The jailing in Kazakhstan of an opposition leader on charges of holding an unsanctioned rally is stoking fresh concerns over the fairness of the judicial system in the country currently chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, was given a 10-day prison sentence on March 26 after taking to Almaty's central pedestrian thoroughfare, Zhibek Zholy (nicknamed Arbat), to hand out leaflets about Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the former head of the Kazatomprom state nuclear agency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Dzhakishev is currently serving 14 years in prison on corruption charges that he adamantly denies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kozlov and other activists also handed out leaflets about the unsuccessful efforts of Alga! to register, and operate legally as a political party. The organization has been seeking to gain official status for almost five years.
Kozlov denied violating legislation on public assembly. He told the court he was not rallying but exercising his constitutional right to disseminate information. "We can go where we want, and in line with Article 20 of the Constitution we can receive and disseminate any information that is not, as a [police] captain put it, 'anti-constitutional,'" he told the court in remarks quoted by the Respublika website. "We are not obliged to warn and, still less, ask permission of local authorities before going onto Arbat." He described the verdict as a "disgrace to the judicial system" and is appealing.
His imprisonment provoked an outcry in opposition circles, which accused President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration of intolerance. "This case? has become further testimony to the strengthening of the regime's repressive policy toward dissent," a statement by the opposition OSDP Azat party issued on March 29 asserted.
The case also attracted international attention. Asked at a news conference in Almaty on March 30 how he would characterize Kozlov's jailing, US Ambassador Richard Hoagland responded bluntly: "What would I call that? I would call that democracy as a work in progress. ? Some of the fundamentals of democracy are freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of mass media." Hoagland added that building democracy is a long process and Kazakhstan had also made some strides.
Kozlov had been seeking to draw attention to the plight of Dzhakishev, convicted earlier in March of embezzlement and bribe taking. Opposition activists asserted that Dzhakishev did not received a fair trial.
Justice Nurzhan Zholdasbekov took the unusual step of giving a news conference on March 26 to defend the proceedings, insisting the trial was conducted strictly in line with the law. Zholdasbekov denied allegations that Dzhakishev, who is suffering from high blood pressure, was denied appropriate medical treatment, saying that doctors found him fit to stand trial. He also denied suggestions that Dzhakishev's co-defendant Talgat Kystaubayev had been unable to exercise his right to conduct his defense in the Kazakh language.
Zholdasbekov maintained that prosecutors proved that Dzhakishev had set up a criminal group at Kazatomprom, defrauding it of over $750,000 and receiving some $5.4 million in bribes. Few details are available about the trial, which was closed since the authorities said state secrets were involved in the proceedings.
The defendants' wives, Zhamilya Dzhakisheva and Sara Kystaubayeva, were denied access to the news conference given by the judge, the Zonakz.net website reported. It quoted Zhamilya Dzhakisheva as accusing authorities of "trying to cover themselves in every way and conceal what actually exists."
Meanwhile, another controversial legal proceeding was back in the headlines, as Freedom House called on Astana to ensure that imprisoned human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis gets a fair hearing in his upcoming Supreme Court appeal. Following a controversial trial, he was sentenced to four years in prison last September on charges of vehicular manslaughter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"Since assuming the OSCE chairmanship in January, Kazakhstan took on the responsibility of leading by example," Freedom House Director of Programs Robert Herman said in a statement on March 23. "The Kazakh authorities should not squander a new legal opportunity for a careful review of Zhovtis's trial, and to show the international community that the OSCE Chairman-in-Office indeed conducts judicial proceedings according to international standards."
The organization also urged the government to ensure Zhovtis was afforded equal treatment with other prisoners. Freedom House's Iva Dobichina, who recently visited Zhovtis in prison, said that he was "being subjected to more restrictive measures than other prisoners, particularly with regard to working conditions." Zhovtis has been denied permission to work in the local branch of the human rights organization he heads, the International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, and offered menial work in the prison.
Human Rights Watch has urged United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to raise the cases of Zhovtis and Dzhakishev during his upcoming visit to Kazakhstan.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.