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Wednesday, 14 August 2002

OPPOSITION LEADERS JAILED IN KAZAKHSTAN

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By Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan (8/14/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The Kazakhstani public is getting used to political persecutions, which often take ugly forms. The majority of people, who usually grumble about declining living standards, take the arrest of a political activist as a part of a government campaign against the "criminal filth", to use the expression of the Minister of Interior. That deeply-rooted public contempt for bribe-takers and corrupted officials is skillfully exploited by the authorities in crushing too vociferous critics of the regime.

The Kazakhstani public is getting used to political persecutions, which often take ugly forms. The majority of people, who usually grumble about declining living standards, take the arrest of a political activist as a part of a government campaign against the "criminal filth", to use the expression of the Minister of Interior. That deeply-rooted public contempt for bribe-takers and corrupted officials is skillfully exploited by the authorities in crushing too vociferous critics of the regime.

The landmark court case against two former high-profile government officials, now prominent leaders of the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, can be seen in this context. Mukhtar Ablyazov, who until recently headed the Ministry of Industry and Trade, was seen as one of the most ardent young reformists in the government. Last year, he was sacked from the Cabinet after founding, together with other like-minded officials, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), an event which caused a great turmoil in the otherwise somnolent political life of the country.

At first, authorities tried to ignore the movement, and then, when it was no longer impossible to underestimate the potential threat from the Democratic Choice in view of its rising popularity, they attempted to reach some sort of compromise with the leaders of the movement. But that failed too. The emergence of the DCK coincided with the leakage to the DCK-supported media of a scandalous report about alleged secret  accounts of the president in foreign banks. The patience of the government ran out.

The lawsuit against Mukhtar Ablyazov was filed in June. He was accused of  illegally writing off US$3,64 million debts of the "Kostanaiasbest" company to the national power company KEGOK. The defendant and his lawyers denied these charges, arguing that relevant documents were signed by other officials. But none of these arguments were taken into consideration by the Supreme Court, which sentenced Mukhtar Ablyazov to six years in penal colony. "What I have understood is that economic reforms are impossible to carry out without political reforms". That prompted us to create the DCK in November 2001. And that provoked political reprisals against us. That is why I am here today, in this courtroom, on fabricated charges", Ablyazov said in his final speech.

A top-level investigation committee has charged another leader of the DCK, former governor of the Pavlodar region Galymzhan Zhakyanov, with abuse of power and financial fraud in the process of privatization of some big enterprises. The accused did not admit any of these charges. He and his lawyers said the defendant had done everything in full compliance with the instructions of the national privatization committee. Witnesses at the court session gave confused and contradicting evidences. No conclusive proof of his guilt was provided. Nevertheless, the Pavlodar city court passed a verdict sentencing him to seven years of imprisonment.

Outside the courthouse, numerous supporters greeted Zhakyanov, chanting his name as the handcuffed convict was escorted to a police car after the verdict was announced. Under present law, he will be barred from seeking public office for three years after serving his prison term. But on the whole, the general public reacted calmly to the trial of opposition leaders. No one at the court session dropped a word about the activities of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and in many eyes the defendants looked like common criminals.

A belated protest over the court verdict came from some human rights campaigners. According to the director of the Department of the International human rights organization Yevgeniy Zhovtis, these trials are undoubtedly politically motivated and the convicted must be regarded as political prisoners. All that is true. But in Kazakhstan, a political prisoner is someone who does nothing more than just seeking trouble with the authorities.

Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan

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