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Kazakhstan: Slander Case Sends 'Chilling' Message To Independent Press

In Kazakhstan this week, a judge ruled that the journalist responsible for writing an article critical of the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was not guilty of slander. He found, however, that the owner and editor of the newspaper which published the article was guilty. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports the split ruling has sent a chilling reminder to the country's independent media that some Kazakh officials are still beyond public reproach.

Prague, 5 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's independent "Soldat" newspaper this week in court received what at first appeared to be a lenient sentence.

The paper had been charged with slander for its publication last year of an article deemed "insulting the honor and dignity" of the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But after an extended investigation and a three-month trial, a verdict of not guilty was handed down for the article's author.

Yermurat Bapi, however, was not so lucky. Bapi, the owner and editor-in-chief of "Soldat," was found guilty. Although he was immediately pardoned under a presidential amnesty, the verdict has served to caution the country's few independent journalists that they are not necessarily free to criticize the state.

In his ruling 3 April, Zhetysu district court judge Bakhytzhan Shoshykbayev said journalist Karishal Asanov was not guilty because his article was originally written for an Internet site. "Soldat" editor Bapi was found guilty because he reprinted the article in his newspaper.

The article reported on the so-called "Kazakhgate" (reference to U.S. Watergate political scandal) case. The case focuses on allegations that Nazarbayev and several other top Kazakh officials have been funneling millions of U.S. dollars from Kazakhstan into Swiss bank accounts. In his article, Asanov examined the Kazakh president's ties to James Giffen, a U.S. citizen who served for several years as Nazarbayev's financial and economic advisor. Giffen is currently under investigation in the U.S. for his connection to the Kazakhgate case.

"Soldat" is printed in Russia, and the issue with the article in question was confiscated at the border and never distributed. Bapi was sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to pay about $280 in court expenses. He was amnestied immediately afterward, but Bapi told RFE/RL he was still angered by the verdict:

"In any case, I'm not satisfied with the verdict. During the investigation, during the trial, when I answered the judge's questions and in my final statement at the trial, I did not accept that I was guilty of anything. The trial failed to prove that I was."

Bapi said he was not surprised journalist Asanov was found not guilty. He said a guilty verdict would have forced a closer examination of the article linking Nazarbayev to corrupt business deals -- something he said Kazakh officials were eager to avoid.

Outside observers are questioning the trial process and see the verdict as a warning to other Kazakh journalists. Alex Lupis is the coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ. He told RFE/RL that CPJ was "extremely disappointed" by the court proceedings against "Soldat" and the message it sent to other independent journalists:

"When governments do things like this, basically they try to issue a strong warning to journalists and they try to set a precedent to show that, 'okay, we're not putting you in jail but you are guilty for this and that means other people who do something similar can also be found guilty and may not be pardoned.' I think it's this game they play with journalists to try to instigate self-censorship and they're using 'Soldat' as an example for other independent journalists in the country."

Marilyn Greene, executive director of the Virginia-based World Press Freedom Committee, said "Soldat" has the reputation of being "a good source of independent information." She agreed that the trial was meant as a deliberate signal to other journalists:

"It's a chilling warning. It's a threat. And in most cases where something like this happens, journalists are smart enough to know that, 'well, I'd better not write that story because that might happen to me.' And this is exactly what the government wants them to think."

Greene says the "Soldat" trial is only the latest example of the Kazakh government's refusal to have its officials held up to public scrutiny in the country's press. CPJ's Lupis says the case did little to instill trust in the Kazakh government:

"The fact that the independent press is muzzled in Kazakhstan and the fact that the issue of political corruption can't be discussed openly really raises questions about the political situation in Kazakhstan."

Bapi says that, despite the amnesty, he plans to appeal the verdict.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)