Kazakhstani opposition leader Bolat Abilov has gone on trial for fraud a charge that he insists is politically motivated. The trial's start coincided with news that OSCE foreign ministers have postponed a decision on Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship bid amid ongoing misgivings about the country's democratic record.
Abilov, co-leader of the Nagyz Ak Zhol party, faces up to 10 years in prison on several counts of embezzlement and fraud relating to an investment fund he set up in 1993 as Kazakhstan was in the early stage of its market-economic transformation. Back then, investment funds mushroomed amid what some dubbed "Wild-East capitalism." A large number of the funds were little more than pyramid schemes, and eventually collapsed, causing many investors to lose everything. Others never paid their promised dividends.
During opening arguments in a Kazakhstani court December 4, prosecutors claimed investors in Abilov's Butya-Kapital fund were defrauded by fund managers of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition to Abilov, two other Butya-Kapital managers, Ualikhan Bekbosyn and Baurzhan Karabekov, are also standing trial as co-conspirators. If convicted on the fraud charge, Abilov would face a prison term of between five and 10 years.
In court, Abilov denounced the trial as a "farce," and maintained that authorities fabricated the fraud charge. "What the financial police have written [in the case material] is utter nonsense," he told EurasiaNet after the hearing.
Abilov categorically denied any conspiracy or embezzlement. "Not a single kopeck was diverted illegally," he told reporters after a hearing in late November at which the trial was adjourned. "There was no criminal plot." Pointing to the length of time it has taken for a case dating back to 1993 to come to court, Abilov insisted the criminal case was designed to neutralize his political opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration. "The trial is because I engage in politics and in criticism of the regime," he said outside the court in November.
Bekbosyn, currently an academic, and Karabekov, now managing director for a major pension fund, also denied the charges. In a statement published in the Epokha newspaper, they also alleged that the case was more about opposition politics than about bad business behavior. "This [trial] gives the impression that the criminal case has been launched in order to put pressure on Bolat Abilov, tarnish his reputation and make him give up his political activity," the statement said.
After the 4 December hearing, Bekbosyn expressed concern about the proceedings. "The court is rushing," he told EurasiaNet. "You saw how many [defense] motions there were up to 10 but none were accepted. The subjectivity of how it is being examined is tangible."
Defense lawyers had asked in court for a two-month delay in order to better familiarize themselves with the roughly 125 volumes of evidence. The judge rejected the motion and set the next hearing for 20 December.
By that time, the court also needs to resolve a matter of interpretation between Kazakh and Russian. By law, defendants can choose to use either language in court. Karabekov has elected to conduct his defense in Kazakh; the other defendants are using Russian, as is the prosecution.
The court is obliged to provide interpretation, but little of what was said by Karabekov and his lawyer to the court was translated, and Karabekov received no translation into Kazakh of what was said in Russian. Karabekov objected that his right to conduct his defense in the state language was being infringed, putting him at a disadvantage. "I am a Kazakh citizen," he told the court. "My fate is being decided here."
The judge called for a new interpreter for the next hearing. Abilov, meanwhile, insisted that the trial had been ordered by authorities. "There is no hope of counting on an objective, fair trial," he told EurasiaNet. "I think the court will carry out everything Astana dictates."
Other public figures have expressed concern about the case. A group of deputies and political party leaders usually loyal to the government have signed an appeal to President Nazarbayev, calling on him to use his political influence to restrain the "ungrounded and prejudiced actions of the law-enforcement bodies."
Meanwhile, opposition leaders have signed a separate statement calling for an end to the "persecution" of Abilov, and a group of entrepreneurs, including the chairmen of some of Kazakhstan's biggest businesses, have signed yet another petition questioning the "cynical" nature of the case.
This is not the first time Abilov has faced criminal proceedings. This year alone he has received a second libel conviction, and has been given a three-year suspended sentence for assaulting a police officer. He also served 15 days in prison for his part in organizing an unsanctioned rally following the murder in February of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, another co-leader of the Nagyz Ak Zhol party. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Eyes are still focused on Kazakhstan's judicial system in the wake of Sarsenbayev's killing. Ten people were convicted of the murder in August amid widespread skepticism over the trial and doubts about whether the real culprits had been found. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive]. All 10 are appealing. As the Supreme Court started to hear the appeals on December 5, some observers questioned the extent to which political considerations influence judicial rulings.
Kazakhstan has faced international scrutiny this year over its human rights record, as members of Nazarbayev's administration, including the president himself, have lobbied hard this year to secure the OSCE chairmanship in 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Concerns among some member states that Kazakhstan's political and democratic record did not make it a worthy leader have led to the announcement of a compromise that some interpret as a face-saving move: instead of deciding the bid on December 5 as expected, the OSCE will return to the question of Kazakhstan's 2009 chairmanship early next year.
To win the position that it has fought so hard for, the Kazakhstani government will need to show that it is serious about democracy. Controversy over trials that some denounce as political will not boost its case in the court of international opinion.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.