The former boss of Kazakhstan's nuclear industry has been sentenced to 14 years in prison on corruption charges amid claims that the trial was politically motivated.Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the 46-year-old former head of the Kazatomprom state nuclear giant, was sentenced on March 12 following a two-month closed trial in Astana. Convicted of bribe taking and embezzling $670,000-worth of company property from Kazatomprom's Vienna branch, he was also banned from holding public office for seven years after his release. He took the sentence "bravely," his lawyer Nurlan Beysekeyev was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The case has been marred by controversy from the outset. Prior to the trial, Dzhakishev enjoyed a reputation in Kazakhstan as an upstanding businessman who, in over a decade at the helm of Kazatomprom, rescued the country's uranium industry from the brink of collapse and positioned it to become a world leader. Last year, Kazakhstan achieved a long-cherished goal of Dzhakishev's by outstripping rivals to become the world's top uranium producer.In this light, suspicions have been aired that Dzhakishev's case was linked to a redistribution of lucrative uranium assets. Misgivings were compounded after interrogations of Dzhakishev, in which he suggested that Russian nuclear interests had benefited from his arrest, were leaked in a video that was posted on the YouTube video sharing site.Dzhakishev's supporters are also claiming that his association with London-based tycoon Mukhtar Ablyazov -- wanted in Kazakhstan on charges of fraud that he denies - was another factor in causing his downfall. Dzhakishev was among a group of businessmen that petitioned President Nursultan Nazarbayev to pardon Ablyazov after he was imprisoned in 2002 on corruption charges. Ablyazov, who contends that both the past and present accusations against him are politically motivated, was pardoned in 2003. But now Ablyazov is involved in a new controversy rooted in fresh corruption allegations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Opposition leader Bolat Abilov is among those who see a link between Ablyazov's pardoning and Dzhakishev's imprisonment. In comments quoted on the Respublika website on March 15, he pointed to recent remarks by President Nursultan Nazarbayev suggesting this. "At a meeting with entrepreneurs [on February 26] the president said: Those who gave a guarantee for Mukthar Ablyazov will answer for this. This is the reprisal," Abilov, co-leader of the OSDP Azat party, said. "The case is politically motivated, although Dzhakishev himself has never engaged in politics."Law-enforcement officers and administration officials resolutely deny suggestions that Dzhakishev's case is political, but Ablyazov himself disagrees. Interviewed in London by the K+ satellite TV channel on March 12, he insisted that Dzhakishev was imprisoned because he vouched for Ablyazov to Nazarbayev in 2002-2003, and now things have turned sour. For a period starting in 2005 Ablyazov successfully did business in Kazakhstan. But last February the government nationalized BTA Bank -- a financial institution that he chaired, and in which he owned an undeclared stake -- against his will. Ablyazov soon thereafter fled to London before a fraud investigation was launched. "All that is happening now in Kazakhstan is a copy of the Soviet regime, which we thought we had left behind," Ablyazov told K+.He also wrote a letter to politicians in the United Kingdom after the sentencing calling on them to "protest against this sham trial, held under inhumane conditions and without acceptable legal representation."Interviewed on K+ alongside Ablyazov on March 12, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former Kazakh prime minister also based in London, suggested that Dzhakishev's sudden fall was symptomatic of the political scene. "In Kazakhstan, unfortunately, in recent times this happens. ? Yesterday's hero today suddenly turns out to be a criminal," he said. Kazhegeldin himself fell out of favor in the 1990s and was sentenced by a Kazakh court in absentia to 10 years in prison in 2001 on corruption charges. He vigorously denies that charge.Controversy over allegations of murky economic and political motivations in Dzhakishev's case has been compounded by claims that the defendant's rights were violated, an allegation that law-enforcement officials reject. Beysekeyev, Dzhakishev's lawyer, revealed after the recent sentencing that the Astana court which heard the case had filed an official complaint against him for publicly airing grievances over Dzhakishev's right of access to legal representation, family visits and medical treatment for high blood pressure. The court viewed this as a bid to exercise undue influence on the legal process, Beysekeyev said.Two separate investigations involving Dzhakishev's dealings remain open: one announced last May, when law enforcement agencies said he was suspected of misappropriating uranium reserves in collusion with Ablyazov, and another announced on March 4 into alleged money laundering. Dzhakishev is the only senior ex-Kazatomprom official to face trial over alleged serious irregularities at the company. Three former vice presidents detained last May -- Malkhaz Tsotsoria, Askar Kasabekov and Dmitriy Parfenov -- were not charged and reportedly gave evidence against Dzhakishev, and a fourth -- Nartay Dutbayev, a long-standing associate of Nazarbayev's -- did not feature in the investigation and was quietly removed from Kazatomprom last August.While other top officials escaped charges, Dzhakishev's bodyguard Talgat Kystaubayev ended up in the dock alongside him on charges of abuse of office. Amid suggestions that he was being made a scapegoat for his loyalty to his former boss, he received a five-year prison sentence. "What was he given this for?" his wife, Sara Sagyndykova, asked tearfully after the trial in scenes broadcast by K+. "For working honestly to earn money all his life -- five years for this? For not giving evidence against an honest man, against Dzhakishev?"The defense is still in a combative mood and is now preparing to appeal the verdict. "I do not believe this is the end -- there are still appeals and there are still other courts? It is clear that we will fight on," Dzhakishev's wife, Zhamilya Dzhakishev said.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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