asiaNet Human Rights
The cause of the blaze is still unclear. The senior spokesman for the KIBHR and the fire's principal victim, executive director Evgenii Zhovtis believes that no explanation, however sinister or benign, should be ruled out.
Suspicion of government complicity would be particularly plausible this year. The government used heavy-handed repression and coercion to insure that the presidential and parliamentary elections of January and October, respectively, would yield results that were politically favorable to the ruling party, and to President Nursultan Nazarbayev in particular. The OSCE, which observed both elections, criticized, among other things, "widespread, pervasive and illegal interference by executive authorities in the electoral process," "threats of bureaucratic, administrative, and judicial measures jeopardizing media operations," and "intimidation and obstruction of the electoral campaign of opposition parties and candidates." The government suspended or closed down privately owned newspapers. Many opposition candidates were discredited or disqualified when the government lodged questionable misdemeanor and criminal charges against them. This, and an illegal detention in Moscow, eliminated the most prominent opposition presidential contender, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, from the running.
Against this backdrop of government harassment, it is noteworthy that some of the most cautious commentators on the blaze are the victims themselves. Evgenii Zhovtis has refrained from public speculation and has praised the professional conduct of the investigators. He says he finds the disparate explanations of either government retribution or faulty electrical wiring equally plausible.
His reluctance to point fingers is in part a reflection of the government's mixed record on fulfilling its human rights obligations in recent years. The government is responsible for widespread violations of some fundamental civil and political rights, but it is not abusive (or at least not wholly lacking in accountability for abuse) in other spheres.
Mr. Zhovtis' circumspection is also fueled by the knowledge that the government's response to the fire is potentially powerful ammunition for sparring political camps in Kazakhstan. If the police prove that the fire was due to simple electrical malfunction, for example, the government could rightfully be praised for providing equal law-enforcement protection to all, even to its outspoken critics. If, however, the investigation reveals that the government either instigated or condoned arson against whistle-blowers, critics could seize on the fire as further evidence of the government's intolerance of basic free speech rights. Regardless, the results of an impartial investigation have implications far beyond the fire itself.
What is perhaps most intriguing is Mr. Zhovtis' faith in the police to conduct an impartial and vigorous investigation. If the government either instigated or ignored politically motivated arson, the fire at the Center could be one of the more serious government abuses in recent years. It would be reckless for him to squander an opportunity to deter such violence. But his trust in the police may also suggest that he believes free speech is sufficiently protected in Kazakhstan that a state investigator would come forward even with evidence of abuse that implicated the government.
The blaze at the KIBHR office has, rightly or wrongly, resurrected the specter of Kazakhstan's abusive past. If nothing else, the investigation underscores the importance of careful, unbiased, accurate documentation. The blaze that temporarily silenced one of Kazakhstan's most competent monitoring bodies will be a bellwether for the promise of, or potential abuse by, the Kazakhstan government. The jury is still out.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant
to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related
issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992
and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights
advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow,
covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian
Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights
advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League
for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an
MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has
lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly