(New York) - A Kazakh court has sentenced the country's leading human rights defender to four years of imprisonment in a trial that did not meet basic fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said today.
On September 3, 2009, the second day of his trial, Evgeniy Zhovtis was found guilty of manslaughter for a fatal automobile accident and arrested in the courtroom. Zhovtis is the founding director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law.
"The judge's unwillingness to consider important evidence from Zhovtis's lawyer made it clear that this was really a choreographed political trial," said Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The verdict is a terrible blow for everyone promoting human rights in Kazakhstan."
Zhovtis was convicted of a criminal violation of traffic regulations, causing the death of a young man who was walking on a highway in the countryside at night. In the course of the two-day trial, the judge did not admit into evidence any of several petitions made by Zhovtis's lawyer.
The judge rejected a crucial petition to include an expert witness who would have testified that Zhovtis could not have prevented the accident. The prosecution's case rested primarily on expert testimony that Zhovtis could have prevented the accident by making an emergency stop after an oncoming car's high beams impaired his ability to see the road. There were no allegations that Zhovtis was intoxicated or speeding at the time of the accident.
Zhovtis's lawyer said the judge also did not allow adequate time for the defense to prepare a final statement before the verdict.
Prior to the start of the trial, Human Rights Watch expressed concern about possible political interference in the case. The authorities opened a criminal case, a normal procedure after a car accident with a casualty, on July 27, the day after the accident. 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.
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.
"We are shocked at how easy it is for the government to violate basic human rights just a few months before it will chair the OSCE," Berg said. "Kazakhstan clearly is not ready to take on a role as important as the OSCE chairmanship."