The vicious attack on an independent journalist who recently criticized the policies of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is part of a worrying trend of abuse targeting the Kazakh government's critics, Human Rights Watch said today.

On Wednesday, journalist Sergei Duvanov was attacked outside his home in Almaty by unknown assailants. He suffered serious injuries, including severe head trauma and extensive cuts and bruises. The attackers reportedly said, "you know why we're doing this" and "next time we'll make you a cripple." There were no signs of a robbery and persons close to Duvanov were convinced that the attack was in retaliation for his recent criticism of government policies.

Duvanov was scheduled to travel to a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw next month where he had been invited to speak about human rights abuses in Kazakhstan. He received official notice of his invitation the same day as the attack.

"Coming on the heels of Duvanov's courageous reporting and in light of the Kazakh government's general intolerance of independent media, it is difficult to dismiss this attack as a simple act of hooliganism," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch urged a prompt independent investigation and prosecution of those responsible. According to press reports, President Nazarbaev has denounced the attack on Duvanov and called for a police investigation of the incident.

On the day of the attack, independent short-wave radio station "Dat" (Kazakh for "I demand a word") broadcast Duvanov's analysis of the political situation in Kazakhstan, including a look at the possibilities for a change in leadership for the country.

Duvanov, who also works as editor-in-chief of the "Bulletin," published by the non-governmental organization Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, has consistently focused his work on justice and civil rights issues. Earlier this

year, the Kazakh government brought a case against Duvanov for his Internet postings about government attempts to silence journalists covering Swiss and U.S. investigations into alleged corruption by President Nazarbaev and family members. On July 9, 2002, officers from the national security service KNB, formerly the KGB, arrested Duvanov and informed him that a case against him had been opened for "insulting the honor and dignity of the President," under article 318 of the Kazakh Criminal Code. Duvanov was released from police custody the same day, but the case against him remains open.

"Punishing journalists under so-called 'honor and dignity' laws is an outdated Soviet tactic that undermines the Kazakh government's claims to an open society," said Andersen, "These laws were used by the Soviets to hide abuses and criminalize dissent and President Nazarbaev is using them the same way today."

Other Kazakh journalists have also been physically assaulted in apparent retaliation for their reporting. Lira Baiseitova, an independent journalist who wrote for "SolDat" newspaper, reported attacks in 2000 and 2001. In May 2002, Baiseitova published a controversial piece in SolDat regarding Swiss bank accounts held by the Nazarbaev family, and the following day, her 25-year old daughter "disappeared." Police later informed Baiseitova that her daughter had been arrested for heroin possession. Baiseitova's daughter died in police custody and Baiseitova received conflicting reports about the cause of her death.

Also in May, employees of the "SolDat" newspaper were reportedly beaten by unknown assailants and suffered severe injuries. The same month the offices of another newspaper, "Respublika," were destroyed by a firebombing. Police reportedly failed to investigate the incident. On August 16, independent television reporter Artur Platonov was physically attacked and suffered injuries requiring hospitalization. Human rights groups reported that police identified the assailants as three former police officers. Human Rights Watch has no information about any investigation into the attack. Platonov's recent reporting had addressed allegations of government corruption and the death of Baiseitova's daughter.

In what seems in retrospect darkly ironic, during a 2001 visit to the United States, Duvanov told journalists from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Washington D.C. that Nazarbaev was "one of the smart post-Soviet dictators who, like Putin, does not have to kill journalists to render them ineffective."

Duvanov was brought to hospital late Wednesday night after neighbors found him, bloody and unconscious, outside his apartment building in Almaty. Human Rights Watch learned early Thursday that Duvanov remained hospitalized in stable condition.

Leading rights defender Zhovtis, who is acting as Duvanov's attorney and who visited him in hospital, was reported by Reuters as saying, "This appears to be a political act carried out to silence the opposition journalist and intimidate opponents of the authorities."