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Kazakhstan: Death Of Opposition Journalist Raises Suspicions

Sharipzhan was writing an article about a Nazarbaev (pictured) rival at the time of his death Askhat Sharipzhan, an independent journalist in Kazakhstan who worked mainly on the Internet, died today from multiple skull fractures he sustained after being hit by a car as he crossed the street. It appears the tragic event was simply the result of a traffic accident, but there are some in Kazakhstan who question that.

Prague, 20 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh independent journalist Askhat Sharipzhan died today of injuries he received in a traffic accident on 16 July in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty.

Forty-year-old Sharipzhan was hit by a car as he crossed the street and suffered multiple skull fractures. He is the brother of Merkhat Sharipzhan, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service.

Journalists and opposition leader Zamanbek Nurkadilov have accused the government of playing a role in Sharipzhan's death.

Police in Almaty have rejected these claims and say the driver of the vehicle that struck Sharipzhan stopped and administered first aid, called an ambulance, and has cooperated with authorities investigating the accident.

The chief of Almaty's traffic police, Iztileu Bekturov, said yesterday that an analysis of Sharipzhan's blood indicated the journalist had been drinking before he was hit by the car. The driver has been determined to be sober: "An analysis of Askhat Sharipzhan's blood was done in hospital number 7. An analysis of the blood of the driver, Kalzhanov, was also taken the night of the accident. All these facts are in the records of our investigation. Kalzhanov did not drink, he was sober, but the blood of Mr. Sharipzhan was checked in hospital number 7 and alcohol was found."

Aigul Omarova is one of Sharipzhan's co-workers at the Navigator information website. She visited the hospital on Saturday after doctors had spent several hours operating on Sharipzhan. She expressed doubt about the police's version of the incident: "I don't believe these words [from the police] because we were at the hospital on Saturday and spoke with the doctor who did the operation. The doctor and the head of the surgery department said there was no alcohol in his blood."

Sharipzhan had interviewed some of the leading figures in Kazakhstan's political scene -- mainly figures from the opposition. He had also focused on corruption scandals, and said he had frequently been the target of threats.

At the time of the incident, Sharipzhan was preparing to publish an article about Zamanbek Nurkadilov, the former emergency situations minister and current opposition leader.

Nurkadilov has been calling for the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, to step down from office. Nurkadilov had also announced that he would run for the country's top post in the next presidential elections.

Nurkadilov and Sharipzhan had agreed to meet on 18 July for a final interview before the article's completion.

Speaking before news of the journalist's death became public, Nurkadilov speculated that Sharipzhan's accident may have had something to do with the article: "Askhat is a brave journalist who published not only my opinions but the opinions of many people. I can't escape the feeling that he was a victim because of me. I understand completely that Nazarbaev and his circle have no need for such capable journalists."

Yuri Mizinov is the editor of the Navigator website. He said he and his staff have been searching for the article that Sharipzhan was working on but so far have been unable to find it: "We couldn't find the interview [he was working on] anywhere. What was written there, no one but Askhat knows."

Mizinov said Sharipzhan's tape recorder was also missing.

Police and doctors are due today to hold a press conference to present further details of the case.

Sharipzhan's case bears a resemblance to those of other people whose work had recently brought them into conflict with the government. In January 2002, human-rights activist Aleksei Pugaev was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. In November 2002, independent journalist Nuri Muftakh was run over in the parking lot of a bus station. Both died.

(The Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

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