Human Rights Watch condemned the detention of former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin at a Moscow airport, and called on the Russian government to deny Kazakhstan's request to extradite him.
"The government of Kazakhstan is demonstrating its preferred method for dealing with organized political opposition: simply arrest the leader," said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "The Russian government should not have accommodated Kazakhstan's repressive actions." Cartner noted that the Kazakhstan authorities have used crude tactics against Mr. Kazhegeldin before. "With one month to go before parliamentary elections, these latest maneuvers are not surprising," she added.
According to unconfirmed news reports, Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General ordered Mr. Kazhegeldin's arrest on September 8, possibly on charges of tax evasion. On September 9, the Central Election Commission disqualified Mr. Kazhegeldin from running for a seat in the lower house of parliament on the basis of an October 1998 conviction for contempt of court. On September 10, police in Moscow detained Mr. Kazhegeldin, who has lived abroad since 1997, at Sheremetevo II airport as he arrived on a flight from Europe to meet with members of his political party, the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan (RPPK).
Mr. Kazhegeldin, 47, served as Prime Minister under President Nazarbaev from 1994 to 1997. Late in 1998, he formed the RPPK, and attempted to challenge Nazarbaev for the office of president in the January 10 elections this year. During the campaign period, Mr. Kazhegeldin and his associates were beaten, harassed and followed; shots were fired at Mr. Kazhegeldin outside the former capital, Almaty. Kazakh authorities finally denied him access to the ballot on the basis of his administrative conviction for participation in an unregistered public association, the Movement for Honest Elections.
Mr. Kazhegeldin continued to build up the RPPK in anticipation of elections to the lower house of parliament on October 10. In May 1999, however, Mr. Kazhegeldin's attorneys were informed that he Almaty tax police had initiated criminal charges against Mr. Kazhegeldin, allegedly seven months earlier, in October 1998. The RPPK has announced that it will boycott the election if its chairman is denied a spot on the ballot.
Human Rights Watch considers that in light of the clear political motivation for the charges against Mr. Kazhegeldin, Russia should abide by its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and provide access to a fair asylum hearing. Further, Russia should honor Article 63 of the Russian Constitution, which forbids extradition of persons with a well-grounded fear of political persecution, and Article 57(b) of the Minsk convention, which prohibits honoring extradition requests from states where "criminal prosecution cannot be carried out in accordance with legislation of the requested party." There is ample reason to believe that Kazakhstan's courts will not afford Mr. Kazhegeldin a fair hearing.