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Kazakhstan: Opposition, Independent Media Pressured Ahead Of Abliyazov Trial

The trial of leading opposition figure Mukhtar Abliyazov is scheduled to begin in Kazakhstan's Supreme Court on 24 June. The country is receiving more international attention now due to the campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, and Kazakh authorities seem anxious to ensure that opposition parties and independent media do not damage the country's image by holding demonstrations and disseminating information about the trial. RFE/RL looks at recent moves to keep information about the trial to a minimum and limit any protests.

Prague, 20 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With only days left before the trial against leading opposition figure Mukhtar Abliyazov opens in Kazakhstan's Supreme Court, members of some opposition groups and independent media say they are feeling pressure from the government to maintain a low profile.

At the same time, a second opposition figure, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov -- who is in detention in northern Kazakhstan -- has been denied access to visitors, raising concerns about his treatment. The cases of both opposition figures have attracted the attention of the international media despite attempts by the Kazakh authorities to deal with the matter quietly.

Abliyazov will appear before the Supreme Court on 24 June. In detention since March, he faces charges of abuse of office and illegal entrepreneurial activities while he was energy minister in 1998-99. His supporters say, however, the real reason behind his detention was his formation last November of a new political movement, the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK). The DVK has been active in calling for an investigation into alleged foreign bank holdings by top government officials, including Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Zhaqiyanov, a former regional governor, is a co-founder of the DVK. He is expected eventually to stand trial on corruption charges as well.

The political opposition has rallied around Abliyazov and Zhaqiyanov. The DVK, together with the Republican People's Party, formed by former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, have established a committee to work for the release of the two opposition leaders.

Maira Abenova is a leading member of the committee and head of the Republican People's Party branch in the northern Semipalatinsk Oblast. She told RFE/RL her activities have attracted the attention of the local police, who last week paid her a visit. "I was asked [by the police] if the Committee for the Liberation of Abliyazov and Zhaqiyanov was registered. [Then] they took away articles [we wrote] for [the newspaper] 'Mening Kazakhstan' and the press releases for the committee to protect Zhaqiyanov [and Abliyazov]," Abenova said.

Magripa Tluebek Kyzy is the editor in chief of the newspaper "Ush Anyq" in Semipalatinsk. Her newspaper runs stories about the officials' alleged foreign bank accounts and about Abliyazov and Zhaqiyanov, but it may not continue to do so for long. The editor describes a recent conversation with the head of the newspaper's publishing house. "He looks over the material and says 'you have to first remove this, this, and this [article].' We can't print it. We have instructions not to print it," Kyzy said.

Gennadii Bondarenko, the DVK branch head in Pavlodar, wrote letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian State Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev, and Russian Ambassador to Kazakhstan Yurii Merzlyakov, asking them to grant moral and political support to the country's people. Bondarenko said "artificial motives" have been invented to persecute the party's supporters, government agencies ban peaceful rallies and assemblies on closed premises, party members are followed illegally, their personal and office phones are bugged, and their mail is inspected.

Such harassment is not limited to northern Kazakhstan. Aset Assandi is a DVK leader in the southern city of Shymkent. He said the police also visited him recently. "Two policemen came and tried to take me away. When I asked why, they said their boss wanted to see me and they said they didn't know. I told them, 'Tell your boss I'm too busy to see him.' They said if I failed to go [with them] they would have to record the fact I refused. I told them, 'Prepare the papers, but I'm not going.' They started shouting at me, saying that they would force me. They jerked my hands behind my back, but I said, 'Come to me with a warrant and we'll talk,'" Assandi said.

Meanwhile, Zhaqiyanov remains in custody -- and, reportedly, in very ill health -- in the Pavlodar Oblast where he once was governor.

Members of various opposition parties tried to see him earlier this week. Leader of the AZAT movement Ersain Erkozha, leader of the Pokolenie movement Irina Savostina, and head of the AZAMAT movement Marzhan Aspandiarova all went to Pavlodar, but none of them were able to see Zhaqiyanov, who is being guarded by eight members of the special police.

Aspandiarova spoke at a press conference where she described what little she could find out about Zhaqiyanov's state. "They are giving [Zhaqiyanov] injections of strong narcotics. No one can find out the dosage or how often he receives the injections. I heard they are giving him Demerol [a strong tranquilizer]. And in this state, he is forced to review the [12 volumes of] charges against him," Aspandiarova said.

Zhaqiyanov took sanctuary in the French Embassy in Almaty in late March after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. He left after six days, after the French, German, British, and U.S. embassies had received assurances from Kazakh authorities that Zhaqiyanov would remain free in Almaty, with access to national and international media. Instead, he was put on a plane almost immediately and sent to Pavlodar. He has not been seen publicly since.

The Kazakh government says both Abliyazov and Zhaqiyanov are in the north because that is where they committed their alleged crimes. But the move has effectively cut them off from the media as well.

Others may argue that the Economist Intelligence Unit assessment of Kazakhstan on 14 June tells a more correct version of what is happening now. The organization wrote: "There is a growing risk that the recent intensification of the opposition's political activity could translate into more effective acts of mass mobilization. The security services will step up harassment of opposition figures, and media controls will tighten further."

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)