Kazak Opposition Sees Political Overtones to Crime Case

Four politicians accused of helping a wanted businessman get asylum abroad – but is that actually a crime?

Kazak Opposition Sees Political Overtones to Crime Case

Four politicians accused of helping a wanted businessman get asylum abroad – but is that actually a crime?

As the legal case in which four well-known politicians are accused of assisting an alleged criminal rumbles on, some analysts believe the authorities in Kazakstan are out to demolish the opposition.

However, officials deny there is any political motivation behind the prosecution of the four men and say it is entirely a matter for the criminal courts.

In late September, the interior ministry announced that Azat party leader Bulat Abilov, National Social Democratic Party deputy leader Vladimir Kozlov, Alga party deputy head Amirjan Kosanov and Shanyrak movement leader Asylbek Kojahmetov had been charged in connection with an asylum application made by Kazak businessman Esentay Baysakov in Ukraine.

Because they put their names to statements in support of Baysakov’s asylum claim, the interior ministry says the politicians have committed the offence of “covering up a serious or grave crime” – in other words assisting a fugitive from justice.

Baysakov is wanted in Kazakstan in a case involving the alleged contract killing of another businessman in 2001. The Kazak authorities say they requested his extradition after discovering his whereabouts this year, but the Ukrainians turned them down on the grounds that Baysakov had been granted political asylum.

Police have now shifted Kosanov’s status from that of accused to a witness in the case.

In a joint statement on October 8, all four opposition politicians demanded that they be treated equally.

“It is becoming increasingly evident that this police persecution was ordered for political reasons in order to discredit the democratic forces,” said the statement, published on the Zonakz.net website.

Abilov, Kozlov, Kosanov and Kojahmetov do not deny backing Baysakov’s asylum application, but argue that their actions do not constitute a crime.

That view is shared by many legal experts.

“Only acts that present a danger to the public and are set out in the criminal code can be treated as criminal cases,” lawyer Sergei Utkin told IWPR. “Providing documents to [the authorities in] another country with regard to a political asylum application, or lobbying for it, are not dangerous acts, and must certainly not be subject to prosecution.”

Utkin noted that the entire system of international arrangements for political asylum presupposes that states have a right to grant refuge to individuals even when they are wanted in another country.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, who heads the International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, a leading rights group in Kazakstan, shares Utkin’s view.

In an interview for RFE/RL on October 7, he said, “There is no notion in international practice of bringing criminal charges against people who submit a request in support of an asylum application in another country.”

Zhovtis cited other cases where high-profile individuals the Kazak authorities regarded as crime suspects have been granted asylum in Britain and Austria.

The Kazak interior ministry insists it has a case. Spokesman Bagdat Kojahmetov said the law does cover the circumstances in question, in an appended commentary to the criminal code which deals with harbouring a suspect.

“It doesn’t mean you hid him [the suspect] at home in the kitchen or under the bed,” Kojahmetov told IWPR. “In this case, investigators have made the legally sound assessment that this counts as assistance and concealment with regard to asylum in another country.”

Legal complexities aside, some political commentators believe the case is a convenient way for the Kazak authorities to intimidate and weaken their opponents.

As there are no national elections scheduled until 2012, it is not clear why the authorities would have a particular need to hit out at the opposition right now.

“I do think it’s being done for political reasons – to knock the opposition out of the running,” said human rights activist Rozlana Taukina. “I’d say it has to do with elections of some kind. I don’t know what’s cooking under the surface – whether the authorities are planning an [early] parliamentary or presidential election – but in any case, they want to remove leading opposition figures.”

By contrast, Eduard Poletaev, editor of the political magazine Mir Yevrazii, says, “I’m not sure that the authorities are really taking a rough line on the opposition leaders cited in the case. I think it’s a sort of warning.”

Speaking for the interior ministry, Kozhahmetov insisted, “This case is not politically motivated. We are not persecuting opposition members; we are investigating a criminal case that’s been launched with regard to the concealment of an individual who’s linked to a grave crime.”

Anton Dosybiev is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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