture. In August 2014, Ms. Abdirova and three other members of the NPM visited the Aktobe Center for the Adaptation of Juveniles (CAJ). Following their visit, they drafted and submitted a confidential monitoring report to Kazakhstan’s human rights ombudsman. The report noted that “[o]ver the years, as practice has shown, the CAJ’s administration has fallen into depravity: the Center does not document anything, there is no staff psychologist, [and] no professional rehabilitation of children.”
In October 2015, Ms. Elmira Kadimova, the Director of the CAJ, brought a defamation complaint against Ms. Abdirova and the three other NPM members pursuant to Article 143 of the Civil Code of Kazakhstan. She did not argue that the report included false findings. Instead, she objected to the inclusion of the word “depravity” in the report, and argued that it painted her as an individual who leads an amoral sexual life and has otherwise corrupt morals. Ms. Abdirova added that she heard the term used in various governmental offices, and that this caused her anger and discomfort. Thus, she sought compensation for moral harm in the sum of one million Kazakh Tenge (around $3,000).
In December 2015, the Aktobe City Court heard the complaint. During the trial, two of the four NPM members supported the position of Ms. Kadimova. During the trial, it was also discovered that, although the monitoring report was confidential, one of the NPM members decided to share it with Ms. Kadimova. Despite these issues, Ms. Abdirova won the case. Ms. Kadimova subsequently appealed the case to the Aktobe Regional Court (Regional Court).
On appeal, the Regional Court sided with Ms. Kadimova. In May 2016, the Regional Court held that Ms. Abdirova defamed Ms. Kadimova by stating that the CAJ’s administration fell into “depravity”. It ordered Ms. Abdirova to publicly apologize and to declare that the report’s conclusions were false.
Following the judgment of the Regional Court, Ms. Abdirova made changes to the monitoring report. However, she refused to make a public apology. For her failure to satisfy the judicially mandated order, Aktobe’s Prosecutor General initiated a criminal case against Ms. Abdirova under Article 430 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which penalized any failure to comply with a court order.
Ms. Abdirova argued that she did not have the capacity to make a public apology. She did not work for a media company that would give her a platform to make such an apology. Additionally, she no longer served on the NPM committee, thus her public role diminished in that regard. She also presented judicial decisions from neighboring provinces (e.g. the Rudnensky Court of the Kostanay Region, the Oral City Court, and the Court of the West Kazakhstan Region) outlining that an order for a public apology was not prescribed in Kazakh law as a remedy for harm to honor or dignity.
Nonetheless, the Court found her guilty of violating Article 430 of the Criminal Procedure Code, and imposed limitations on her freedom of movement for a period of two years. She was not permitted to change her place of residence, to leave the country, or to visit places of entertainment.
On November 28, 2017, the Aktobe Regional Court rejected Ms. Abdirova’s appeal without an explanation.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The judgment serves as a stark example of poor jurisprudence that limits freedom of expression. First, the court, disregarding its sister courts, criminally penalized a human rights activist for failing to issue a public apology and imposed limitations on her freedom of movement. This is despite the fact that, as outlined in the Human Right Committee’s General Comment 34, it will usually amount to a violation of the right to freedom of expression where human rights activists are restricted from travelling within or outside a country. The limitation imposed on Ms. Abdirova, a prominent human rights activist, will undoubtedly limit her ability to do her work and exercise her rights. Secondly, the defamation proceedings against Ms. Abdirova failed to take into account the truthfulness of the report or the context in which the word “depravity” was used. Furthermore, the courts did not seem to take into account the public interest nature of the report, and the fact that it was confidential in nature (and not to be circulated more widely). Thus, by finding Ms. Abdirova liable in defamation and by penalizing her for not issuing a public apology, the courts appear to have unjustifiably interfered with her right to freedom of expression.
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