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Kazakhstan: French, Kazakh Officials Discuss Status Of Opposition Leader In Embassy

French diplomats and Kazakh government officials today continued talks aimed at breaking a deadlock over the status of politician Galymzhan Zhakiyanov. Zhakiyanov, a member of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan opposition movement and a former regional governor, took refuge at the French embassy in Almaty on 29 March after a warrant was issued for his arrest. Zhakiyanov says the abuse-of-power charges leveled at him by Kazakh authorities are politically motivated.

Prague, 2 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh opposition leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov today remained holed up in the French embassy in Almaty for a fifth day after evading arrest by Kazakh law-enforcement officials. Zhakiyanov arrived secretly at the embassy on 29 March after fleeing a hotel surrounded by police.

Zhakiyanov, a leader of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan opposition movement, is charged with abuse of office and the illegal sale of state-run companies to "suspicious" firms. The case dates back to his tenure as governor of the northern Pavlodar region from 1997 to 2001.

French Ambassador Serge Smessov today described the events that led to Zhakiyanov receiving refuge in the embassy.

"On [Friday the] 29th of March, we had a short meeting with Mr. Zhakiyanov, who asked for this meeting. It was at the end of the morning. Mr. Zhakiyanov left my office, and I thought he left the embassy. When I came back, Mr. Zhakiyanov was still there. [I] asked for the reason for his presence on the premises [of the embassy], and he said that there was a threat on his security. And then he asked me for permission to stay there for some time, for a while."

Smessov declined to give details about ongoing discussions between the embassy and Kazakh officials on Zhakiyanov's status, saying only that there was some "positive news."

In remarks cited by Agence France Presse, Smessov said, "There is a lot of goodwill, and I do hope that that will help solve this situation. Now that the Easter weekend is over I think the situation will evolve even faster."

Smessov said he hoped Zhakiyanov would not remain at the embassy much longer, but ruled out handing him over to the authorities. The ambassador said he hoped the impasse would not mar his country's relations with Kazakhstan.

The European Union yesterday weighed in on the case. Spain, which currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, said it did not want to interfere in Kazakh internal affairs or risk spoiling its relations with the Central Asian republic. It also said it was unhappy that a mission from one of its member states had become involved in the awkward stalemate.

Zhakiyanov has threatened to go on a hunger strike to protest what he calls the "arbitrary behavior" of the Kazakh authorities. In an open letter to Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, the opposition politician said, "Until the adoption of effective measures to defend my interests from arbitrary behavior by the National Security Committee, Interior Ministry and prosecutor-general of Kazakhstan, and until I get your reply, I am forced to resort to a hunger strike and demand protection from the [foreign] embassies, on whose territories I am now staying." The German, British, and French embassies are all located in the same building in Almaty, although Zhakiyanov remains in the French section.

Politicians and human rights activists have gathered outside the embassy building in an effort to protect Zhakiyanov from arrest should he leave the building. Pro-government students from Almaty's Academy of Agriculture have waged a counterprotest.

Zhakiyanov's supporters say authorities are aiming to stifle Kazakhstan's fledgling democratic opposition by systematically arresting its leaders. On 27 March, Mukhtar Ablyazov -- another Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan leader -- was detained by the financial police. Ablyazov, who remains in police custody, faces charges dating back to the late 1990s, when he headed Kazakhstan's KEGOC national electric company (1997-98) and then served as minister of energy, industry, and trade (1998-99).

At a demonstration held yesterday outside the embassy, Amirzhan Kosanov, head of the opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL the opposition is determined to see that Zhakiyanov does not end up in police custody like Ablyazov.

"Kazakh officials still consider Mukhtar Ablyazov and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov guilty. That's why they demanded that the French embassy hand [Zhakiyanov] over to the Kazakh Internal Affairs Department. Here, as you see, the street is closed and about 20 policemen from the secret service are present, watching the situation. Deputy Foreign Minister Erlan Idirizov also came, but failed to take Galymzhan Zhakiyanov out [of the embassy]. But different parties and organizations are determined to take care of Mr. Zhakiyanov."

Kosanov spoke again later in the day, at a press conference at which opposition leaders called on the embassies of several European countries, the United States, and Russia to support Kazakhstan's goal of achieving democracy. Kosanov told the conference: "Different organizations inside and outside the republic are backing the action of the opposition in supporting Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov. They demand the release of Ablyazov and a stop to the repression of Zhakiyanov. European and American embassies are paying attention to the situation. The American embassy made a special statement saying these events are politically motivated."

On 29 March, the U.S. embassy in Almaty expressed "surprise and concern" at the cases against both Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov, as well as a recent attack on the private TAN-TV television station. In a statement, the embassy said: "Taken together, the actions suggest an effort to intimidate political opposition leaders and the independent media."

The TAN-TV attack occurred last week, when a group of armed men entered the station's transmission facilities and destroyed equipment, forcing the station off the air. Some observers believe the attack was linked to the station's plan to broadcast an antigovernment demonstration called by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan.

The ongoing diplomatic incident involving Zhakiyanov threatens to damage Kazakhstan's warm ties with the West, which has invested billions of dollars in the country's booming oil and gas sector. Kazakhstan's government warned on 30 March that the decision by the French embassy to shelter the opposition leader could hurt the Central Asian nation's relations with the EU.

Following a meeting yesterday between a Kazakh diplomat and the ambassadors from France, Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece, and the Netherlands, a senior Kazakh government official told Reuters that Kazakhstan had urged the EU to remain neutral.

"Kazakhstan values highly its friendly ties with EU states and would not like this situation to cause irreparable damage to these relations," the official was quoted as saying.

Kazakh authorities have warned that Zhakiyanov will not be permitted to leave the country under any circumstances. Speaking on television on 30 March, Interior Minister Kairbek Suleimenov said, "We are dealing with a primitive criminal who once held a high state post."

But according to a spokesman for the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, Zhakiyanov is only seeking "temporary shelter" in the French embassy and does not intend to apply for political asylum. The spokesman, Vladimir Kozlov, said: "As far as I know, there has been no demand for political asylum. He does not want to be a political exile."

Kozlov added that Democratic Choice members believe the cases against both Zhakiyanov and Ablyazov are politically motivated. The Democratic Choice movement, founded by liberal politicians last year and officially registered in January, has harshly criticized President Nazarbaev for failing to move forward with democratic reforms.

(Abdigani Zhiyenbay of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)