(New York) - The Kazakh government should ensure that Kazakhstan's most prominent human rights defender, who faces manslaughter charges following an automobile accident, gets a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The government's past harassment of its critics and its handling of the case thus far raise concerns that it could be used for political purposes, Human Rights Watch said.
In a trial scheduled to begin on September 2, 2009, Evgeniy Zhovtis, founding director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, will face charges of criminal violation of traffic regulations. The charges, which could result in a sentence of up to five years in prison, stem from an accident on July 26 that killed a young man who was in the middle of a highway.
"The authorities should make sure that this terrible tragedy for the victim and his family is not exploited for political purposes," said Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Evgeniy Zhovtis deserves a fair trial."
According to the indictment, Zhovtis was temporarily blinded by the high beams of an oncoming car while driving late at night in Almaty province. The car struck Kanat Moldabayev, who was on the highway. Zhovtis said he tried to avoid hitting the man, but failed. The prosecution's forensic analysis found that Zhovtis was neither intoxicated nor driving above the speed limit at the time of the accident.
Human Rights Watch is concerned about possible political interference in the case. On July 27, the authorities opened a criminal case, a normal procedure after a car accident with a casualty. Zhovtis was assigned the status of a witness to the case and cooperated as such with the investigation.
On July 28, the investigation made him a suspect, but Zhovtis and his lawyer learned about the change in his status only two weeks later, on August 14. Under Kazakh law, the investigation has an obligation to inform anyone who becomes a suspect as soon as that is determined.
Zhovtis is being charged under article 296, part 2 of the Criminal Code (Violation of traffic rules that lead to the death of a person). His defense attorney said that the charges are based on analysis by a technical expert that Zhovtis could have prevented the accident if he had made an emergency stop when the oncoming car's high beams impaired his ability to see the road. An analysis by an expert for the defense says, though, that it was technically impossible for him to have prevented the accident.
Kazakhstan's human rights record has recently come under scrutiny because the country will chair the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010.
While the government has made some modest human rights improvements in the past several months, the changes fall far short of what is needed to guarantee that key rights are respected, Human Rights Watch said.
"With forthcoming OSCE chairmanship, now is an important time for Kazakhstan's authorities to show that they fully observe fair trial standards," Berg said.
Zhovtis has been an outspoken proponent of a wide range of human rights issues in Kazakhstan, including most recently freedom of religion and assembly, and electoral reform. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law focuses on combating torture, protecting refugees, promoting children's rights, and improving prison conditions, as well as highlighting incursions against free expression. Its programs also include human rights education and awareness, and free legal assistance to asylum seekers, migrants, and other vulnerable individuals. The group analyzes draft laws and advocates progressive legislation in targeted areas.
Zhovtis has been honored for his work with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation award (2007), the International League for Human Rights Award (1999) and the Democracy and Civil Society Award (1998), given jointly by the European Union and the United States.
"Zhovtis is an uncompromising critic of government policies who has influenced international policy toward Kazakhstan," said Berg. "The authorities should not use this case to undermine his work."