Prague, 6 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In a report released today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses the Kazakh government of harassing opposition figures ahead of autumn parliamentary elections.
Vanessa Saenen is a spokeswoman for HRW in Brussels. "Our main concern is that Kazakhstan's government is seriously undermining the prospects for free and fair parliamentary elections later on this year," she told RFE/RL. "They are doing so by keeping their most serious critics out of the media and out of politics, as well."
"The government really attempted to exclude candidates by charging them with criminal offenses they haven't done, or by harassing them, or by intimidation."
The 53-page document cites government harassment of the country's opposition members through what it describes as arbitrary criminal and misdemeanor charges and threats of job dismissal. In many cases, Saenen stressed, these actions were aimed at preventing them from running for public office.
"We've seen people being arrested and also put in prison for random, for really arbitrary, criminal charges. Also, people who oppose the government or journalists who do criticize the government or the way the elections are being run are threatened to be thrown out of their jobs," Saenen said.
Among those imprisoned were Galymzhan Zhaqiyanov and Mukhtabar Abliyazov, the founding leaders of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, an opposition group formed in 2001. Abliyazov was released last May. The group is calling for Zhaqiyanov's immediate release.
Also imprisoned and then released last year was Sergei Duvanov, an opposition journalist and critic of government corruption.
Vyacheslav Kalyuzhnyi, who works for Kazakhstan's state ombudsman's office, denied the accusations. "I can't agree with this statement at this point, because the election campaign is just beginning here, and to say that someone representing a political party, even an opposition party, has been eliminated from the election process, I think at this point is too…I can't confirm it," he said.
Kalyuzhnyi continued: "I don't think [the HRW report] fully reflects the reality, in particular when it talks about persecution of politicians. As far as Mukhtabar Abliyazov is concerned, he is actually a free citizen. He has a business and nobody is persecuting him. As for Zhaqiyanov, he is in jail now, sentenced for some abuses in economic activities, so he is not in jail for political activities. As far as Duvanov is concerned, I must say he [has been released] now with some restrictions [of freedom]. So I don't think there are any reasons to be talking about persecution. These people are imprisoned for the crimes they committed."
In a letter sent last week to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists expressed its concern about deteriorating press freedom in Kazakhstan, including the politicized prosecution of independent journalists.
The Almaty-based press freedom group Adil Soz (Free Word) has said it believes the harassment of the country's independent media is part of a government effort to silence opposition viewpoints in the run-up to the elections.
The HRW report documents what it says were government actions over the past two years that prevented some opposition groups from entering electoral politics. It describes how a July 2002 law on political parties served to reduce the number of registered parties from 19 to nine.
"Kazakhstan's government is trying to really limit the number of parties that can register for elections,” the HRW's Saenen said. “They have amended a law in 2002 reducing the number of registered parties from 19 to only nine at the moment, either because they were [unreliable] or because they were receiving foreign funds."
Saenen said the Kazakh government has a record of manipulating elections. "It's unfortunately a very long-standing tradition of unfair elections,” she said. “The September 2003 local [council] elections were far from free and fair. The government really attempted to exclude candidates by charging them with criminal offenses they haven't done, or by harassing them, or by intimidation. The same was true for the 2002 parliamentary by-elections, [which] were again manipulated."
HRW has said political parties that submitted registration documents in accordance with the law should be immediately registered. It also says domestic election monitors should have access to the polls, regardless of whether they are supported through foreign financing.
Saenen also noted that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found Kazakhstan's 1999 presidential and parliamentary elections to be deeply flawed.
However, the OSCE's current chairman-in-office, Solomon Pasi, today emphasized the progress that Kazakhstan had made. "There is big progress in democracy building in the last 10 years in [Kazakhstan], and the international community should recognize this progress, all the more so [because] you are starting to build your country only in the last 10 years, which makes the progress even more important," he said.
Pasi was speaking today at a news conference in the southeastern Kazakh city of Almaty after meeting with Nazarbaev.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)