Bolat Atabayev, co-founder of the German Theater in Almaty, was arrested June 15 following a six-month investigation by Kazakh authorities on charges of "inciting social discord," German Human Rights Commissioner Markus Loning said last week.
Loning said the government accuses Atabayev of giving an inflammatory speech to oil workers in the industrial city of Zhanaozen just before they went on strike Dec. 16. The resulting clashes with security forces resulted in the deaths of 16 workers.
"I am very concerned by the arrest of Bolat Atabayev," the German official said. "He is being investigated on charges of 'inciting social discord' even though he simply made use of his right to freedom of opinion by giving a speech."
Calling on the Kazakh authorities to release Atabayev immediately, Loning demanded the theater director be allowed to travel to Weimar, Germany, to receive the Goethe Medal -- an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany given to foreign "who have performed outstanding service for the German language and international cultural relations."
"As a member of the (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), Kazakhstan has committed itself to democratic principles such as freedom of opinion and freedom of assembly," Loning said. "I now expect the Kazakh government to honor its obligations."
The Goethe Institute, which awards the annual prize, called the 60-year-old theater director a "courageous fighter for democratic structures" whose works concentrate on the plight on the German minority in Kazakhstan.
They address the "taboo" subject of the treatment of ethnic Germans by the Soviet Union during and following World War II, when many were forced to move to the fringes of the country in Central Asia.
His work in Almaty, the institute said, "defies the conservative theatrical traditions still strongly anchored in Kazakhstan and often walks a tightrope in doing so ... handling taboo themes such as the genocide of the Volga Germans in Kazakhstan in his plays."
Atabayev's arrest also brought condemnation from Oscar-winning German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, who co-wrote the screenplay for his 2007 film "Ulzan" with the Kazakh literary figure.
The Hollywood Reporter cited an open letter from Schlondorff to the Kazakh judge in the case, in which he states Atabayev "helped me look for actors in Almaty and the whole republic" while adding he found it "completely inconceivable" he was involved in any form of political agitation.
The December violence -- the worst in the oil-rich Central Asian nation since it gained independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 -- claimed 16 lives as striking oil workers in Zhanaozen clashed with security forces.
Witnesses claim police fired indiscriminately on unarmed strikers during the clashes, the BBC reported. A video circulated on YouTube appeared to show demonstrators being shot by riot police, though security officials claimed victims were hit by ricochets.
Authorities said three police officers are facing charges related to the violence, while 18 people accused of taking part in the disturbances and looting have been arrested.
Since then, 40 civilians, including 34 from Zhanaozen, have been convicted in connection with the riots. Most of them were granted amnesties but 17 were jailed for terms of up to seven years, Eurasianet.org reported.
The arrests of Atabayev and well-known youth activist Zhanbolat Mamay have followed as part of a more widespread political crackdown, activists say.