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Opposition leader sentenced to seven a half years in prison in Kazakhstan

UPDATE: Monitoring of opposition trial in Kazakhstan finds process "fundamentally flawed" (Freedom House, 13 December 2012)

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Berlin, October 9, 2012 - The seven and a half year prison sentence handed to opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov strikes a blow to freedom of expression and pluralism of political voices in Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said today.

On October 8, 2012, the Aktau City Court in western Kazakhstan found Kozlov, 52, head of the unregistered opposition political party Alga!, guilty of "inciting social discord," "calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order," and "creating and leading an organized group with the aim of committing one or more crimes." The conviction followed an investigation shrouded in secrecy and an unfair trial. The charges relate to Kozlov's alleged role in violent clashes that took place in western Kazakhstan in December 2011 following extended labor strikes. Kozlov maintains his innocence and intends to appeal the verdict.

"Kozlov is paying a heavy price for publicly criticizing the Kazakh government," said Mihra Rittmann, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "By rendering a guilty verdict, the authorities are silencing an outspoken opponent and muzzling the Alga! party, one of Kazakhstan's few alternative political voices."

In addition to the lengthy prison sentence, the court ordered Kozlov's assets seized; these include his apartment and cars, as well as over a dozen Alga! offices registered in his name. The court also ruled that Kozlov and two other defendants must pay trial-related costs amounting to approximately US$10,000.

The two others tried with Kozlov were also found guilty. Akzhanat Aminov, 55, an oil worker from Zhanaozen, was convicted on the same three charges as Kozlov. He will serve a five-year suspended sentence during which he is required to check in with law enforcement and keep them informed of his whereabouts and activities. Aminov was earlier given a one-year suspended sentence for leading an illegal strike in August 2011.

The third defendant, civil society activist Serik Sapargali, 60, was found guilty of "calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order" and will serve a four-year suspended sentence. Aminov had confessed to the charges and Sapargali had admitted partial fault. Both Aminov and Sapargali were released from the courtroom.

One of Kozlov's lawyers and several civil society activists planning to attend the trial failed to do so because the Air Astana flight from Almaty to Aktau on which they were booked on October 8 was repeatedly delayed and only left Almaty after the trial had already begun. No other flights leaving from Almaty that day experienced such long delays due to weather or other reasons.

From May 2011 until the outbreak of violence on December 16, 2011, oil workers in Zhanaozen had staged peaceful strikes demanding higher wages from their employers. Kozlov and Sapargali were amongst a handful of civil society and political opposition activists who traveled to Zhanaozen to support the oil workers. In June, Kozlov met with striking oil workers.

On January 23, 2012, Kozlov and Sapargali were arrested in Almaty and charged with "inciting social discord" for allegedly persuading fired oil workers to continue their strike and "violently oppose the authorities." In May, the two men were transferred to a pretrial detention center in Aktau. On February 17, Aminov, 55, was similarly detained on charges of "inciting social discord" in Zhanaozen in relation to his alleged role in leading the strike that ended with the December violence.

Authorities later brought additional charges of "calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order" against all three, and further charged Kozlov and Aminov with "creating and leading an organized group with the aim of committing one or more crimes," allegedly in collaboration with Muratbek Ketebaev, a member of the Alga! party coordination committee, and Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former chairman of BTA bank in Kazakhstan and co-founder of the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Both live in exile.

The criminal investigation, led by the Kazakhstan National Security Committee (KNB), was shrouded in secrecy. At no point in the investigation did the authorities release any evidence of specific speech or actions by the accused that indicated the basis for the charges levied against them.

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