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Astana Rails Against US Rights Report

A wide-ranging US human rights probe provokes Kazak fury
By Andrei Sviridov

Kazakstan is up in arms over a US government report critical of the country's human rights record.


The US State Department annual report rebukes Astana for a range of violations, including electoral irregularities, extrajudicial killings and press harassment.


Washington also expresses alarm at the authoritarian nature of the Astana authorities, pointing out that the constitution puts the president in a "dominant position" over the legislative and judicial branches of power, as well as regional and local administrations.


The report goes on to say that the constitution was adopted by means of a referendum "marred with irregularities", and that Kazakstan's 1999 presidential and parliamentary ballots fell well below international or OSCE standards.


The government's human rights record remains "poor", not least because it "severely limits citizens' rights to change their government".


Extrajudicial killings by security forces are listed in detail, such as the recent death of Ivan Prokopenko in Aktobe detention centre. Despite evidence of brain damage, burns and cuts, the prosecutor concluded the boy had died because of a fall and closed the case.


Government harassment of the press and opposition figures is widespread, the report continued, and corruption is "deeply rooted".


The extensive catalogue of problems made the report unpalatable in many quarters, which is probably why it took over two weeks for pro-government papers to acknowledge its publication. It was released in Washington on February 26, but first mentioned in Kazakstan on March 13.


Even so, the full text or even direct quotes have yet to be published here. So far, Kazaks have only been able to read criticisms of the report.


These included a long and patriotic editorial in Delovaia Nedelia (Business Week), a paper close to government circles, which railed against outside interference in Kazakstan affairs.


It also suggested somewhat obscurely that the American findings were part of some geopolitical game.


The first official reaction to the human rights criticism came from the foreign ministry, which called the report "biased and prejudiced". It also attacked the authors for ignoring information provided by government officials about the "healthy state" of democratic reforms here.


US Ambassador Richard Jones summed up the Washington document as "tough in parts, but honest and precise", adding that "an attentive reader will be left with a balanced impression about the complex human rights situation in Kazakstan".


His comments provoked a lively debate in parliament. Senator Jabaikhan Abdildin, head of the presidential commission on human rights, brought to mind Soviet-era rhetoric when he spoke of "repulsing the fabrications of overseas defenders of democracy and so-called human rights".


But opposition figures and human rights activists defended the report. They included writer Karishal Asanov, currently being sued by the government for an article he wrote criticising President Nazarbaev, and Eugene Jovtis, head of the Kazak International Bureau on Human Rights.


Nobody was surprised when the state-owned newspaper, Kazakhstanskaia Pravda (Kazakhstan's Truth), described in detail speeches made against the report, conveniently omitting to mention those who'd defended it.


Very few of the press reported on the political establishment's attempts to discredit the US findings. One of the exceptions was Panorama newspaper which condemned the Otan (Fatherland) political party for "using propaganda, not arguments" in its assessment of the report.


Last week, a press conference organised by the Forum of Democratic Forces of Kazakstan to express its support for Washington's criticisms was totally ignored by the local press.


Some journalists have preferred to gripe at the inclusion of events from 1998 or 1999, in a report supposed to cover the year 2000, rather than concentrating on the alleged abuses.


Young journalist Alexei Gostev of Stolichnaia Jizn (Capital Life) took particular umbrage, accusing the US of behaving like a " teacher wagging a finger at the class." Kazakstan, he said, was being "humiliated on a global scale" by Washington.


The media's unwillingness to address the report's findings directly should come as no surprise. The Kazak government's efforts to restrain independent reporting (including making the President's health a state secret) has pressured the media to creeping self-censorship.


Andrei Sviridov is an IWPR contributor


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