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Kazakhstan: Is The Glass Half Full Or Half Empty? Journalist Struggles With 'Semi-Free' Status

An independent journalist in Kazakhstan was released from jail last week and declared "semi-free" by the authorities. RFE/RL was not clear on the meaning of "semi-free" and looked into the matter to find out just how free the journalist really is.

Prague, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Independent journalist Sergei Duvanov was released from prison last week and listed by Kazakh officials as being "semi-free." Duvanov is allowed to live at home and hold a job but is under supervision by authorities. But to some of Duvanov's friends and supporters the freedom is not readily apparent.

Duvanov, now 50, was arrested in October 2002 just ahead of a trip to Washington to discuss corruption and the situation with the media in Kazakhstan. Long a critic of the government who frequently wrote about alleged corruption, Duvanov was convicted of raping an underage girl -- a charge he denied -- and sentenced to a prison term of 3 1/2 years.

The European Union, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and others expressed doubts about the case against Duvanov. The day after the journalist's arrest, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher commented on Duvanov and the general situation facing Kazakhstan's independent media.

"I'm sorry to say this string of abuses has continued, the pattern of harassment has continued. We'll have to continue to raise and press our concerns," Boucher said.

Boucher's boss, Colin Powell, may have helped Duvanov obtain the vague status of "semi-free" when he again raised concerns about the independent journalist's case in a letter sent to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in November 2003.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, the head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and a member of Duvanov's legal team, said Duvanov is presently at "a middle stage between probation and prison." In a brief conversation with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Duvanov described where he believes he stands right now:

"I would like to say that it's too early to get comfortable. This is not yet freedom -- in this case, it is a change in the nature of my punishment. The punishment continues, an illegal punishment. We will naturally continue to contest [the charges]. At the moment, I have started doing the work I did earlier at the Bureau for Human Rights and for now that's all. What will happen in the future you will see for yourself," Zhovtis said.

If Duvanov sounded cautious in his remarks or less than optimistic he has reason to feel that way.

Duvanov was severely beaten in August 2002 shortly before he was to travel to Warsaw to attend an OSCE annual human rights conference. He was only one of several independent journalists and independent media outlets to suffer through several months in which journalists were beaten and brought to trial on tax-evasion charges and an office of one independent newspaper was fire-bombed after a decapitated dog was found at the office with a threatening note.

Marzhan Aspandiyarova is a Duvanov supporters and a member of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, which currently has cloudy status with the Justice Ministry. While pleased Duvanov was no longer in jail, she saw his release as an exception and noted he was far from being totally free.

"Of course, Sergei's return to Almaty is a great joy for us, but it's not complete joy for us yet. We are sure that those in power had to let him out. We know Colin Powell's letter might have pressured the release. The international community also put pressure on this case. But still, Sergei's liberty is under question. His punishment is not over yet. He can not perform his professional duties to the full extent yet. He's not allowed to attend mass gatherings or demonstrations yet. It's clear for me that the whole case has been politically motivated, because it's not clear to me why, for God's sake, if he even committed those crimes -- which I don't believe he did -- he's deprived of his right to work for the newspapers," Aspandiyarova said.
"I'm sorry to say this string of abuses has continued, the pattern of harassment has continued."

Aspandiyarova's comments illuminate Duvanov's current situation and indicate he has neither freedom of movement, freedom of association, nor the opportunity to pursue his journalistic practices.

Duvanov is currently not allowed to leave the city of Almaty, and is required to register with prison authorities once a week. He is also forbidden from appearing in public places or even entering a restaurant.

Andrei Sviridov, a well-known journalist in Kazakhstan, said even Duvanov's technical status as "semi-free" is in question, and says what few concessions have been made were only out of necessity -- and because the Kazakh criminal code allows it.

"This is not an act of mercy, or a step forward, or an agreement with [Duvanov] on the part of the authorities. This is as it is supposed to be, according to the law," Sviridov said.

Duvanov has an appeal pending in court now. He and his lawyer say they are fighting for full exoneration.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)