(Paris) - President Nicolas Sarkozy of France should use his upcoming state visit to Kazakhstan to convey a clear message that it needs to undertake serious human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said today. Sarkozy is scheduled to arrive on October 6, 2009.
Human Rights Watch said that Sarkozy should also express strong concern on behalf of Evgeniy Zhovtis, the country's leading human rights defender, who was sentenced on September 3 to a four-year prison term following a flawed investigation and trial.
"Kazakhstan will be on the world stage, and yet its climate for human rights is deteriorating," said Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "A clear message delivered by President Sarkozy personally would send a much-needed signal to Kazakhstan's leaders that they need to take human rights seriously."
Kazakhstan's human rights record has come under increased scrutiny because the country will chair the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010. While the government made several important but modest human rights improvements in early 2009, such as simplifying the registration process for electronic media, the changes fall far short of meaningful change.
The criminal case against Zhovtis, founding director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, is of immediate concern, Human Rights Watch said. Zhovtis was found guilty of manslaughter following a motor vehicle accident in late July in which a young man was killed. He was sentenced to four years in prison following an investigation and trial that denied him the right to an effective defense, giving rise to concern that authorities may have politically exploited this tragedy.
Authorities opened a criminal case on July 27, the day after the accident, a routine procedure after a car accident with a casualty. The investigation initially designated Zhovtis as a witness. On July 28, it designated him as a suspect but it did not tell Zhovtis and his lawyer until two weeks later, a violation of Kazakh law. At the trial, the judge either rejected or postponed all defense petitions without ruling on them. The effect was to deny Zhovtis the opportunity to defend himself by challenging the evidence against him.
Zhovtis has appealed the sentence, and a hearing is scheduled for October 20. Human Rights Watch called on Sarkozy to urge the Kazakh authorities to restore Zhovtis's fair trial rights and allow him to be present at the appeal, as he has requested.
"President Sarkozy should make clear that France is profoundly concerned about the way the authorities have handled Zhovtis's trial and will closely monitor the appeal proceeding," Berg said.
Human rights developments in Kazakhstan overall since the early 2009 reforms have been disappointing and undermine the country's credibility as the upcoming chair of the OSCE. Worrisome developments include the adoption in July of amendments to the media law that lay the groundwork for restrictions on the internet and that expand the grounds for banning media content relating to elections, strikes, and public assemblies, with broad wording that could give rise to arbitrary interpretation.
Freedom of assembly is severely restricted in Kazakhstan. Under current laws, public demonstrations as small as protest by a lone individual have to be registered at least 10 days in advance, and most that challenge government policy in any way are not allowed. Individuals and groups who demonstrate without permission from the local authorities are frequently detained and fined.
Also, in several high-profile cases in 2009 - including that involving Mukhtar Dzhakishev, Dmitry Parfenov, and Malkhaz Tsotsoria from the leadership of the state-owned nuclear company KazAtomProm, held in detention by Kazakhstan's Committee for National Security (KNB) - authorities have used national security interests as a ground to justify incommunicado detention and denial of access to legal counsel, citing the need for security clearance in cases involving state secrets.
While there may be legitimate state interests in requiring security clearances in certain cases, Human Rights Watch is concerned that in this case national security interest is being used as a pretext. In July 2009, the KNB even attempted to disbar one of the defense lawyers in the case, Daniyar Kanafin, after he publicly stated that the KNB violated national and international law by preventing him from meeting with his client.
"We do not expect Sarkozy to push for the sky," Berg said. "But he should make clear that serious concerns persist and that it's in Kazakhstan's interest to address them."