July 22, 2013

The circumstances around the illegal deportation from Italy to Kazakhstan of the wife and daughter of Kazakh opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov are extremely worrying. Three United Nations experts have gone so far to say that it appears to have been an “extraordinary rendition”

The case has revealed major shortcomings on the part of Italian authorities. But it also throws a spotlight on Kazakhstan, where there has been a marked worsening in respect for human rights in recent years.

Kazakhstan, an energy-rich country with a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, is seeking a more influential global role (UK prime minister David Cameron was a recent visitor) but this has combined recently with a sharp decline in respect for freedom of assembly, speech and association. A major opposition figure still in the country has been imprisoned, and some independent media outlets have been shut down. There are allegations of prison torture, and concerns over whether government critics can get fair trials.

Meanwhile Kazakh authorities appear relentless in their pursuit of Ablyazov, who was granted asylum in the UK in 2011 on the grounds that he was deemed at risk of persecution if he were returned to Kazakhstan. His whereabouts are currently unknown. An Italian government inquiry revealed extensive involvement by Kazakh authorities in the operation that saw Ablyazov’s wife Alma Shalabayeva and their six-year old daughter whisked on a private jet to Kazakhstan from Rome on May 31 under an Italian expulsion order. Italian authorities this month admitted there were serious irregularities in the deportation procedure and withdrew the expulsion order.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have called for an independent inquiry into the case. The UN experts urged Italy to seek the return of the mother and daughter. As it happens, the latest phase of what has become a major political scandal in Italy coincided with a new twist in a separate ten-year-old rendition case where Italy played a more positive role.

The scandal in Italy is damaging for Rome but for Astana too. To prevent further harm, Kazakhstan needs to return Shalabayeva and her daughter and tackle its mounting domestic human rights concerns.