Kazakstan: Jailing of Rights Activist Condemned

Supporters of leading activist say driving death conviction was unsound.

Kazakstan: Jailing of Rights Activist Condemned

Supporters of leading activist say driving death conviction was unsound.

Wednesday, 30 September, 2009
International organisations and rights groups in Kazakstan say leading human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis did not receive a fair trial in a case which ended in his conviction for causing a death in a traffic accident.

Some believe that state prosecutors have deliberately sought a harsh penalty in a case in which Zhovtis was tried for running over and killing a pedestrian, and that they have done so for political ends, to discredit and isolate the activist. The authorities reject claims of interference in the judicial process.

Zhovtis, who heads the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, went on trial on September 2 following an accident on July 26 in which Kanat Moldabaev died.

By the end of the second day, Zhovtis had been tried, convicted of dangerous driving leading to a fatality, and sentenced to four years. He will serve the term in a low-security prison.

The conviction rested strongly on the prosecution’s argument that the defendant could have avoided the accident.

Prosecutor Altay Janibekov said during the trial that there were no extenuating circumstances, and that there was “not the slightest” doubt that the facts presented to the court were correct.

Lawyers representing Zhovtis have alleged a number of procedural violations which they believe render the conviction unsafe.

For a two-week period early on in the case, they say, investigators failed to inform Zhovtis that his initial status as a witness had been changed, and he was now the suspect.

Ninel Fokina, who chairs the Almaty Helsinki Committee, said the significance of this was that Zhovtis was deprived of the right of an accused person to see the case file and request forensic testing.

Defence lawyers also contested prosecution evidence derived from tests done on their client’s car, which concluded that it would have been technically possible to avoid hitting the pedestrian. Judge Kulan Tolkunov rejected their arguments, and also their request for an independent test.

Supporters of Zhovtis are also concerned that investigators and the trial judge failed to consider a letter written by the late Moldabaev’s mother asking for charges not to be brought against Zhovtis as he had paid damages.

Omurzak Tusumov, a former chief of Kazakstan’s traffic police, told the Vremya weekly that the letter was important given that the country’s criminal legislation allows a case to be dropped if perpetrator and victim opt for reconciliation.

“This is widely practiced here,” he said.

Sergei Duvanov, a journalist who is leading a new committee set up to defend Zhovtis’s rights, says, “The investigator left this letter out of the case file even though it was handed over to him in the knowledge that it would be to Zhovtis’s advantage.”

Local media reported that the judge did not review the matter because other relatives of the deceased had filed objections to the original letter.

The verdict and sentencing produced an outcry from rights groups, which argued that the Kazak authorities had exploited the trial for political ends.

“The prosecution has used the tragedy caused by a traffic accident to punish him [Zhovtis] for 20 years of human rights activity,” supporters said the following day.

“I regard the verdict as unjust and an as an attempt to take revenge on Zhovtis for his human rights work,” said Duvanov. “It was a very shabby trial, and brought shame on Kazakstan justice.”

Zhovtis refused to make a final statement to the court, but earlier he told journalists, “This is a demonstration of power and lawlessness, in which all decisions are taken in [the capital] Astana, and the forensic teams work for the prosecution.”

International watchdog groups swiftly added their voices to raise concerns about a case that New York-based Human Rights Watch said “did not meet basic fair trial standards”.

“The judge's unwillingness to consider important evidence from Zhovtis's lawyer made it clear that this was really a choreographed political trial," said Andrea Berg, the group’s Central Asia researcher.

The Human Rights Watch statement noted that the verdict came at a time when Kazakstan’s human rights record is under particular scrutiny given that the country is due to chair the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, next year.

"Kazakstan clearly is not ready to take on a role as important as the OSCE chairmanship," said Berg.

Another United States-based group, Freedom House, called on judges to look into procedural violations when the case goes to appeal, and ensure that “the case is not used to punish Zhovtis for his work”.

"A miscarriage of justice in this case would be particularly troubling given that next year Kazakstan will assume the chairmanship of the… the continent’s premier regional organisation covering human rights," said Jeff Goldstein, Freedom House’s senior programme manager for Central Asia.

Yermuhamet Yertysbaev, President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s adviser on political affairs, said that as part of the executive, he was unable to comment on decisions made by the judiciary.

He expressed a note of personal regret over the case, saying, “I know Yevgeny Zhovtis well and I respect him.”

However, he accused Zhovtis’s supporters of making unfair claims, saying that if there had been any attempts to exert undue influence on proceedings, it was done by them.

“There was very strong, concerted pressure on the court and this is inadmissible,” he said.

“This situation can be resolved only via the judicial process. If you think the problem can be solved by demonstrations, by opposition media, or by constantly raising the issue with international organisations, that’s absolutely wrong.”

Asked about the OSCE chairmanship, Yertysbaev said, “I don’t think this case is going to affect Kazakstan’s image in Europe.”

The political opposition has taken up Zhovtis’s cause, with the Communist Party promising to stage events and collect signatures to press for a review of the case.

“Yevgeny Zhovtis has done a great deal for Kazakstan’s citizens in terms of protecting their rights,” said party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin.

“In this instance, it would have been appropriate to issue an amnesty and pardon him.”

Anton Dosybiev is an IWPR-trained journalist and Sanat Urnaliev a freelance reporter in Kazakstan.
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