The British royal family has come under fire after Prince Harry, the grandson of Queen Elizabeth, accepted a luxury ski trip to Kazakhstan sponsored by a close associate of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
Twenty-nine-year-old Harry and his girlfriend, Cressida Bonas, took a four-day trip to the oil-rich Central Asian nation this week, enjoying heli-skiing, gourmet mountaintop meals, and chairs lined with warm fur blankets.
Britain's " Daily Mail" newspaper reports
that the trip was paid for by Burak Oymen, a Turkish-born property developer and the son of senior Turkish politician Onur Oymen.
Burak Oymen and his business partner, Serzhan Zhumashov, have built a number of luxury properties in Kazakhstan. Both men are considered to be close to the Kazakh president.
Buckingham Palace has defended Harry's trip as a "private" holiday, but Amnesty International has condemned the visit, accusing the Queen's grandson of ignoring Kazakhstan's record of brutal rights violations.
"[Harry] might want to spare a thought for the people who aren't going to be sharing the slopes with him," said Amnesty spokesman Allan Hogarth. "Kazakhstan is a repressive country where torture is rife and political opposition is crushed."
It is not the first intersection between Britain's royal family and the Kazakh elite. Harry's uncle, Prince Andrew, came under scrutiny in 2010 when it emerged that he had sold a country house
to Timur Kulibaev, a Kazakh billionaire and Nazarbaev's son-in-law.
The purchase of the 600-acre Sunninghill Park estate was notable because Kulibaev, who spent $28.5 million to buy the house, paid nearly $6 million more than the asking price -- fueling suspicion
the purchase was more a favor than a simple real-estate transaction. The house, run-down to begin with, remains unoccupied.
Andrew has also been photographed repeatedly
with Goga Ashkenazi, a wealthy Kazakh socialite who was also Kulibaev's mistress. The couple had two children together, a fact that did not appear to disrupt Kulibaev's marriage to Nazarbaev's middle daughter, Dinara.
Ashkenazi, for her part, has said she "loves" Prince Andrew.
The apparent coziness between the royal family and the Kazakh elite extends to Britain's top political figures. The firm of former Prime Minister Tony Blair was paid $13 million dollars to serve as a special adviser to Nazarbaev, a deal that earned him jeers from the rights community.
Nazarbaev, who sits atop one of the world's richest sources of oil, gas, and minerals, has courted favor with Western leaders in an attempt to transform his post-Soviet country into an international power.
But its rights record continues to deteriorate, with Human Rights Watch noting in its 2014 global report
growing crackdowns on free speech and public assembly, political prosecutions, and the continued use of police torture.
-- Daisy Sindelar