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Kazakhstan: Journalist's Traffic Death Recalls Past Tragedies

(RFE/RL) August 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Saken Tauzhanov was a hard-hitting journalist who criticized both the opposition and the government in his native Kazakhstan.

His frequently caustic online articles made Tauzhanov more than a few enemies, which is why his death on August 2 raised many suspicions.

Skeptics are questioning the official account of Tauzhanov's death.

Kazakh authorities declared that when 37-year-old Tauzhanov was run over by a large truck as he crossed a street in downtown Almaty on August 2, it was a tragic but routine traffic accident.

No evidence has emerged to contradict such that account. But some people who have seen other Kazakh journalists die in the same manner are suspicious.

Other Traffic Deaths

Rozlana Taukina, who heads the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Tauzhanov's death is not unique among journalists. She notes that seven other journalists have died under similar clouds of doubt.

"The cause of all these deaths is always some sort of [mishap involving a vehicle], according to the versions given by our law enforcement agencies," Taukina says. "But too often it is these traffic accidents that cause the deaths of journalists who oppose the authorities."

Taukina lists journalists who have been killed in traffic accidents since 2002, all but one of them struck by vehicles as they were walking on foot: "Starting with journalist Aleksei Pugaev (2002), who died in a car accident, he published the 'Eurasia' newspaper (2002); Nuri Muftakh (aka Moftak) (2002) was run over by a bus in the bus station parking lot; Askhat Sharipzhanov was hit by a car (2004); Yuri Baev in Uralsk, the chief editor of the newspaper 'Talap,' when he started to write reports about Kazakhgate (eds: an oil kickback scandal), he also was killed when he was struck by a car (2004); Batyrkhan Darimbet was killed in a car crash (2005), and we all know he was a former correspondent for Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty and was head of the newspaper 'Azat.' Saken Tauzhanov, known for his recent articles that clearly opposed the authorities, was also hit by a vehicle. It seems like too many accidents involving vehicles."

Friends And Enemies

Tauzhanov's articles were published on the online newspaper.

Gimran Ergaliev, a colleague at the same publication, notes that Tauzhanov had a blunt manner that could offend people.

"I worked together with Saken for one year," Ergaliev says. "He was the type of guy who was able to express his opinion candidly, in a straightforward kind of way. He was a real citizen; his articles were sharp and he was able to very skillfully raise the issues relevant to contemporary life. We are all in mourning."

Kazis Toguzbaev, another reporter, agrees that Tauzhanov did not shy away from highlighting politicians' shortcomings, including the powerful long-time president.

"[Tauzhanov] hit out at everyone in his articles -- at officials in Nazarbaev's regime and at Nazarbaev himself."

Tauzhanov's last article for was posted on July 28, five days before his death. It drew a comparison between President Nazarbaev's administration and the animated fairy-tale exploits of "Shrek." Tauzhanov criticized President Nazarbaev, the ruling Nur-Otan party that was founded to ensure Nazarbaev's reelection, and the upcoming early elections to parliament -- now less than two weeks away.

The troubling fates of some of Kazakhstan's most fearless reporters are not limited to traffic deaths.

Journalist Oralgaisha Omarshanova wrote for the Russian-Kazakh weekly newspaper "Law and Justice" until her disappearance on March 30. She went missing after her departure from the Kazakh capital, Astana, to pursue a story about clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and Chechens in southern Kazakhstan.

Four months later, family and friends are still desperately hoping for her return.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service director, Merhat Sharipzhan, contributed to this report)

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