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Kazakhstan3 June 2003

Threat to independent newspaper

Reporters Without Borders today voiced its concern about judicial harassment of the opposition newspaper SolDat and its editor Ermurat Bapi after the newspaper was ordered to pay more than 300,000 euros for alleged tax evasion in a judicial decision of questionable legality.

"SolDat is known for its allegations of corruption by senior officials and for opening its columns to leading opposition figures, and we fear that the purpose of this pressure by the judicial and tax authorities is simply to destroy the newspaper," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said in a letter to information minister Mukhtar Kul-Mukhamed.

"Since the press law exempts the news media from all the sales taxes which SolDat is accused of evading, we call on you to explain this conviction for tax evasion and to do everything possible to ensure that there are no further threats to SolDat," the letter added.

A tax commission in Almaty sentenced SolDat on 22 May to pay 57 million tenge (325,000 euros) on the grounds that it had not paid any sales tax for ten years, although all the news media are exempted from paying such a tax by the press law.

Bapi has been banned from leaving the capital until a decision is given on the appeal he filed the same day. Subject to a personal prosecution for tax fraud, Bapi announced his resignation as editor on 27 May, explaining that he thereby hoped to save SolDat as an independent newspaper.

A court in Astana meanwhile sentenced SolDat on 28 April to pay 2 million tenge (11,400 euros) in damages to member of parliament Yerasyl Abylkassymov and his wife for alleging libelling the wife in a report of 14 December 2001 about management problems at the higher educational institute she runs.

In an attack on the SolDat’s main office on 21 May 2002, thugs hit two employees, stole computer equipment and smashed other equipment. In 2001, Bapi was prosecuted for publishing an article considered insulting to President Nazarbayev. The president pardoned him a few days later.

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