A court in Kazakhstan today convicted two men of sowing unrest around a controversial land reform and sentenced each to five years in jail. Max Bokaev and Talgat Ayan were both arrested in April as protests against proposed land code amendments rippled across the vast Central Asian country, threatening the 27-year rule of strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The court in the western city of Atyrau found the pair guilty on charges of inciting social tensions and spreading false information during the spring protests, Kazakhstan's supreme court said in a statement. Their sentences come after another court sentenced beer magnate Tokhtar Tuleshov to 21 years in prison earlier this month for his purported role in masterminding the protests in order to overthrow Nazarbayev. Tuleshov was already in detention at the time of the land protests, but authorities said the businessman had "inspired and financed" them before his arrest in January. Thousands participated in the countrywide demonstrations against amendments that would have changed the maximum length of leases on land for foreigners from 10 to 25 years. New York-based Human Rights Watch reported that hundreds of people were detained in the build-up to a planned nationwide protest on May 21. The same organisation last month called on Kazakh authorities to stop the trial of Bokaev and Ayan and free both men. Nazarbayev, 76, signed off on a moratorium preventing implementation of the land reform through 2021 in a rare concession to political opposition. Nazarbayev's reign has rarely been contested since Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991 and the strongman is the beneficiary of a flowering cult of personality. This month the national bank announced the issue of bills worth 10,000 tenge (nearly USD 30) which will bear his image while Nazarbayev himself knocked back a proposal by lawmakers to rename the Kazakh capital Astana in his honour last week. Land policy is highly sensitive in ex-Soviet Central Asia where many recall the privatisations of the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR with bitterness.
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