Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Mixed Deal for Kazak Prisoners

Decisions to free one jailed opposition figure and ease terms for another are limited concessions from a government looking ahead to elections.
By Andrei Chebotaryov

Kazakstan’s renowned opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov was granted conditional early release on August 16. If the prosecutor does not fight the decision, the reporter may be legally a free man within ten days.


Duvanov was let out of jail at the beginning of the year under a form of house arrest, but still had his sentence for rape – regarded by many observers as politically-motivated – hanging over him


Meanwhile, on August 10, a court decided to transfer Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov from Kushmurun prison to house arrest in Shiderty. While his supporters have initially been unable to meet with him due to a “quarantine” period, his conditions have improved.


By improving conditions for Duvanov and Zhakiyanov, the Kazak authorities were seizing a chance to impress bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, which had criticised the decision to prosecute and jail the opposition figures.


The move may also be linked to Kazakstan’s announcement late last year that it intends to seek the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009. A decision on this will be taken in 2006, and the United States has already offered its support on condition that Astana improves its democratic and human rights record.


International human rights organisations lobbied hard for the release of both men, and their appeals have had some influence on the decisions to grant them greater liberty.


But President Nursultan Nazarbaev did not want to be seen to release them under international pressure, as this would have meant admitting that he had been wrong to imprison them. Also, the president has said many times that international organisations’ interference in Kazakstan’s affairs was unacceptable.


So Nazarbaev needed to give the impression that he released the pair not because there was pressure on him to do so, but because he wanted to. This way, the president saves face while protecting his interests in the run up to the republic’s upcoming parliamentary election.


In the case of Zhakiyanov, the change in his conditions cannot be called a “release”. The government may have decided to relax the terms of his confinement, but he is far from free.


The prosecutor’s decision to place conditions on Duvanov’s release – for example, banning him from attending public events - is connected to the parliamentary elections scheduled for September.


Duvanov is as popular a figure with the opposition as he was before his imprisonment, but because he has recently become known as a journalist persecuted by the authorities, his public profile has been raised as well. The authorities have since banned him from taking part in the elections, or acting as an advocate for any political bloc.


As for Zhakiyanov, the DCK party and its allies will aim for a complete amnesty granted by the president, as it has already happened with another DCK leader, Mukhtar Ablyazov.


In my opinion, the authorities granted Duvanov early conditional release so as to appease the anger of Kazakstan’s people and the international community over the situation with Zhakiyanov.


As Zhakiyanov’s plight continues, it was decided to make concessions to Duvanov to show that the authorities had decided on liberalisation, if not in one place then another.


While Duvanov does not represent a serious threat to the authorities, they clearly felt a need to curb his activity, perhaps to set an example to other figures in the opposition and independent media.


The journalist does not aspire to take a serious part in political life, especially not in future parliamentary and presidential elections. For that reason, it is only a matter of time before he is rehabilitated, and I do not think that the authorities will place any serious obstacles in that path.


Since January, Duvanov has in any case been effectively a free man, with certain rights restricted – and while he still carries a conviction, his lawyers will still have an opportunity to contest its validity.


Zhakiyanov’s situation is different. Even if he is amnestied, his conviction will not be overturned, he is viewed as a potential candidate in the 2006 presidential election.


This is why it seems to me that the issue of Zhakiyanov will only be resolved after the presidential ballot. Until then, the authorities will continue to isolate him under various pretexts, to stop him having contact with the opposition ahead of the elections. Afterwards, it is possible that his current tough conditions will be relaxed and he may even be transferred to Almaty.


If Zhakiyanov were now free, it would strengthen the position of his DCK party - which has entered into a coalition with the Communists - and help them win seats in parliament.


Instead, his continued imprisonment allows the opposition to talk constantly about political prisoners in Kazakstan for their own propaganda purposes.


The fact that it has made improvements to the conditions of these two prisoners may have won the Kazak government some points. But overall, the situation remains unresolved – and it does Kazakstan’s image no favours.


We still have political prisoners here, whatever the concessions made to them.


Andrei Chebotaryov is a political analyst with the Kazakstan Institute for National Research in Almaty.