One Voice Less in Kazakstan

The freeing of a Kazak opposition leader comes amid a government clampdown on political and media freedoms.

One Voice Less in Kazakstan

The freeing of a Kazak opposition leader comes amid a government clampdown on political and media freedoms.

Does the May 13 release from prison of Mukhtar Ablyazov, co-founder and leader of Democratic Choice of Kazakstan, DCK, signal a substantial improvement in political freedoms in Kazakstan? One answer is that he should never have been behind bars in the first place.

Another, according to evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch in Kazakstan last month, is that the Ablyazov case illustrates an ongoing campaign to silence the political opposition and the independent media.

A successful businessman and former energy minister, Ablyazov co-founded the DCK in November 2001. It rapidly grew into a major opposition movement as its calls for electoral reform, media freedom and an end to official corruption attracted support. In January 2002, the authorities were taken by surprise when several thousand people attended a DCK-led rally in Almaty.

Ablyazov was arrested in March 2002, and in July of that year the supreme court sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment for of abuse of office and financial mismanagement while serving as minister of energy.

International and local observers at Ablyazov’s trial told Human Rights Watch that the case was clearly politically motivated, riddled with procedural violations, and lacking in evidence. Ablyazov himself called the indictment “absurd” and said the charges had been brought against him for having founded the DCK.

In April 2003, Ablyazov appealed for clemency to President Nursultan Nazarbaev. On May 13, a few days before his fortieth birthday, he was freed by presidential order, together with other prisoners who had similarly submitted. He has since stated in public that he will not contest last year’s court verdict, that he will resign from the DCK, and that he is quitting politics to return to business.

To sum the case up – Ablyazov did not get a fair trial, and should not have been imprisoned. He should not have been compelled to ask for clemency.

Now released from prison and pardoned, he is apparently not in a position to challenge the original charges laid against him, and he has resigned from politics.

It is certainly a good thing that he has been freed, but it is hard to argue that his release sets a good precedent for other political prisoners.

This selective and aggressive use of the criminal justice system has also silenced other critical voices for the time being.

In August 2002, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, the DCK’s other co-founder who is a former governor of Pavlodar region, was jailed for seven years on similar charges of abuse of office and financial mismanagement. And in January 2003, independent journalist Sergei Duvanov received a three-and-a-half year prison sentence on dubious rape charges. He had written extensively on the oil corruption scandal known as “Kazakgate”.

Once again, local and international observers said the Zhakiyanov and Duvanov trials were deeply flawed and politically motivated. What is more, evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch in April this year indicates that personal and professional associates of Zhakiyanov have suffered. They have been harassed, entangled in politically-motivated court cases, or even tortured.

Before his arrest, Duvanov was savagely beaten by unknown assailants and charged with criminal libel after he published information on Kazakgate. The evidence we obtained last month and the testimony of international observers at his trial point to fabrication in the case against him.

As regional council elections scheduled for autumn 2003 and the 2004 parliamentary elections approach, and as further information about Kazakgate surfaces, the authorities and criminal justice system in Kazakstan are working hard to stifle other voices, too.

Last month, Human Rights Watch documented obstructions placed in the way of opposition parties seeking official registration – only seven parties have got registration this year compared with 19 in 2002 – numerous politically motivated prosecutions, a near-complete blockade by state media of information on the opposition, and flagrant manipulation of parliamentary by-elections held in December 2002.

Editors and journalists who criticise the president, or write about official corruption or the political opposition, have suffered attacks and beatings by unknown individuals. The government also targets them for criminal libel cases. Kazakgate is studiously ignored by the state media, and in March and April local internet servers blocked access to websites covering the issue.

The political and media crackdown has led to strongly-worded resolutions from the European Union and the US Senate and an outcry from international and local human rights organisations.

As regards the current state of the Zhakiyanov and Duvanov cases, troubling issues of transparency remain, which Ablyazov’s release only highlighted.

Duvanov’s case was investigated by a team of legal experts sent in by the OSCE. His lawyers are now urging the OSCE to speed up the circulation of what they say is a critical report prepared by the experts.

Zhakiyanov’s lawyer has submitted his case for review by the supreme court, and in a curious move, has requested that the case materials not be examined by international experts

Ablyazov’s release satisfies the demands made by international organisations and foreign governments – in part. The same actors will be closely watching future developments in the Zhakiyanov and Duvanov cases. Everyone with an interest in these cases should take note that transparency of information at both national and international levels is the best recipe for improvements in Kazakstan’s political and media spheres - otherwise the campaign to silence the political opposition and the independent media will continue.

Marie Struthers is a consultant to Human Rights Watch on Central Asia and Russia

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