Leading politicians are joining with democracy and civil society groups in calling on authorities in Kazakhstan to release jailed human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis.
His case was raised on Capitol Hill today at a hearing on Kazakhstan’s controversial leadership of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) featuring the country’s Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev.
The Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy called on the Supreme Court of Kazakhstan to honor the appeal submitted on 27 January 2010 by Zhovtis’s defense team. The human rights activist is a member of the movement’s Steering Committee and director of the Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Zhovtis was sentenced to four years in prison for accidentally striking and killing a man with his car.
“It is now clear that Kazakhstani authorities exploited this unfortunate accident to politicize the investigation and punish Mr. Zhovtis for his human rights work, evidenced by the fact that the investigation and the subsequent trial were rife with procedural violations,” the World Movement states.
Senators John Kerry (D-Mass), Robert Casey (D-Penn) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) expressed their concern “that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House, as well as Kazakh rights organizations, have raised questions about the investigation and trial that led to this verdict and allege that Mr. Zhovtis did not have the opportunity to exercise fully his right to defend himself.”
The Open Society Institute urged the Almaty authorities to release Zhovtis and order a fresh investigation into the case.
“Zhovtis is one of Kazakhstan’s most dedicated human rights lawyers, and we are deeply disturbed that he has been imprisoned after an unfair trial,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
“With Kazakhstan chairing the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe this year, it needs to show that it respects basic standards of law and justice.”
At the Capitol Hill hearing, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) expressed his support for Kazakhstan, which presents itself as an emerging democracy, hosting a summit of OSCE heads of state this year provided the regime adhered to the grouping’s practice, including a “full review of OSCE commitments open to non-governmental organization participation”.
But he cited the country’s restrictive media law, poor electoral practice, and the detention of Zhovtis as “serious matters” to be confronted.
The hearing reflected Washington’s ambivalence towards the regime in Kazakhstan. As Eurasianet’s Joshua Kucera notes:
The problem is that different constituencies within the US government disagree on what Washington’s top priority should be: while some argue that the United States should push for Astana to adopt a faster democratization pace, others are seeking greater cooperation on security issues, in particular Kazakhstani assistance in shipping military equipment to Afghanistan.
“When they come in talking about an OSCE summit, we, and a lot of the OSCE members, are telling them the same thing: we want to see [democratization] progress,” one State Department official told EurasiaNet.
Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship could set a disturbing precedent and example for the region, activists and analysts suggest.
“What the former Soviet space needs are positive examples for liberalization, but too often, the exact opposite trajectory is seen in practice,” writes Vyacheslav Abramov, an activist for media freedom in Kazakhstan, and head of MediaNet, a non-profit that provides training in investigative journalism:
Throughout the region, both human rights activists and international organizations monitoring human freedom around the world have experience similar repression. Often, states borrow tactics from one another, as is evidenced by the passage of similar measures to restrict speech, assembly, and electoral rights in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. Should the Kazakhs be successful in their goal of holding the first OSCE summit in a decade, what message will that send to all the member states headed unequivocally in the wrong direction.