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

Kazakstan: Fears for DCK Prisoners

A jailed opposition leader's plea for a government pardon has led to speculation that he was tortured and drugged.
By Alexander Zakharov

Human rights activists are growing increasingly concerned about the well-being of jailed opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov, who recently seemed to renounce his anti-authority stance by begging for a pardon.


His supporters are interpreting this development as proof that Ablyazov is being pressured - and possibly tortured - into repentance.


They claim that the timing of the pardon plea, which came a day before Kazakstan was due to defend its human rights record before the European Parliament on April 9 - is "suspicious".


Ablyazov, a former trade and energy minister, was one of two opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, leaders to be jailed on abuse of power charges last year. He was given a six-year sentence following a trial which many international organisations claim was politically motivated.


But when Ablyazov's lawyer Gulam Mazanov submitted an appeal for a pardon to President Nursultan Nazarbaev on his client's behalf - hinting that the jailed leader was prepared to give up all political activity - opposition figures hurriedly called a press conference to voice their concerns.


Speakers alleged that Ablyazov had been tortured and possibly drugged to persuade him to make such an appeal, and claimed that Mazanov's assurances that his client was not being mistreated were made purely to protect the prisoner from further abuses.


Activist Pyotr Svoik told IWPR that Ablyazov's supporters had been prevented from visiting for a month - and when they were allowed access, they were horrified by what they saw.


"He was a completely different person - depressed and broken. We are no longer concerned about his political future - right now, we're only worried about his health," Svoik said.


Many DCK members see the appeal as a cynical ploy by a government which has come under increasing international criticism. "The authorities are going to use this to show the international community that the jailing of Ablyazov was justified," said the DCK's Gulzhan Ergalieva.


The movement's press secretary Vladimir Kozlov agrees that Ablyazov's apparent climbdown handed Nazarbaev a trump card on the eve of the European Parliament's Central Asia meeting on April 9.


The Kazak authorities had already been asked to re-examine several recent imprisonments, including those of Ablyazov and his fellow DCK leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov - as well as the notorious jailing of the opposition journalist and human rights activist Sergei Duvanov.


The European Parliament did not discuss specific cases in the April 9 meeting, but advised the Kazak delegation to open a new dialogue with the opposition, and reiterated the need to re-examine the most controversial trials.


European Parliament is planning another meeting on Kazakstan in summer to discuss the progress that has been made.


However, there is still no word as to when - and if - the authorities will grant the pardon request. And there are further fears for the safety of other prisoners who allegedly been locked up on political grounds.


Zhakiyanov's lawyer Mustakhim Tuleev, who keeps in constant contact with his client, said that the jailed leader has also received offers from state officials to submit an appeal for pardon to the president.


According to recent reports in the opposition newspaper SolDAT, a note was left for Zhakiyanov - allegedly from fellow prisoners - in which he was threatened and asked to move to another prison.


"They want Zhakiyanov to request a transfer to a higher-security prison where he can be more readily manipulated and controlled by the authorities," claimed Svoik.


In the meantime, DCK activists and other supporters of Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov are determined to keep up the pressure on the government.


But many believe that the pardon plea could be the end of what was a strong political career. "Ablyazov's return to politics depends on the conditions the authorities make for his release," warned human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.


His view was echoed by Andrei Chebotarev from the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, who added, "[Ablyazov] will be a morally drained person, and will need a period of mental and physical rehabilitation after his release."


DCK activists maintain that the pardon plea will not affect the organisation's activities. But many observers fear that the Kazak government has got exactly what it wanted - the apparent repentance of a leading opposition figure, which they could then use to discredit the movement as a whole.


Alexander Zakharov is the pseudonym for an independent journalist in Almaty