Just a few years back, a savagely offensive and popular comedy starring Sascha Baron Cohen caused extraordinary embarrassment in Kazakhstan, as outraged citizens rightfully protested the portrayal of their country as a backward and ignorant third world hole. Kazakhstan actually does have a lot going for it, with enormous energy deposits, a powerfully growing economy, and an intelligent innovative class, but thanks to the ongoing conduct by the government of the Nursultan Nazarbayev, they seem intent on making Borat a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Today a court outside of Almaty sentenced the country's most well known human rights advocate, Yevgeny Zhovtis of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, to four years in prison on charges of manslaughter and traffic violations related to a July 26 accident. The court had not even been in session for three full days, only two of which defense lawyers were present for, while numerous procedural violations were racked up right before observers from several embassies and international human rights organizations. As Zhovtis himself said before being hauled off to a prison colony, the proceedings were a "political setup" by the state.
Many longtime Central Asia watchers will tell you that Kazakhstan has been a fairly terrible place for human rights for many years now, but with the conduct of the government in the past six months, especially in relations with the Austrian prosecutors in the case of the former ambassador and Nazarbayev son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, things have really gone off the rails.
With the hasty conviction of Zhovtis, which comes on top of scores of other false cases, Kazakhstan is entering deeper and deeper into a human rights black hole, just months before Nazarbayev is meant to take over the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This judicial farce, aimed against one of the country's most important civil society activists, reeks of impunity, and the open and arrogant belief by the leadership that selling oil to the West means not having to observe the law.
Zhovtis has a long history of prestigious advocacy work, which unfortunately was the cause of some embarrassment to the "Kazakhbashi." On May 12, 2009, Zhovtis spoke before the U.S. Congress Helsinki Commission on Kazakhstan's upcoming chairmanship of the OSCE, where he presented a long and detailed list of journalists and opposition politicians who had been jailed and persecuted on political grounds. Zhovtis, with typical restraint and measurement, remarked, "all the countries that have made this decision [Kazakhstan's Chairmanship of OSCE] to a certain degree are responsible for the democratization processes, the rule of law and human rights implementation. And I do hope that awareness of this responsibility will make it possible to positively influence the improvement of the current situation."
Working in close collaboration with George Soros's Open Society Institute, Zhovtis has been publishing similar defenses for human rights in Kazakhstan for many years. Ever since the recent authoritarian crackdowns by Nazarbayev's regime, especially following the constitutional changes in 2007 which now allow him to rule the country for life, civil society organizations have been squeezed from every side, leaving this NGO as one of the last practicing human rights advocacy. In fact, just days before the automobile accident, he had traveled to Vienna to give testimony on the situation.
Regarding the accident itself, opinions are split over whether the government is just opportunistically prosecuting Zhovtis over a tragic accident, and others who suspect that the entire incident was a conspiracy - including the shocking sacrifice of a human life in order to jail a human rights leader (it should be noted here that neither Zhovtis nor his defense counsel have endorsed that theory).
On the evening of July 26th, Zhovtis was returning home from a fishing trip driving along an isolated strip of highway, when two oncoming cars approached at a close distance, blinding him with the headlights. When Zhovtis could see again, immediately he saw a man in road, and unable to stop the car, the collision tragically claimed the life of the individual on the spot.
I have spent the past two days speaking on the phone with one of Zhovtis's lawyers, Vera Tkachenko, to gather information for this article. Vera tells me that from the very first police reports, there were extraordinary irregularities and factual distortions. The indictment from the prosecutors attempted to suggest the presence of alcohol and/or impairment - the defense could prove that Zhovtis was sober as day. The auto-technical report, which included the speeds, distances, and other investigatory inventions which was the basis for the indictment, was almost pure fabrication - using "estimated data" provided by state prosecutors, rather than local witnesses.
I asked Vera to explain to me the clearest signs that this was a biased, politically ordered trial, instead of an independent and fair judicial proceeding for a regular crime. First, there was the fact that the judge refused nearly every motion submitted by the defense (the only two motions admitted were to delay the trial until Sept. 2, and the addition of another lawyer). The defense counsel arranged to have two separate independent experts, one Kazakh and one Russian, examine the auto-technical expert testimony and provide corrections to all the distortions. The judge refused to admit these independent expert testimonies. Zhovtis prepared a 12-page motion denying the charges, and again, the judge refused to admit it. No exculpatory evidence was allowed into the court, and after a brief cross-examination, the judge announced that the trial would move into the final phase - which must have been a world record for speed in Kazakhstan justice.
The shell shocked defense lawyers submitted a motion to recuse the judge, whose behavior they said obviously displayed that he did not have an impartial standing. The judge left the room for just a few minutes, only to return to say that the defense does not have this right. The defense then asked for just one more day to prepare for the closing arguments - the judge denied the request, and gave them only 40 minutes. Finally, after hearing the prosecutor's presentation, the judge spent no more than 25-30 minutes in deliberation, returning with a seven-page printed and stamped verdict - which is a procedural impossibility given the short amount of time.
"It was incredible," Vera told me. "There were representatives present from the embassies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as representatives from Human Rights Watch and the OSCE. I hope they are able to report to the world what happened in that court today."
This boldfaced attack on human rights will pose an interesting diplomatic test for Kazakhstan's partners and investors, but I fear that we might just see exactly how many barrels of oil a given dictator needs to export in order to flaunt the law. Given the extraordinarily high amount of grand corruption surrounding this administration, the only message they will understand will be the one to hit their pocketbooks.
There are many competing theories as to why we are seeing so many opposition politicians, journalists, and activists facing an onslaught of cases from Nazarbayev. One rumor is that there is a serious behind-the-scenes power struggle to either remove the 17-year leader, or at least advance higher within his camp. These struggles often exacerbate the current corruption problems of the state, which most kindly could be described as hideous. But even veteran Kazakh analysts I have been talking to seem shocked by the severity of the sentence against Zhovtis, who unlike some, usually knew what was acceptable and unacceptable in order to keep working. The draconian sentencing clearly illustrates a high level of insecurity and panic in the leadership, which appears to be heightening as the OSCE chairmanship approaches.
The result, so far, has been outrage. The supporters who crowded the courtroom are reported to have shouted "shame, shame" after the judge, and they're right. The people of Kazakhstan should be embarrassed by the conduct of their president, but for members of the OSCE, even more so.