ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A Kazakh journalist known for his criticism of the government has been convicted of money laundering and sentenced to three years of "limited freedom," meaning he will not be imprisoned but faces parole-like restrictions.
After a high-profile trial in a case the defendant and his supporters say was politically motivated, the Almaty court also ordered the confiscation of Zhanbolat Mamai's property and barred him from journalism for three years.
Mamai, who maintains his innocence and who had been jailed since his arrest in February, walked free from the courtroom -- something he said he "did not expect at all."
"This is completely unbelievable for me.... I am sure that my walking out of the courtroom today after seven months of pretrial detention is a huge victory for our society, for public organizations," Mamai told journalists. "
Without colossal help from society, public opinion, and international organizations today's outcome would have been impossible," he said. "As far as I remember, this is the first time in our country that somebody has walked free following trials of journalists and political and public figures held on politically motivated charges."
Mamai, the acting chief editor of the independent Sayasi Qalam-Tribuna (The Political Pen-Tribune) newspaper, went on trial on August 14.
Investigators accused Mamai, 29, of involvement in laundering money they claim was stolen by fugitive tycoon Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Mamai denies any connection with Ablyazov.
Ablyazov, a former head of Kazakhstan's BTA bank who is currently living abroad, is a prominent opponent of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
He is wanted by Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine on suspicion of embezzling some $5 billion.
Ablyazov denies the accusations, saying they are politically motivated.
Nazarbaev, who has ruled the oil-and-gas producing Central Asian country of 18 million since before the Soviet breakup of 1991, has established tight control over the media and politics and tolerates little dissent.
Mamai said he would consult with his lawyers and decide whether to appeal the verdict and sentence.