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In 1998, the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev sought to control both the mass media and opposition political groups, in anticipation of presidential elections. These elections, hastily brought forward by parliamentary amendments to the constitution in October, were rescheduled from December 2000 to January 1999. Authorities subsequently moved swiftly to exploit amendments to the Kazak Law on Elections, which bar electoral candidates convicted of an administrative or criminal offense from standing for public office, by arresting and sentencing numerous opposition figures and activists on charges of participation in an unsanctioned demonstration. Parliament further amended the constitution extending the terms of office of deputies from both the upper and lower houses by one year and extended the presidential term from five to seven years. Political activists faced increasing harassment, and independent newspapers were closed. The government secured U.S.$4 billion in new foreign investment for energy development, yet abject poverty became more widespread, male life expectancy decreased, and the incidence of tuberculosis in prison populations and among the general public grew. June 10 saw the delayed official changeover of the capital, from Almaty to the northern city of Astana. Although precise figures for 1998 are not available and Kazak courts continue to pass death sentences, it is reported that the number of executions in 1998 has continued a downward trend, as witnessed in 1996 and 1997, from the high of 101 executions carried out in 1995.

On October 15, authorities arrested and convicted several political activists on charges of participating in unsanctioned demonstrations. Sentences ranged from three days of detention to fines. Those sentenced included Peter Svoik of Azamat, Irina Savostina of the Generation Movement, Mels Eleusizov of the Green Party, and political activist Dos Koshim. Under amendments to the Kazak Law on Elections, noone convicted of an administrative or criminal offense may stand for public office.

The Kazak government used both legal means and force to halt criticism in the independent media. In May, the procuracy opened an investigation alleging that the Kazak mass media had committed 273 violations of the Law on the Press in 1997. These violations were said to include “abuses of freedom of speech, incitement of national enmity...aimed at instigating disputes and controversy over the country’s history and sovereignty.” A procuracy official deemed the investigation necessary because the “media frequently permit non-objective, insulting statements directed at government organs, officials and ordinary citizens... it is the media that should shape the ideals of our state and patriotic feelings.” As of this writing there were no prosecutions; the announcements, however, probably reinforced the already prevalent practice of self-censorship.

The Kazak government closed two independent newspapers founded earlier in 1998 — XXI Vek [21st Century] and Dat [The Vow]—both known for their critical coverage of the government.

The campaign to close XXI Vek began on September 10, when Almaty’s “Franklin” printing press refused to print the weekly. Five days later, the Daoiys distribution company annulled its contract with XXI Vek . At 4:30 a.m. on September 26, unknown assailants threw a molotov cocktail into the office of editor Bigeldy Gabdullin. Finally, on September 28, the Almaty city justice department informed the independent weekly newspaper, XXI Vek of impending liquidation proceedings for alleged violations of the civil code and the law on the press and mass media.

On June 26, Dat reprinted an article from a major Russian newspaper, Izvestiya, that criticized the chief of the tax police, Rakhat Aliyev for alleged excesses during a hunting trip. On July 22 and 23, tax police raided Dat ’s offices and confiscated financial records, safes, computers, and cash. Dat has appealed the resulting fine of 1.5 million tenge (U.S.$20,000). In September, Dat was preparing to publish an article containing allegations of corruption against Aliyev, when authorities brought criminal charges against the newspaper under Article 22 of the Law on National Security (see below), which prohibits foreign ownership of a Kazak media outlet. These charges reportedly relate to three stamps and foreign companies’ letterhead that were discovered ( Dat editors maintain they were planted) during the earlier tax police raid.

The Nazarbayev government sought to neutralize political opponents. Following an unsanctioned demonstration it organized on November 30, 1997, three co-chairs of the Azamat opposition group came under fire. On December 1, four masked men beat Petr Svoik who had organized the demonstration in neighboring Kyrgyzstan; on December 2, Murat Auezov received a 2,480 tenge (U.S.$32) fine for participation in that demonstration. Also in December, police arrested Galim Abilseitov, in connection with the same demonstration. At his trial, Abilseitov alleged that he was not allowed to testify in his own defense, and that he was denied a public hearing and the services of a lawyer. Although sentenced to fifteen days of imprisonment, Abilseitov was released after seven days following a district procurator’s ruling that his trial had indeed been illegal.

In February 1998, local human rights groups reported that police detained and beat Madel Ismailov, chairman of the opposition “Workers’ Movement,” holding him incommunicado for several days before informing relatives of his whereabouts. On April 7, Ismailov was convicted under article 318 of the Kazak criminal code, of “insulting the honor and dignity of the president,” and received a one-year sentence to be served in a general prison colony. Ismailov was reportedly filmed sharply criticizing the authorities while speaking at a November 7, 1997, rally. A June 3 appeal hearing confirmed the sentence.

On September 18, police detained Mikhail Vasilenko, advisor to former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, as he attempted to deliver Kazhegeldin’s proposals on election law and constitutional amendments to President Nazarbayev. Vasilenko was held incommunicado, tried, and sentenced on charges of hooliganism, and released five days later. Earlier in September authorities confiscated the Russian edition of a book by Kazhegeldin on solutions to current political problems and prevented the printing of the Kazak version.

Most disturbingly, the Nazarbayev administration paved the way for a possible wholesale crackdown on political opponents and the independent media with a new Law on the National Security of the Republic of Kazakstan, passed on June 26, 1998. The law features a vague and expansive definition of national security that has already been used used to deter and punish political opponents of the government for peacefully exercising their rights of speech, assembly, and association. “Threats to national security” may include “political extremism in any form,” “incitement of social...discord,” “unsanctioned gatherings,” “prevention of the growth of investment activity,” “a deterioration in the demographic situation, including a sharp reduction in the birthrate, increased mortality, and...unchecked migration,” and “a deterioration in the quality of education.” Specifically outlawed is the dissemination of all overseas media “whose content undermines national security.” The law authorizes the procurator general to suspend the activity of the news media without providing for any right of appeal.





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