Coercion, threats and the repression of opposition activists have characterized the presidential election campaign in Kazakhstan.

Journalists and ordinary citizens have also been harassed during the three-month campaign for the ballot, scheduled for Sunday, January 10.

"These presidential elections have been blatantly unfair," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "President Nazarbaev likes to present himself as a dignified partner for Western leaders and investors. But the way his government has twisted arms in this campaign should leave no illusions about what kind of leader Nazarbaev really is."

In a letter to the new chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Human Rights Watch urged the OSCE to postpone opening its Kazakhstan office until the government repeals legislation penalizing participants in unregistered public organizations, which has been used to prevent opposition figures from standing for election.

The government of Kazakhstan barred opposition candidates on spurious grounds, disbanded public associations formed to monitor the vote, and used legal and extra-legal means to effectively close most newspapers with links to the opposition. Several journalists with state-run news agencies reported to Human Rights Watch that they were explicitly warned against submitting stories even obliquely critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Kazakhstan's parliament moved up the elections, originally scheduled for 2000, in an October 8 vote, which some have maintained violated the constitution. Legislation passed in May banning individuals with administrative sentences from standing for office blocked the candidacies of at least three opposition activists-- including former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin--all of whom had received administrative sentences for participating in unsanctioned political meetings. In the end, four candidates, including President Nazarbaev, gained access to the ballot before the November 26 deadline; only one of the remaining three openly criticizes Nazarbaev's policies.

Registration requirements were onerous and included collecting the signatures of 170,000 voters. Human Rights Watch found that public officials and heads of publicly-funded institutions such as schools, hospitals and other workplaces forced employees and students to sign petitions in support of President Nazarbaev. Some officials obtained signatures of pensioners and apartment-dwellers by means of fraud. A high school principal in Almaty reportedly begged schoolteachers to gather signatures, fearing the consequences for not meeting the government's expectations. Merchants at a central Almaty market told Human Rights Watch about clear pressure from market administrators to sign nomination petitions. And one doctor reported her department chief yelling, when proffering sheets to be signed, "I warn you, this is voluntary!"

For Further Information:
Rachel Denber, NYC, 1-212-216-1266
Elizabeth Andersen, NYC, 1-212-216-1265
Lotte Leicht, Brussels, 32-2-732-2009
Jean-Paul Marthoz, Brussels, 32-2-736-7838