The man convicted of ordering the murder of an opposition leader eight years ago is to be released on parole, a court in Astana has ruled. The decision raises, yet again, questions about the judiciary’s independence.
Yerzhan Utembayev will be released after serving eight years of his sentence over the brutal killing of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, an opposition leader and former government minister, in 2006, Tengri News reports.
Sarsenbayev’s brother, Rysbek Sarsenbay, had asked the court not to release Utembayev, claiming that he is concealing the names of those really responsible for the murder. “We want those who are really guilty to be exposed and convicted,” Sarsenbay said. But his arguments fell on deaf ears.
At his trial in 2006, Utembayev – who originally confessed to contracting the murder, but later recanted – was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill Sarsenbayev for $60,000 in revenge for a newspaper article making unflattering revelations about him.
The trial found that Utembayev (who was at the time was head of the Senate secretariat) contracted Rustam Ibragimov, a former Interior Ministry officer, who set up a death squad comprising rogue members of elite Kazakhstani anti-terrorism units, which kidnapped Sarsenbayev and two aides and delivered them to Ibragimov, who killed the three men.
The 19th-century Kazakh and Russian cultural icons depicted enjoying a kiss on a poster may be long dead. But that has not stopped a court in Kazakhstan awarding massive damages to a group of living people who claim the image of two men kissing has hurt their feelings.
On October 28, a court in Almaty ordered the advertising agency that designed the poster – which shows Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin kissing – to pay 34 million tenge ($188,000) to a group of 34 music students and teachers whose only tenuous connection to the image is that they study and work at the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory, Tengri News reports.
The ruling awarding each plantiff a million tenge is “unfair,” said Dariya Khamitzhanova, director of the Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan agency, which designed the poster. “This 34 million will ruin our company.” She pledged to appeal, but meanwhile the court has frozen the agency’s assets.
The controversial poster – advertising an Almaty gay club at the intersection of Kurmangazy and Pushkin streets and inspired by a famous image of the leaders of East Germany and the Soviet Union kissing in 1979 – was designed for an advertising competition in August and was never intended for showing in the public domain.
However, after the picture started doing the rounds on social media a public outcry ensued and three separate lawsuits were launched against the agency, which has repeatedly apologized for any offense caused.
The steep decline in global oil prices is stoking angst in Kazakhstan. Experts and officials alike say the government has ample resources to grapple with fiscal surprises. The real question is whether the political will exists for the government to take necessary measures.
What to get the oligarch who has everything? How about a caviar spa experience on the shores of the Caspian Sea?
Billed as a “black caviar spa for real gourmands,” this is one of the leisure experiences that will be available at the upmarket Kenderli resort in Kazakhstan when it opens its doors in a few years. If immersing your body in a bath of fish eggs is not to your taste, how about “dances with seals?”
These and other once-in-a-lifetime experiences are being touted to lure tourists to a part of Kazakhstan not known for bringing in the holiday hordes: the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, where, if developers get their way, a high-class resort will soon spring up out of the desert, reports Tengri News.
The development blueprint expects that by 2020 over half a million tourists will be flocking to Kenderli every year, with foreigners making up over half of the projected 642,000 visitors. Russia is considered the most promising market, but the resort will also target holidaymakers from other parts of Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, and visitors from Turkey and the Middle East.
Developers have an ambitious vision for Kenderli as “a superb 21st century tourist coastal resort” that will become the “best” on the Caspian, “the perfect destination for domestic and international tourists, generating wealth for the region and wellbeing for our people.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in Brussels putting the finishing touches to a landmark agreement with the European Union, cementing ties with Europe even as Astana pushes ahead to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Nazarbayev met Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, on October 9, to “confirm the conclusion of negotiations” on the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the EU said.
The agreement – three years in the making – aims to boost cooperation in around 30 policy areas including trade and foreign and security policy, it said, and will “significantly deepen political and economic ties” between Kazakhstan and the EU (Astana’s largest trade partner and a major consumer of its energy exports).
The agreement is a far weaker deal than the Association Agreement signed by Ukraine this year, but is still the most ambitious deal to be concluded between the EU and any Central Asian state.
It “puts a strong emphasis on democracy and the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the EU stated, although it failed to specify how.
The visit was marred by news that France is investigating possible kickbacks involving a helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, and probing allegations that Nazarbayev put indirect pressure on Brussels to close a bribery case against Kazakhstani oligarchs.
There was also controversy over Kazakhstan’s human rights record.
Uzbekistan has made “no advancement” in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, the US Department of Labor has found, despite Tashkent’s efforts to remove younger children from the cotton fields.
The judgment will come as a blow to the administration of strongman President Islam Karimov, which – under sustained international pressure – says it has banned children from picking cotton and last year invited the International Labor Organization (ILO) in to monitor the issue.
