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Kazakstan: Duvanov Trial Fears

Journalist's supporters accuse the authorities of pursuing a conviction at all costs.
By Venera Abisheva

The Kazak authorities have been criticised for allegedly attempting to deny the well-known journalist Sergei Duvanov a fair trial.

International observers and supporters of the opposition activist - who is currently standing trial in the town of Karasai, accused of rape - have voiced their concerns over a number of irregularities.

American lawyer Charles Bot, who is working with Duvanov's defence team, accused the senior investigator of violating the principle of "presumption of innocence" by stating that "it was established" that a rape had taken place - before the investigation had even begun.

This statement followed a series of inflammatory remarks from the Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev before the trial began on December 24.

During a press conference held after a meeting with European Commission president Romano Prodi in Brussels, the president denied that Kazakstan persecuted its citizens for political reasons. "[Duvanov] was arrested for raping an underage girl. Forensic and biological tests have been conducted. It has been proved," Nazarbaev said.

But defence lawyer Yevgeni Zhotis - director of the Kazak Bureau for Human rights and Rule of Law, for whom Duvanov publishes a monthly bulletin in partnership with IWPR - has complained that the government is interfering with the team's work.

"They have created many obstacles and even kept us under surveillance," he claimed. "If we are allowed to present all our arguments, we will show the world that this fabricated case has been full of provocations."

Duvanov was arrested and charged with rape on October 28, one day before he was due to fly to Washington to deliver a report on the human rights situation in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.

The journalist had been visited in his suburban house by two girls who had apparently helped him do the cleaning. According to the statement Duvanov made immediately after his arrest, he lost consciousness after he drank tea that had a strange taste, and which may have contained a drug of some kind. Later, one of the girls alleged that Duvanov had raped her.

While the press have been banned from covering the trial, Duvanov's supporters successfully forced the authorities to allow international observers to attend. As well as United States embassy officials, representatives of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the Dutch embassy have turned up at the hearings.

In an unusual twist, the president's daughter Darina Nazarbaeva, the honorary president of the Academy of Journalists, also spoke out in favour of international observers. However, the representative that she suggested - the editor of the newspaper Express K - has not appeared at any hearings to date. This has led many people to speculate that Nazarbaeva's interest in the case was motivated by desire to appear more democratic.

Local human rights activists believe that these observers will have a positive influence on the trial. According to Ganna Krasilnikova, a lawyer from the media support non-governmental organisation Adil Soz, western participation may dissuade the authorities from trying to politicise the case even further.

Duvanov's supporters have long maintained that the authorities charged the journalist with rape, rather than any other criminal offence, as the heinous nature of the accusation would make it difficult for the international community to spring to his defence. They now believe that this alleged ploy has failed.

The sense that the entire case has been politically motivated is widespread. One international observer, who wished to remain anonymous, said, "You don't have to understand Russian to realise to what extent the prosecution evidence is staged."

Duvanov fell foul of the authorities in June 2002 after publishing an article linking high-ranking Kazak officials - and Nazarbaev himself - to a number of overseas bank accounts. Shortly after, the journalist was charged with "insulting the honour and dignity" of the president.

Two months later, he was beaten up in the stairwell of his home by three unknown assailants as he was preparing for a meeting with the OSCE.

Duvanov's defence team and supporters are extremely pessimistic as to the eventual outcome of the trial. Recognising that the authorities would merely lose face if they abandoned the case, Zhvotis feels that "the chances of a not guilty verdict are extremely slim".

However, some analysts believe that if the government allows the court to do its job without further pressure, and in the presence of international observers, it is possible that even if Duvanov is convicted, the maximum seven-year sentence for crimes of this nature could well be commuted.

Erbol Jumagulov is an independent journalist and Venera Abisheva is the pseudonym for a reporter in Almaty

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