Domestic and international pressure on Kazakhstan appears to be building as the case of prominent human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis, who was convicted earlier in September of vehicular manslaughter a car that killed a pedestrian, is moving into the appeals phase.
Since the verdict was announced, Kazakhstan has taken a beating in the court of international public opinion. The United States Embassy in Kazakhstan -- which rarely comments on individual cases -- issued a statement on September 4 that was critical of the Kazakhstani judicial system's performance. "[W]e have expressed our concerns about this case and urged the Kazakhstani authorities to provide Mr. Zhovtis access to fair legal proceedings, consistent with Kazakhstani law," the embassy statement said. "We will continue to make the same request during the appeals process."
Zhovtis -- who acknowledges that his car hit and killed a man on a dark road, but who insists he was not criminally responsible -- has argued that his rights were violated during the trial. Motions brought by the defense were routinely denied, and the judge's verdict took as long to read as he had allegedly spent writing it -- 15 minutes -- prompting suggestions that the decision had been prepared in advance. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. [Editor's Note: Zhovtis is a board member of the Central Eurasia Project (CEP) of the Open Society Institute (OSI) in New York. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of CEP/OSI].
Members of the US Helsinki Commission also addressed the issue of fairness in Zhovtis' case during a recent meeting with Kazakhstani officials in Washington, DC. The meeting, which was scheduled prior to Zhovtis' trial, focused on mapping out policy priorities for Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship.
The OSCE itself has reacted to the case. "The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has said it is concerned about reports from international and domestic observers monitoring the trial who reported about questionable procedural rulings that may have violated Mr. Zhovtis' right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Constitution of Kazakhstan, the country's OSCE commitments and fundamental international standards," OSCE spokesperson Martin Nesirky told EurasiaNet by e-mail.
ODIHR Director Janez Lenarcic wrote to newly-appointed Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev on September 4 expressing "grounds for serious doubt" that Zhovtis had had a fair trial. "As the upcoming Chair of the OSCE, it is of great importance for Kazakhstan to comply with international human rights standards and OSCE commitments," he added.
Over the past few days, some commentaries appearing in leading media outlets have openly lamented the fact that Kazakhstan is about to be handed the reins to Europe's leading democratization and civil society organization. "The OSCE, which monitors human rights and elections in its 56 members, has never judged an election in Kazakhstan free and fair. Yet some observers hoped that the pride of the one-year chairmanship would inspire human-rights improvements," said a commentary published by The Economist Weekly.
"Zhovtis, Kazakhstan's best-known human-rights activist, was one such hopeful observer," the Economist commentary continued. "He believed at the time there was little else left that could push a country with a one-party parliament and growing oil exports towards change. But in spite of some legislative reform, the overall human-rights situation has since become noticeably worse, particularly over the past six months."
Inside Kazakhstan, Zhovtis' fate has also produced a strong reaction. On September 9, Viktor Kovtunovskiy of the Civil Society Fund organized a small protest on Almaty's main pedestrian thoroughfare. "We cannot remain silent. Our country is turning into the most odious example of a totalitarian state," he said as he stood on the wall of a fountain waving a placard reading "Today Zhovtis, tomorrow you!"
"Our human rights activists were not previously persecuted like in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan," Kovtunovskiy continued. "Kazakhstan will not have a future unless people have rights and freedoms." He faced arrest for his unsanctioned action, but a halfhearted attempt to break it up by a city hall representative and a law-enforcement official fizzled out.
Kazakhstan's opposition parties have condemned the sentencing, alleging that officials used the trial to punish Zhovtis for two decades of human rights work. "[The sentence] is without a doubt the consequence of his human rights activity and principled criticism of the law-enforcement, justice and political systems," read a statement issued by the Azat Party. Meanwhile the unregistered Alga! Party described the case as "politically motivated" and "part of a campaign to intimidate civil society and activists from human rights organizations, and not to allow the real democratization of the country." The National Social Democratic Party asserted that the Zhovtis case aimed to "root out political dissent" and create "an atmosphere of fear and civic silence."
Kazakhstan's ombudsman, Askar Shakirov, has reportedly intervened to ask Supreme Court Chairman Musabek Alimbekov to ensure the rule of law is observed during Zhovtis' appeals process.
Outside Kazakhstan, the case is fast turning into a test of Astana's diplomatic credibility. "We urge Kazakhstan to provide Mr. Zhovtis access to fair legal proceedings during the appeals process, consistent with Kazakhstani law and its commitment to international standards on the rule of law," said a statement issued September 10 by the US mission to the OSCE. ""We further urge Kazakhstan to conduct these proceedings with full transparency and to investigate alleged irregularities. The outcome of this trial is being watched closely by the international community."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.