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Kazak Journalist's Death Creates a Stir

Police say independent journalist died in a tragic accident, but some insist the evidence doesn’t add up.
By IWPR

Editor of Navigator newspaper Askhat Sharipjanov.

The death of a journalist known for his critical views has led to a furore in Kazakstan, with immediate allegations that the police investigation was a cover-up. The controversy highlights the instinctive distrust that exists between independent media and the authorities.


Askhat Sharipjanov, who worked as an editor on the popular Internet publication Navigator (www.navi.kz), died in Almaty on June 20 from severe head injuries he received in a late night car accident four days earlier.


A police press office report said Sharipjanov was hit by a car while crossing the road after leaving his office. He was knocked down when he suddenly turned back half-way across the road.


The driver of the vehicle stopped, went to help Sharipjanov, and called an ambulance and the police.


It would seem that this was just a terrible accident which could have happened to anyone, but it was not long before some in the independent media started raising some awkward questions.


“All the outward indications are that it really was a tragic accident, but the way events developed after the beginning of the investigation have raised some doubts,” said opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov.


The questions revolve around the alleged discrepancy between the official reports and what some journalists say they have discovered about details surrounding the accident, such as the presence of alcohol in his blood and the apparent disappearance of his tape-recorder.


One opposition party, Ak Jol, released a statement demanding the creation of a special commission including international experts to investigate the circumstances of Sharipjanov’s death. Another, the Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, urged President Nursultan Nazarbaev to take a personal interest in the investigation.


In a statement issued on July 20, the international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders urged the Kazak interior ministry to ensure that its investigation was conducted in an open manner so as to clear up doubts about the cause of death.


Friends and colleagues of Sharipjanov dispute the statement made by police at a July 19 press conference that alcohol was found in his bloodstream.


“We were at the hospital on July 17, and during the operation the deputy head doctor Alik Iskakov told us several times that no alcohol was detected in Askhat’s blood,” Bulat Abilov, a leading member of Ak Jol, told IWPR. “And later police and doctors started saying that there actually was alcohol in his blood. This discrepancy is significant.”


Duvanov shares this view, saying, “Attempts by various people to prove that Sharipjanov was drunk at the time of the incident are inappropriate and ridiculous.”


But Kadyrkul Usenbaeva, deputy head doctor at the hospital, said the result were not known until later. “We learned that the journalist had alcohol in his blood on Friday [17 July]. We doubted the results of our own instruments, so we sent a blood sample for examination by a national drug clinic. As it was closed on Saturday and Sunday, the results of the blood test only became known on Monday [July 19].”


Sharipjanov joined Navigator, one of the first independent internet publications in Kazakstan, 2003. The virtual newspaper gained credibility by avoiding open links with the opposition as well as the government while becoming a platform for alternative views, and is one of the most frequently visited web publications.


With the closure of a number of opposition media outlets in recent years, Navigator has become one of the few independent voices publishing criticism of the government.


That inevitably made it the object of official displeasure. In 2002, Navigator was sued for libel by the president’ son in law Rakhat Aliev. Last year, access to the newspaper was temporarily blocked, and 2004 saw two more libel cases against it, one of them settled with an apology.


Apart from Sharipjanov’s work at Navigator, some say the authorities may also have been angered by his close ties with Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former Nazarbaev ally who changed sides in March, reinventing himself as an opposition figure.


“The personality of Nurkadilov and the circumstances [that led] to his [current] political activity are extremely irritating to the authorities,” said Vladimir Namovir from the opposition Republican People’s Party.


Bulat Abilov added, “A week before he died, Askhat was working with Nurkadilov, acting as his adviser and speechwriter, and conducted two long interviews with him. Later it turned out that his tape recorder had disappeared from the site of the accident.”


According to Navigator’s chief editor Yury Mizinov, the missing tape recorder contained an interview with Nurkadilov.


The head of Almaty’s city health department, Vasily Devyatko, denied that medical staff had been involved in any wrongdoing. “According to the information I have, he had a black bag, a cell phone and 100 dollars in cash. Ambulance workers say no one saw a dictaphone at the scene of the accident,” he told a press conference.


Journalists working in Kazakstan’s independent media sector often feel they are an endangered species, so any incident involving one of their number will raise questions. The Almaty-based free speech group Adil Soz reports that in the first six months of this year, nine were physically attacked by persons unknown, one journalist was imprisoned, 13 had criminal cases brought against them, and four reported threats against them.


“Journalists throughout the country continued to face violent reprisals for criticising government officials,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in it survey of events in 2003.


But the head of Adil Soz, Tamara Kaleeva, warns her fellow-journalists not to jump to hasty conclusions about Sharipjanov’s death.


“I believe that what happened to Sharipjanov was an accident,” she told IWPR. “All the circumstances of his death show that it was a road accident. All the arguments made by those who are suggesting this was political retribution do not stand up to the most basic criticism. No one could have had an interest in Askhat’s death. He did not possess any state secrets or have large capital – so no one could have been interested in his death.”


Eduard Poletaev is IWPR country director in Kazakstan. Inna Lyudva, IWPR project assistant in Kazakstan, also contributed to this report.