Kazakhstan: Rights Advocate Amnestied as FM Calls on Clinton
Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov’s first trip to Washington couldn’t have come at a more difficult time for his country. But for his meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expected on February 1, he comes bearing good news: Prominent human rights advocate Yevgeniy Zhovtis is about to be released from prison.
Zhovtis’ release could temper a dark two months for Astana’s rights record. The shooting of protestors in Zhanaozen in December was followed in January by elections deemed fraudulent by international observers and a crackdown on the opposition, including multiple arrests.
Zhovtis will be free in 15 days under a prisoner amnesty marking Kazakhstan’s 20th anniversary of independence, his NGO announced on Twitter. He will have served nearly two and a half years of a four-year prison sentence that he received in 2009 following a controversial vehicular manslaughter trial.
His supporters believe the case was used to silence a respected rights advocate. If so it didn’t work: Zhovtis, who is a lawyer, used his time behind bars advising prisoners on their legal battles, and continued to lobby for human rights from his prison cell.
Clinton herself raised Zhovtis’ case during a visit to Astana in 2010. "No country can be fully free unless human rights defenders are given their rights," she said.
But as one cell empties in Kazakhstan, others fill up: Several political opposition leaders are behind bars in what appears to be a crackdown on dissent following December’s fatal unrest in Zhanaozen.
Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Alga! party, faces a 12-year prison sentence for inciting social discord in Zhanaozen, while three leaders of the OSDP party are serving short sentences for holding an unsanctioned protest rally on January 28. Newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy is also in detention, facing charges of advocating the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order. Though he was arrested only last week, the charges against him reportedly date back to an incident that occurred in April 2010. Astana denies any crackdown.
So will Zhovtis’s impending release bury the mounting bad news?
Clinton has been under fire recently over suggestions that Washington allows strategic considerations to trump human rights concerns in Central Asia. Top of the list of strategic concerns is the Northern Distribution Network, the route along which NATO cargo travels overland to the coalition fighting in Afghanistan, transiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, among others. For Washington, Kazykhanov’s visit is an opportunity to woo Astana to continue backing the route.
So as Clinton welcomes the minister to Washington, Zhovtis’ long-anticipated release can now provide some positive headlines against a wider background of concerns about political freedoms and human rights in Kazakhstan.