One year ago today, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Kazakhstan's best-known human rights defender, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to four years imprisonment. For many years, Yevgeniy was a thorn in the side of Kazakhstan's authoritarian government, eloquently speaking out at home and abroad about his country's abysmal human rights record. Last year, he fell victim to the same kind of abuses from which he had long sought to protect others.
Yevgeniy struck a pedestrian who was walking in the middle of an unlit stretch of rural highway at night. He was not speeding, nor was he drunk. Renowned Kazakhstani and Russian experts determined that there was no way he could have stopped in time. But the trial court judge refused to allow them to testify or to consider their evidence, one of the many flagrant violations of Kazakhstan's own laws that marred the investigation and trial. In effect, the Kazakhstani system robbed Yevgeniy of the right to defend himself.
Then, prison authorities subjected Yevgeniy to further discriminatory treatment. For example, prisoners in the minimum-security facility where he is incarcerated have the right to work on the local economy. But prison officials denied Yevgeniy the right to do so, even though -- or, perhaps, especially because -- the human rights organization he heads has an office in the town where he could work.
What has happened in the world during the year that Yevgeniy has been incarcerated? Kazakhstan has become Chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the organization that made human rights issues a legitimate part of the dialogue on security in Europe. Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been received in Washington by President Obama while at home he was named "Leader of the Nation," which will give him significant political power and immunity from prosecution even after he leaves office. And most recently, the United States and the other 55 OSCE participating states have agreed that Nazarbayev should host the first OSCE summit in more than a decade later this year.
Just a few days ago, the State Department issued a statement commemorating Kazakhstan's Constitution Day. In what one can only hope was intentional irony, the statement lauded the democratic tenets of Kazakhstan's constitution, almost none of which are implement in practice, and stated that Kazakhstan "will have the opportunity to further underscore your commitment to democratic progress when you welcome the world to the OSCE summit in Astana." It seems to me that if the Kazakh authorities have any interest in doing so then the best thing they can do would be to release Yevgeniy Zhovtis.