“Notwithstanding initiatives to reduce child labor, Uzbekistan has received this [“no advancement”] assessment based on the government's continued complicity in the use of forced child labor,” the Labor Department’s annual Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, released October 8, state.
“Although the government continues to publicly deny the use of forced labor, including of children, in the cotton harvest, information indicates that children continue to be required to engage in the worst forms of child labor in cotton production,” it continued.
The findings acknowledged that Tashkent had by and large ensured that children under 15 “were able to continue to attend school during the harvest season,” but said local officials continued shutting down colleges and lyceums, “mobilizing children ages 15 to 17 to pick cotton to meet the government-mandated harvest quotas.”
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children and adults, while Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
French investigators are probing suspected kickbacks paid over a lucrative helicopter deal with Kazakhstan, Le Monde has revealed.
The report emerged the day before President Nursultan Nazarbayev heads to Brussels to cement Kazakhstan-European Union ties. Embarrassingly, it alleges the Kazakh president used a €2 billion contract with Marseille-based Eurocopter (since renamed Airbus Helicopter) to pressure Belgium to drop bribery charges against three Kazakhstani oligarchs.
The investigation into the Eurocopter deal (signed in 2010 when Nazarbayev was welcomed to France by Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president) on suspicion of money-laundering, corrupting public officials and receiving stolen goods began in 2012 and has been conducted in the utmost secrecy, Le Monde reported.
Last month two former Sarkozy associates who held top jobs in his administration were arrested on suspicion of involvement in paying kickbacks over the contract, the newspaper said, naming them as Jean-Francois Etienne des Rosaies, a former adviser to Sarkozy, and Nathalie Gonzalez-Prado, a former senior official at the Elysee palace.
The probe was sparked by the appearance of “suspicious funds” (more than €300,000) in the account of Etienne des Rosaies, the report said, adding that two unnamed “intermediaries” and a lawyer had been indicted.
Sarkozy is also “suspected of having put pressure in 2011 on the Belgian Senate,” at Nazarbayev’s request, over a bribery and money-laundering probe involving three Kazakhstani oligarchs as a condition for the helicopter deal going ahead, Le Monde claimed. The report did not name the oligarchs.
As the fallout from a criminal investigation targeting Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov, continues to resonate in Uzbekistan, several high-ranking law-enforcement officers have been arrested on corruption charges in Tashkent.
The two probes may not be linked, but the latest arrests suggest that the elite infighting that has destabilized Uzbekistan over the last year may be spilling into a turf war between the country’s powerful security agencies.
The latest investigation targets the State Customs Service. Among the senior officers rounded up were the head of customs for Tashkent Region, Lieutenant Sirozhiddin Gulamov, and his deputy, Umar Bekov, Uzbekistan’s Podrobno news agency reported on September 30.
Another of the five detainees named was Major Abdusattor Abduraimov, the head of the Oybek border crossing on the frontier with Tajikistan. A chief inspector from Oybek and another inspector from the Gisht-Kuprik crossing on the frontier with Kazakhstan (better known as Chernyayevka), were also arrested, the report said. It quoted an unidentified source in the customs service for Tashkent Region, where both crossings are located.
The detainees are suspected of setting up an extortion ring and have already been charged with several crimes, including bribery, Podrobno said. They are alleged to have extorted money from entrepreneurs crossing official border checkpoints, where shakedowns are common during what is often a protracted and stressful process.
As Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman President Islam Karimov, stares the prospect of a jail term in the face, a new report by an international human rights watchdog offers a chilling peak at life behind bars in her father’s authoritarian state.
The report, released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on September 26, details the cases of 34 detainees and ten former detainees whom the watchdog views as political prisoners, jailed on trumped-up charges ranging from plotting to overthrow Karimov to corruption, illegal religious activity, and human trafficking.
These cases “shed light on larger trends of political repression in Uzbekistan and on the government’s attempt to suppress a wide range of independent activity that occurs beyond strict state control,” the watchdog said in the 121-page report, entitled Until the Very End: Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan.
The detainees profiled include human rights campaigners, political activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and witnesses to the shooting of protesters in Andijan in 2005.
Tashkent “appears to have a policy of using imprisonment to target virtually anyone engaged in activities outside very tight state controls,” Steve Swerdlow of HRW, the report’s author, told EurasiaNet.org.
Like other detainees inside Uzbekistan’s notoriously harsh jails, political prisoners are held in tough conditions and suffer “a wide range of human rights abuses,” the research found, with “credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment” made in 29 of the case studies.
With the Russian economy starting to creak under the weight of Western economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis, a question is being posed in Kazakhstan: will the Kremlin’s aggressive geopolitical agenda cause Astana excessive economic pain?