ARRESTS OF OPPOSITION LEADERS FOLLOW ZHANAOZEN UNREST IN KAZAKHSTAN
Immediately after the early parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan brought into being a three-party system, the country’s law enforcement authorities proceeded to arresting several opposition leaders. On January 23, Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the unregistered political party Alga, and Igor Vinyavsky, the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Vzlyad, were detained by officials of the National Security Committee.
Vladimir Kozlov, who has been very critical of the Kazakh Government’s response to social unrest in the town of Zhanaozen in December 2011, is accused of attempts to instigate social discord. Article 164 of the Criminal Code of Kazakhstan provides for prison terms ranging from three to ten years accompanied by heavy fines and a ban from occupying certain positions. This may practically mean that Kozlov could find himself in a situation where his political activities, famously directed against the existing system, would be no longer tolerated even if his guilt is disproved. Moreover, Kozlov’s wife recently declared to the press that her husband had been diagnosed with inguinal hernia, a disease he had never complained of before. She believes that this fact may reflect the use of torture against the renowned opposition leader.
Igor Vinyavsky, equally famous for his extensive critique of the ruling elite regularly expressed on the pages of his independent newspaper, is being charged with organizing subversive activities aimed at forcefully changing the constitutional order of Kazakhstan (article 170 of the Criminal Code). Interestingly, some experts have already pointed to the fact that the arrest warrant issued by the National Security Committee against the journalist is fully based on events dating back to 2010, when security officials intercepted a bunch of leaflets calling for the same revolutionary change in Kazakhstan as in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in April of that year.
This procedural detail speaks in favor of an already existing criminal investigation linked to the activities of the “Vzglyad” newspaper and its editor-in-chief. It is however unclear why it took almost two years for the National Security Committee to prove Vinyavsky’s guilt, while the issue in question directly concerns Kazakhstan’s national security and public safety.
These two arrests are not the first in connection with the Zhanaozen unrest, which took the lives of at least 17 people and left more than 100 seriously wounded. In early January, an activist of the People’s Front (an umbrella organization comprised of several opposition parties and created in anticipation of snap elections to the Parliament) was detained by the same National Security Committee in the airport of Aktau. She was later charged with trying to instigate social discord, based on her active involvement in the anti-government campaign in Western Kazakhstan.
A few days after the temporary imprisonment of both Kozlov and Vinyavsky, Freedom House in Washington DC issued a statement condemning disproportionate action against opposition forces in Kazakhstan and called on Kazakh authorities to ensure their immediate release. According to Susan Corke, director for Eurasia programs at Freedom House, “Kazakhstan, as a former chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, must live up to its promise to the international community that it will advance democracy and human rights.” She also added that “the actions of the authorities and treatment of opposition activists and independent journalists undermine respect for fundamental freedoms.”
A statement of concern was also made by the European Union on the occasion of the OSCE Permanent Council meeting in Vienna on January 26. In its final sentences, the statement recalls “the commitment made by the authorities of Kazakhstan to conduct an open and transparent investigation into the Zhanaozen events.” It also recalls “OSCE commitments as regards the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and call[s] on Kazakhstan to implement them fully, including during the investigation.”
Though the U.S. State Department has not yet made any particular statement on the arrest of opposition activists and its implications for the general state of freedom in Kazakhstan, some sources speculate that the issue was discussed during a meeting between Kazakh Foreign Minister Erzhan Kazykhanov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the former’s visit to Washington. The probability of external pressure towards Kazakhstan’s honoring its international obligations in terms of human rights and personal freedoms remains quite low, as the Western community is now struggling against Russia’s and China’s obstructionism to take action in Syria. The generally complicated situation in Central Asia and America’s continuing dependence on its regional partners as far as the state of affairs in Afghanistan is concerned make it rather difficult for opposition activists to count on whatever foreign support.