Prominent human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis of Kazakhstan, imprisoned in September on a vehicular manslaughter charge, is appealing his conviction. Zhovtis' legal team is basing the appeal in part on an assertion that the court was biased against the defendant.
Zhovtis received a four-year prison term in early September following a short trial. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He has expressed remorse for the July auto tragedy in which a pedestrian, Kanat Moldabayev, was killed. But he has insisted that he was neither negligent nor culpable in the accident.
In the appeal, Zhovtis' lawyer Vitaly Voronov called the ruling "illegal and unfounded" and urged that it be set aside due to numerous procedural errors.
Zhovtis issued his own detailed appeal September 16. It included several instances of alleged judicial misconduct, contending, for instance, that the court unjustly turned down his lawyers' petition for further testing of his vehicle and improperly refused to hear testimony from expert witnesses. Prosecutors also misled Zhovtis by interrogating him as a witness when in fact he was considered a suspect, according to the appeal.
"Not a single specialist from the defense side was questioned during the trial; not a single piece of evidence was accepted, not a single petition from the defense to review exonerating circumstances was satisfied," Zhovtis said in a statement distributed via email in early October. The victim's relatives have not pressed charges and have accepted compensation volunteered by Zhovtis.
The case has drawn unusually outspoken comments from Western governments. Zhovtis' jailing has also galvanized activists throughout the former Soviet republics, who see the case as emblematic of backsliding on human rights in Eurasia. [Editor's Note: Zhovtis is a former chair of the board of Soros Foundation Kazakhstan and is a current board member of Open Society Institute's Central Eurasia Project. EurasiaNet operates under OSI's auspices].
Douglas Wake, first deputy director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and Jeannette Kloetzer, the deputy head of the OSCE Center in Astana, were permitted to visit Zhovtis in a jail outside of Almaty in Taldy-Qorgan on September 19, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported. Wake said, "while we are not suggesting that Zhovtis should receive any special treatment, it is essential that fair-trial standards are fully respected during the appeals process."
The European Parliament passed a resolution on September 17 that expressed concern about the increase in media restrictions in Kazakhstan and a series of controversial prosecutions, including that of Zhovtis. It called on the European Council to raise his case in the second round of the EU-Kazakhstan human rights dialogue, scheduled for October 21, and at the EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council meeting in mid-November.
Supporters helped call attention to Zhovtis' case on September 28, the opening day of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) in Warsaw. Rights activists and colleagues from several Eurasian states staged a picket outside the main entrance of the Sofitel Victoria, site of the conference. Meanwhile, during the plenary session, 25 rights activists silently stood up to protest what they characterized as the unfair conduct of the trial. The HDIM session in Warsaw was scheduled to conclude on October 9.
A defense committee has been formed by Inessa Khezelle Meerburg of the Institute for Cooperation in Development in Kazakhstan, Andrei Aranbaev of the Ashgabat Ecology Club of Turkmenistan, Vitaly Ponomaryov of Russia's Memorial Human Rights Committee, Yury Dzhibladze of the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Russia, and other human rights leaders in the region. The group has gathered more than 800 signatures around the world and has staged pickets in front of Kazakhstan's embassies in Moscow, Kiev, Warsaw, Oslo and Helsinki. The group is also circulating petitions via social networking platforms.
In an interview with the Dutch human rights group ICARE, Dzhibladze said the defense committee was urging ambassadors from the 54 OSCE states to call for a new, fair trial for Zhovtis. "We believe this was indeed a very unfair trial, marred with numerous procedural violations, and clearly a politically motivated process," said Dzhibladze.
Catherine Fitzpatrick is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in human rights issues.