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Kazakhstan Blocks Critical Websites, As Opposition Cries 'Censorship'

October 24, 2007 -- Kazakhstan has blocked four opposition news websites in a move that media freedom advocates have called "political censorship" in a country seeking to portray itself as an emerging democracy.

The website operators, speaking at a news conference today in Almaty, linked the closures to their publication last week of transcripts of wire-tapped telephone conversations alleged to involve senior government officials. The conversations, full of strong language, would appear to implicate officials in wrongdoing and threaten to tarnish Kazakhstan's image ahead of its bid next month to win backing to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Kazakh authorities have cited several possible reasons for blocking the websites, such as a possibly improper registration for one website whose server is located in France or because another site might risk contagion by a computer viral attack from its U.S.-based host.

But Tanya Kaleeva, the head of the media freedom group Adil Soz, called the blocking illegal. "According to the law, of course, everything is clear," she told a news conference today in Almaty. "There has been an illegal blocking [of websites] and those responsible should be punished and the websites unblocked."

Presidential Connection

All the downed sites share one thing in common: they have recently run stories about apparent government attempts to silence a powerful former confidant of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, his former son-in-law Rakhat Aliev. They all also linked the closures to the posting of the phone transcripts, some of which discuss Aliev.

Aliev is sought by Kazakh police on suspicion of involvement in abductions, illegal financial activities, and abuse of office. Charges against Aliev surfaced soon after he was relieved of his most recent post as Kazakh ambassador to Austria and Vienna-based international organizations such as the OSCE.

An Austrian court rejected a Kazakh extradition request, saying Aliev would not receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan. Aliev's former senior standing made him privy to information that some suggest could implicate top officials in serious wrongdoing.

OSCE foreign ministers are due to meet at the end of November in Madrid to decide whether to hand the chairmanship of the world's largest regional security organization to Astana in 2009. Kazakhstan has been favored to take over the OSCE, despite criticism from the United States and the United Kingdom that it lacks the democratic pedigree for such a role.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.)

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