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Kazakstan: Opposition Media Hounded by Authorities

Newspapers and broadcasters offering support and publicity to two jailed anti-government activists are facing a wave of repression.
By Yiliana Zhikhor

Kazak rights campaigners have condemned the 18-month suspended jail term handed down to Irina Petrushova, editor of Delovoye Obozrenie Respublika newspaper, as being of "dubious legality".


Petrushova, a Russian citizen, was prosecuted for engaging in business activity in Kazakstan without a permit.


Evgeny Zhovtis, head of the Kazak Human Rights Bureau, described the charges as far-fetched. "Petrushova was engaging in an entirely legal activity which did not require a license," he said.


"She only needed a work permit, which is an administrative violation and not a criminal affair. The normal penalty for that is a fine. The authorities have decided to punish Petrushova for her political convictions and because she publishes a newspaper that the authorities do not like."


Mukhtar Abliazov, leader of DCK, ex-trade and industry minister.
Galymzhan Zhakianov of the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakstan (DCK), ex-governor of Pavlodar region.
Photos by Valery Khegai, taken during DCK meeting in Almaty in February.

The government's distaste for the paper stems from the fact that its owner, former energy minister Mukhtar Abliazov, is now a leader of the opposition. He is currently in prison facing trial on charges of abusing his official position and engaging in illegal business activity.


Activists and members of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, claim Abliazov and Galymzhan Zhakianov, a former regional governor of Pavlodar, were arrested solely for their opposition activities.


Since the arrest of the two men, several DCK members have publicly accused President Nursultan Nazarbaev's government of infringing human rights.


Police have broken up several protest meetings and pickets organised in support of the imprisoned men, and while force has not been used on such occasions, DCK members are paying the price for their political beliefs in other ways.


Many have lost their jobs. Dumanbek Yusupov, former head of culture in Zhakianov's Pavlodar region, was dismissed from his post after giving an interview to Irbis, a television station owned by the former governor. Yusupov believes his sacking was directly linked to his involvement in a wave of protests last November.


Zauresh Battalova, a senator in the Kazak parliament, says the government is stepping up its persecution of the opposition. "They use whatever means they can to find compromising material on Jakiyanov and his supporters.


"Many people in Pavlodar have been illegally fired for being 'Zhakianov people'. The stubborn ones find criminal cases are brought against them."


Opposition leaders' families have also been targeted. A criminal case has been brought against Zhakianov's wife Karlygash for allegedly attacking a law enforcement officer carrying out official duties. She claims that she was trying to prevent a government investigator from interrogating her husband while he was lying sick in the cardiology ward of Pavlodar city hospital.


Pyotr Svoik, leader of the opposition party Azamat, claims the president is personally behind the persecution of the former governor's followers. "The order is to wipe out all political trace of Zhakianov," he said.


Official harassment of the opposition media scrutiny in not confined to the Pavlodar region. The Almaty television company Tan, until recently owned by Abliazov, lost its license for six months for "technical reasons". Although the problems have been cleared up, it is still not back on air.


Zhakianov's press secretary Vladimir Kozlov told IWPR, "The reason is unclear. The television company is still not broadcasting although it is not under a ban."


A surprising number of "accidents" have been befalling such media groups.Delovoye Obozrenie Respublika's Almaty office mysteriously burned down, as did the printing house of the newspaper Ak-Jaik in Atyrau.


Abdilda Mukashev, founder and director of Ak-Jaik, believes someone in authority may have been behind the incidents. "The real reason is that our publication strives to cover all issues in our country truthfully, including events connected with Abliazov and Zhakianov," he said.


Attempts to hold demonstrations in support of the two men have been quietly suppressed. Police showed up at a rally on June 1 and ordered protesters to produce an official permit or face jail. Several people, including members of the opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakstan, were sent to the district police station for questioning.


Svoik claims that supporters of Abliazov and Zhakianov are living in an increasingly hostile climate. "Businessmen are hounded by the tax department. Criminal cases are brought against all and sundry. Anyone working in the civil service is just dismissed," he said.


Bulat Abilov, a leader of the opposition pro-business party Ak-jol, says this constant low-level persecution forms part of "a programme to suppress all dissent". He told IWPR, "Zhakianov and Abliazov spoke out against the government and against the system. The authorities are trying to punish them and their supporters."


Despite the pressure, the regime's opponents believe they have no choice but to continue to demand democratic reforms. They maintain that the government's methods of forcing opposition supporters to leave the country, or flinging them in jail, will not solve any of Kazakstan's problems.


Yuliana Zhikhor is an independent journalist, Sholpan Ibysheva is an analyst with the Russia-Sino research Institute in Almaty


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