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Kazakstan: Jailed Leader Vows to Clear Name

Opposition politician issues pledge in first interview for over two years.
By Daria Vasilieva

Galymzhan Zhakiyanov greets visiting supporters and journalists.
Galymzhan Zhakiyanov with his wife Karlygash Zhakiyanova.

Jailed Democratic Choice of Kazakstan leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov says he’s determined to have his 2002 conviction for corruption overturned and hinted that he would like to return to public life.

Speaking to the media for the first time since his arrest more than two years ago, the detained leader told IWPR that while he had been irrevocably changed by his experiences in prison, he was committed to clearing his name.

Thin and suffering from a number of health problems after two years in a harsh penal colony, Zhakiyanov nevertheless looks resolute and strong. He greeted journalists with a firm handshake and smile, noting that he has been unable to speak directly to the media since the end of March 2002.

“A great deal has happened since then,” he said. “Major changes have taken place in the [Kazak] people’s mood and mentality, which is very pleasing. While this is not yet freedom, some light can be seen at the end of the tunnel.”

The leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, and former governor of Pavlodar, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2002 after being convicted on charges of corruption and abuse of office. It is widely believed, however, that his arrest and trial were contrived by the authorities to punish him for creating the DCK movement.

The DCK was gaining in popularity at the time, leading to speculation that it, along with several high-ranking government officials and business people sympathetic to its cause, might challenge President Nursultan Nazarbaev’ leadership.

Zhakiyanov is currently being held in what is known as a settlement colony - essentially a low-security centre where he can serve the remaining 18 months of his sentence with few restrictions on his movements - in the town of Shiderty, which is a 23-hour bus journey away from Kazakstan’s largest city Almaty.

While the DCK and rights activists have welcomed the August 10 decision to transfer the opposition politician to Shiderty, they are still battling to clear him of charges they allege were politically motivated.

The DCK leader says he has limited freedom of movement at the low-security centre, but is pleased that he’s been granted the opportunity to meet members of his family.

“As part of my daily routine I have to be at a line up at 7:45 a.m. for a roll call, and then five times a day I have to come and report my presence like that,” he said.

While not ideal, the conditions are a marked improvement on his time at the penal colony.

“There was everything - threats, blackmail, provocation…” he recalled. “It was not easy to endure such things. There were several attempts to goad other prisoners into starting a fight with me, and I have been led to believe that many were provided with metal objects to attack me with.

“But there were other people inside who sympathised with me. Some prisoners proved to be excellent helpers, but true friendship is impossible in a colony, as the authorities can force prisoners to denounce one another at any time of the day or night. And I know of many cases where people who simply came up to say hello to me were brutally beaten later.”

While Zhakiyanov’s wife Karlygash, who has become politically active since her husband’s arrest and conviction, is greatly relieved by his transfer to the settlement colony, she’s nonetheless critical of conditions there.

Karlygash is now working with her husband’s supporters to have him placed under house arrest in Almaty and eventually acquitted.

“Zhakiyanov’s transfer to the settlement colony is only half the battle. We continue collecting signatures in support of his rehabilitation,” said Liudmila Artyukova, chairwoman of the Pavlodar branch of the DCK.

Zhakiyanov says that once he’s released from prison, his next task will be to have “my conviction overturned, my civil rights restored”, also hinting that he would like to return to public life.

Karlygash fears, however, that the authorities’ treatment of her husband so far does not bode well for his bid to clear his name.

She says she had vainly hoped his conviction would be quickly overturned, “I thought that Galymzhan’s would be [freed] within one month, then I hoped that it will be settled within a year.

“The Bible has a saying that ‘the more God loves you, the more He tests you’. Sometimes I live on this hope, but at times there are so many distressing moments. One day all this must end.”

Daria Vasilieva is a pseudonym of a journalist in Almaty.

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