Four opposition weeklies that planned to republish a recent RFE/RL interview with Rakhat Aliev have been rejected by their publishing houses and did not go to print today, amid veiled official threats.
"All newspapers that have recently published either interviews or the flurry of information given out by the former son-in-law, or any comments, have seen tough pressure," says Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble.
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on October 26, Aliev appeared to accuse his former father-in-law, President Nursultan Nazarbaev, of ordering the execution-style killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides in 2006.
Less than a week later, on November 1, Almaty city prosecutors announced that Aliev will be tried in absentia on charges of involvement in abductions, financial wrongdoing, and abuse of official powers.
Aliev is among the most senior defections ever from the inner circle of Kazakhstan's tight-knit ruling class. The opposition, mindful of Aliev's years of dedicated service to the autocratic Nazarbaev, has kept Aliev at arm's length since his fall from official grace. But they and presidential allies clearly recognize that he has been privy to the inner workings of a secretive Kazakh government.
The recent maelstrom could also affect Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, which still hangs in the balance. OSCE foreign ministers are due to meet in Spain later this month to vote on the bid.
Suddenly, Problems Arise
Problems for the Russian-language independent weekly "Svoboda slova" began on October 29, when its publishing house, Speed Master Print, refused to print the November 2 issue.
"Svoboda slova" Editor in Chief Gulzhan Ergalieva says she then turned unsuccessfully to several other printing houses but "they all refused" the job for "various reasons." She says the next day, October 30, brought two visits to "Svoboda slova" from the financial authorities. "They told us that they received a tip that we had violated tax legislation by hiding some funds and not meeting our tax obligations to the state treasury," she says.
Similar events were occurring at two other publications, "Respublika" and "Vzglyad." The publishing house for the Kazakh-language opposition weekly "Taszharghan" also turned away that paper, which was visited by fire-safety officers.
An officer with the Kazakh financial authorities who was contacted by RFE/RL's Almaty correspondent said she had no information about any of the cases.
Galina Dyrdina, a deputy editor at "Respublika," thinks the troubles stem from the weekly's plans to print coverage of what has been dubbed "Rakhat-gate." "Someone is afraid that Rakhat [Aliev] could publish -- particularly through our newspaper -- information about who is really behind the killing of Altynbek Sarsenbaev," Dyrdina says.
Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard were shot dead outside Almaty in February 2006. Fellow members of the opposition continue to allege top-level involvement in the killings despite a trial this year that resulted in the conviction of mid-level security and other officials for those deaths.
Hushing Up Embarrassing Revelations
That's where estranged son-in-law Aliev comes in. A former deputy chairman of the National Security Committee who later served as ambassador to the OSCE and Vienna, Aliev told RFE/RL that the order for Sarsenbaev's killing came from Austria while President Nazarbaev was there on holiday.
In a move criticized by international media watchdogs, Kazakh authorities blocked several opposition websites in late October, citing mostly technical reasons.
Independent journalists and rights activists called the move political censorship, coming as it did after the websites posted wiretapped phone conversations purportedly among senior officials, implicating them in serious wrongdoing. All the downed websites had recently run stories on apparent government attempts to silence Aliev. They all also linked the closures to the posting of the transcripts, some of which include apparent references to Aliev.
Journalists in Trouble's Taukina alleges that the heads of several newspapers were summoned to the Interior Ministry some two weeks ago, where they received instructions from the Interior and Culture and Information ministries "not to publish information that comes from the Kazakh president's former son-in-law."
President Nazarbaev has not been shy about his ambitions of making Kazakhstan, which sits on large fossil-fuel and uranium deposits, a regional powerhouse in Central Asia.
But "Respublika's" Dyrdina says the current official pressure on independent newspapers tarnishes the international image of a country that is trying hard to prove its democratic credentials.
The U.S.-based nongovernmental group Freedom House in its draft freedom-of-the-press report for 2007 describes Kazakhstan as "not free" and notes that "the authorities allow limited press freedom but safeguard the existing power structure against dangers that truly independent media might pose."
(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merkhat Sharipzhan and correspondent Maryam Beysenkyzy contributed to this report from Prague and Almaty.)