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Kazakhstan: European Parliament Singles Out Opposition Leader For Recognition

Kazakh democratic opposition leader Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who is currently living in self-imposed exile in Europe, was handed a so-called Passport of Freedom this week during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The purpose of this honorary document is to show support for the democratic opposition in countries where human rights cannot be taken for granted.

Prague, 14 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Akezhan Kazhegeldin, the leader of the Kazakh Republican People's Party and former prime minister from 1994 to 1997, received Tuesday a so-called Passport of Freedom at a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

By issuing this honorary document to a "prominent opposition figure," the European Union says it intends to show its support for the democratic opposition in Kazakhstan, as well as anyone who is being persecuted for their political views in the country.

Kazhegeldin, who is currently living in self-imposed exile in Europe, expressed his satisfaction to RFE/RL. "This document was given to me, but I think, and it has already been said by several members of the [European] Parliament, that, although I have received this passport, it has not been only given to me but also to all the democrats in Kazakhstan, to all our comrades and colleagues there in Kazakhstan. I think this is a clear answer to their questions: What is going to happen with us? What will be achieved? Does anyone cares about us?" Kazhegeldin said.

Kazhegeldin was sentenced in absentia to 10 years' hard labor in September on charges of abuse of office, tax evasion, taking bribes, and illegal possession of weapons. The opposition has called the trial a farce, while the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kazakhstan has expressed doubt that the sentence conforms to international standards of justice.

Sharip Omarov, chairman of the Committee on International Affairs, Defense, and Security of the lower chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament (Mazhilis), declined to comment on the event. Omarov said it is too early to speak about democratic institutions in his country. "We are not members of the European Parliament. We don't have direct relations with the European Parliament. We are not part of Europe. We can't be part of Europe because they would not accept us. We are part of Eurasia, closer to Asia," Omarov said.

Ari Vatanen, a Finnish member of the European Parliament, is at the origin of the European Parliament's decision. He told RFE/RL that Kazhegeldin is the 27th person to receive a Passport of Freedom, adding that such a document has to be signed by 15 members of the parliament belonging to different political affiliations.

Kazhegeldin's Passport of Freedom has notably been signed by former president of the European Parliament, Spain's Jose Maria Gil-Delgado; by French writer and member of the Convention for the Future of Europe, Olivier Duhamel; and by German president of the Commission on Foreign Affairs at the parliament, Elmar Brok.

Vatanen said this "strong move" is a clear message to "ordinary citizens" and the leadership in Central Asia that the EU is committed to "basic values" of humanity, democracy, and human rights. "At the parliament, we don't take a stand who should be the leader of a country. We just support those profound values and Kazhegeldin is in Kazakhstan the figure who meets our criteria. And we believe that it will encourage Kazhegeldin in his work to promote these basic values. And also it gives the hope not just to him and people around him but people in Kazakhstan and people in Central Asia," Vatanen said.

Vatanen said he hopes this "very big" symbolic move will be followed by concrete actions from the EU. He warned that the European Parliament will watch "very carefully" the developments concerning Kazhegeldin, as well as the democratic process in Kazakhstan. "Because without real democracy, without human rights, without good governance, you cannot have development, you cannot have a better future. History has proven it. So therefore, we give our support to people like Mr. Kazhegeldin, who are promoting a better tomorrow for people in Kazakhstan and in Central Asia," Vatanen said.

While many local and international observers worry the West has turned its eyes away from human-rights abuses in the region to maintain the coalition against terrorism, Vatanen stressed that Europe must put pressure on Central Asian leaders to improve democracy in their respective states. "Human rights are something that cannot be compromised. Democracy cannot be diluted because it's for the benefit of everybody, except a few leaders. And I think that Europe as a whole should use more of its weight in order to help those people who fight for real democracy in any country," Vatanen said.

Vatanen said Europe should open up more trade with Central Asian countries in order to give local populations better hope of the future. According to Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry, trade turnover between Kazakhstan and EU member countries was about $3.52 billion last year, which is an increase of 19 percent over 2000. As of July 2001, 608 companies from EU member countries were registered in Kazakhstan.

The European Parliament's decision comes amid allegations of a sharp rise in human-rights abuses in Kazakhstan. The most recent example involves Galymzhan Zhaqiyanov, a founding member of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), who is said to be suffering from a heart condition that has been aggravated by his arrest in April. Despite the OSCE's repeated statement about the government's commitment to human rights, repeated requests to allow doctors to examine him have been rejected or ignored.

Zhaqiyanov had earlier taken refuge in the French embassy in Almaty to escape arrest. Zhaqiyanov handed himself over after EU and Kazakh officials signed a memorandum. Despite the terms of the memorandum, which called for Zhaqiyanov to remain under house arrest in Almaty, he is being kept incommunicado in a country house in the northern city of Pavlodar.

The government insists it is pursuing embezzlement charges against Zhaqiyanov, and accuses EU diplomats of meddling in the country's internal affairs.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service's Merkhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.)