The Yevgeny Zhovtis Trial, Day 1

zhovtis090209.jpgRussia is far from alone in the neighborhood in its staging of show trials and corralling of political prisoners, and in fact, what is happening to human rights advocate Yevgeny Zhovtis of Kazakhstan, shows an measurably deeper level of political interference.

Today began the first day of the criminal trial in a village outside of Almaty against Zhovtis, who is the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, one of the most authoritative and well regarded civil society organizations still operating under the government of  Nursultan Nazarbayev.  After having spent the better part of an hour on the telephone with one of Zhovtis’s brave defense lawyers (see below), I strongly believe that those who care about human rights in Central Asia should follow this case carefully.

As we reported on this blog back in July, Zhovtis was involved in a mysterious accident as he was driving home from a fishing trip at night:  on a deserted stretch of highway, two cars on the approaching hill blinded him with high-beam headlights, and then seconds later, a man appeared on the road in front of Zhovtis’s car, and was struck and instantly killed. He is now facing charges of manslaughter and traffic violations, carrying a penalty of up to five years.

Several international human rights groups have already registered theirconcern that Zhovtis should receive a fair trial, as well as cast doubton the circumstances of the accident.  In a statement releasedyesterday, Andrea Berg of Human Rights Watch said “The authorities should make sure that this terrible tragedy for thevictim and his family is not exploited for political purposes. (…) EvgeniyZhovtis deserves a fair trial.

An International Committee in support of Zhovtis has been established, including the presence of Inessa Gezelle Meerburg (Kazakhstan), Andrey Aranbaev (Turkmenistan), Vitaliy Ponomarev (Russia), and Yuri Dzhibladze (Russia).  According to an announcement from this group posted on, they strenously believe that Zhovtis is innocent of any charges, and that he is being politically persecuted through the court:  “Biased character of the investigation and disappointing start of thetrial testify not only about a disregard to the law but most likelyalso about a political order from above. Apparently, some influentialforces strive, at any price, including juggling with the facts and openviolations of the law, to secure conviction of Evgeny Zhovtis,discredit and silence a well known lawyer and human rights defender whohas been for many years successfully protecting public interests andopenly speaking up about serious human rights violations in Kazakhstan.

Earlier today, I spent about an hour speaking with one of the defendant’s main lawyers – whom I believe is best left anonymous for the moment.  Upon finally reaching her on a cell phone, I was surprised to hear that this was her first interview on the day’s proceedings.  She told me that over the course of the long day in court, marred by innumberable administrative irregularities, the defense was finally able to table four motions.  Out of these four motions, only one was granted (allowing Zhovtis to add an additional member to the defense team to represent him in court).  The other three motions dealt with the expert evidence presented by the prosecutors – which is of course critical to the case – were speedily denied without hesitation by the judge. 

Zhovtis’s lawyer was keen to stress to me that they had abundant proof showing that this accident took place contrary to many details contained in the original police report and indictment by prosecutors:  there was no evidence of alcohol or any other physical impairments involved.  Many other details are missing and/or distorted from the prosecutors accounts – and attempts to rectify the record have been rebuffed.

I do not intend here to get into any of the legal defense arguments, I would caution any of those in the West who have asked the Kazakh authorities to provide Mr. Zhovtis with a fair trial, that they realize they are making a tragically flawed inference:  that a fair trial in this system is actually possible.  Under the darkening clouds of Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has descended from lofty heights of international prestige to the basic character of a Sultanate.  There is no constitutional court, no independence of the judiciary, and no effective check on the executive’s ability to manipulate every arm of the state.

Given the hasty speed of this process against Zhovtis, one must suspect we are watching the mounting of politically ordered trial that would make Vladimir Putin proud.  Just days before the accident, Zhovtis was delivering testimony on the human rights situation in Vienna, and earlier in May, he gave testimony to the Helsinki Commission on Kazakhstan’s suitability to take on the OSCE Chairmanship in 2010.  In other words, there is no shortage of motivation of political vendetta by the ruling power.

Most truthful observers would quietly admit that a fair trial for Zhovtis in an impossibility in Kazakhstan, but instead there is relative quiet in response given the devious circumstances arranged to prosecute him.  Instead we find ourselves in a situation in which Kazakhstan could be taking over the chairmanship of the OSCE just months after illegally jailing its leading (and frankly, one of its last) human rights defenders.  If that’s not an embarrassing irony of poor decision-making for this prestigious internationanl organization, I don’t know what is.

We will continue to follow this case closely, and keep you updated.