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Kazakhstan: Former Premier Faces Trial In Absentia

Today is the last day the Kazakh Supreme Court heard testimony in the trial in absentia of opposition figure and former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Reports from the trial indicate the prosecution has not succeeded in building a solid case against Kazhegeldin. But the last two days of testimony, which were not made public, were said to involve matters of state security and may include some of the most damning evidence against the former official, who is an outspoken critic of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.

Prague, 24 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Testimony ended today in the trial of Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who stands charged with abuse of office during his term as Kazakh prime minister from 1994-1997. Some 75 witnesses have testified for the state since the trial began 15 August, but one figure has been conspicuously absent -- namely, Kazhegeldin himself, who fled Kazakhstan two years ago. He has refused to attend the trial in Astana, saying he fears political repression.

It is unclear when a verdict will be handed down. But observers say the state has done a poor job of building a case against the former prime minister, who has been charged with abuse of office, tax evasion, illegal arms possession, embezzlement, and illegally issuing decrees.

But the last two days of testimony -- which allegedly involved discussion of state secrets and were not made public -- may provide the evidence the Kazakh Supreme Court needs to hand down a guilty verdict.

Kazhegeldin, who has been an outspoken critic of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has repeatedly said the case against him is politically motivated. He denies the charges and last week (17 August) released a statement through his political party in Kazakhstan, the People's Republican Party, saying he doubted he would receive a fair trial. Aleksandr Tarabrin, Kazhegeldin's court-appointed lawyer, admitted he has never actually met the man he is defending:

"I only know all the things he has said to the press and what has been put on the Internet, what he agrees with and what he does not agree with. The main thing is, I know he categorically denies all charges against him and says he has not done anything wrong."

Prosecutors accuse Kazhegeldin of costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars through various corrupt dealings during his term as prime minister. The first few days of the trial focused on alleged tax breaks put on business contracts signed by Kazhegeldin without outside consultation. Defense lawyer Tarabrin argued that many of the government officials called in to testify against Kazhegeldin had been privy to the details of such business deals and were therefore equally culpable.

Some have also said that any contracts signed between March and December 1995 -- when the country ran without a parliament after the Kazakh Constitutional Court dissolved the body following election-result disputes -- cannot be questioned. During that period, Nazarbaev was Kazakhstan's sole voice on all legal matters. As such, he was ultimately responsible for any and all contracts signed by Kazhegeldin.

Amirzhan Kosanov is the committee chairman of the People's Republican Party, which Kazhegeldin formed in 1999 after being barred from running for the presidency earlier that year. On the third day of the trial, Kosanov said the testimony being provided by the state-called witnesses could not be considered credible:

"There are two points to be made here. One, the so-called witnesses invited to court are people in official positions and they are indebted to the government. We can imagine what sort of answers they will give -- the answers their bosses want to hear. Second, Kazhegeldin's reactions to all these indictments -- including his letter to [Prosecutor-General] Yuri Khitrin and his latest open letter -- with exception of some democratic media, did not appear in the [local] mass media, did not reach the people."

Shortly after Kosanov's statement, however, the trial took an unexpected turn. Witnesses testifying on Kazhegeldin's alleged tax evasion actually seemed to offer evidence supporting his claims of innocence. Former employees at the Halyqtyq Bank, where Kazhegeldin held an account, confirmed that $100,000 in book royalties had been deposited in 1997. But, the bank employees said, more than $23,000 of that was paid to tax authorities, albeit after some delay. Two tax officials later confirmed that this was true.

Earlier this week (21 August), Kazhegeldin's former bodyguard appeared in court to address charges of illegal weapons possession by the former prime minister. It wasn't clear from news reports whether bodyguard Satzhan Ibrayev -- who is himself serving a prison sentence for weapons possession -- provided any information on Kazhegeldin's alleged crimes. Ibrayev did, however, warn the people not to believe any stories that he committed suicide if he were to die at some point while in prison.

The next day, the former governor of the West Kazakhstan region and his deputy, who had both been called in to testify on an illegal revolver belonging to Kazhegeldin, said they had in fact given it to the former prime minister as a gift in 1996.

It is unclear how a verdict, guilty or otherwise, will affect Kazhegeldin, who has been living in the West since 1999. According to Ersayin Erqozha -- a Kazhegeldin supporter and member of Kazakhstan's "The Future of the New Generation is Knowledge" movement -- the trial is primarily intended to prevent the former prime minister from staging a political comeback:

"This is an attempt to make obstacles to keep Kazhegeldin from taking part in future elections."

If convicted, Kazhegeldin would automatically be barred from running for public office.