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Kazakstan: Sarsenbaev Murder Trial a “Farce”

There were so many apparent irregularities in the case that few have any confidence in the conviction.
By Gaziza Baituova
The trial and conviction last week of ten people for the murder of a prominent opposition leader, Altynbek Sarsenbaev, has been dismissed by many here as a judicial farce.

The high-profile trial delivered its verdict on August 31, with the alleged ringleaders of the group Rustam Ibragimov, a former security officer, and the ex-head of the parliamentary administration, Erjan Utembaev, sentenced to death and jailed for 20 years respectively.

One other defendant received a 20-year prison term, while the remainder are to serve between three and 11 years. Ibragimov is likely to face life imprisonment, as there is a moratorium on capital punishment.

Sarsenbaev, a former information minister and ex-ambassador to Russia, was found dead on the outskirts of Almaty on February 12. The bodies of his driver and bodyguard were discovered nearby.

Many saw Sarsenbaev, one of the co-leaders of the Naghyz Ak Jol party, as a uniquely influential figure who provided intellectual and strategic direction for the opposition.

He also spoke out stridently against government corruption, naming many important names - and no doubt making a few enemies along the way.

In the days after his death, the Kazak leadership reacted swiftly arresting several senior government and security figures, in an apparent attempt to counter opposition claims that it was behind the murder.

But the speed with which the case has proceeded has fueled fears amongst the Kazak public and western diplomats that it has been heavily subject to political bias and is flawed as a result.

“There is more than enough evidence to consider this trial a judicial farce and a political order,” said one of the leaders of the Kazak opposition Tulegen Jukeev, reflecting a broadly held view.

The defendants have long maintained that they were “set up” by powerful figures within the government.

Throughout the trial, the lawyers representing the defendants repeatedly complained to the press about alleged falsification of evidence and other violations of judicial process. All the accused dismissed testimony they had provided in the investigation stage as having been elicited under pressure.

Adil Jalilov, director of the international journalism centre MediaNet, believes the case follows an established pattern of politically-motivated trials. “Other cases also lacked evidence, but experience shows that this has no serious consequences for the Kazak leadership,” he said.

Leading Kazak human rights campaigner Evgeny Jovtis believes that ordinary people suspect that the defendants, whether guilty or not, were not the principal culprits.

“I assume that the public will feel that the accused have some connection with the crime one way or another, but I think society understands that they are not the main figures in the case and Mr Utembaev is not the one who ordered the murder. The trial has not been objective [or] complete,” he said.

Analysts believe the trial was rushed so that it would not drag on into the next parliamentary session. Eduard Polotaev, the editor-in-chief of the international journal The World of Eurasia, said the authorities are hoping the matter is now closed. “The trial has provoked a lot of debates in society..[but now] a line has been drawn [under the matter],” he said.

The prominent politician and editor-in-chief of the national newspaper The Freedom of Speech, Guljan Ergalieva, believes the case has underlined the view held by many here that trying to obtain justice for the victims of political crimes is virtually impossible.

Although the political analyst Andrey Chebotarev does not discount the possibility of the convicted men revealing the names of those who bear most responsibility for the killing.

“Maybe some of the accused who were silent during the trial will find the courage in future or will take revenge by naming the people who are really guilty of the murder,” he said.

Ergalieva believes the international community must take account of this trial and other miscarriages of justice before making overtures towards Kazakstan, such as recent German remarks about Astana’s bid for the chairmanship of the OSCE.

Germany released an official letter stating that denying Kazakstan the chairmanship on the grounds that it does not match up to democratic ideals could have serious political consequences, possibly alienating energy-rich nations of the former Soviet Union.

“It is necessary of the world community to apply to Kazakstan the same political, economic and other pressure mechanisms that are applied to dictatorships such as Belarus and Uzbekistan,” said Ergalieva.

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR reporter in Taraz.

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