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Kazakhstan: Head Of Paper Accused Of Orchestrating Fire At His Offices

Prague, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh police say two suspected arsonists were arrested this week in an attack on the defunct opposition weekly "Delovoe obozrenie-respublika."

On 22 May, the paper's offices were burned down after the paper received anonymous warnings that its reporting about a financial scandal allegedly involving President Nursultan Nazarbaev should stop.

Almaty's Deputy Police Chief Nauryzbai Kadyrgozhaev told a press conference yesterday that the two suspects allege that the paper's co-founder, Muratbek Ketebaev, promised them money if they firebombed the offices. They also claim that Ketebaev gave them the materials to make the firebombs.

Kadyrgozhaev said the case will be passed on to prosecutors, who will decide whether to charge Ketebaev, who strongly denies the charges. Ketebaev was released from jail after his arrest on 8 July because there is no law against destroying one's own property. He was asked, however, not to leave town while investigations are under way.

Earlier yesterday, Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) held a press conference about its activities during the past six months. Answering a question from an RFE/RL correspondent about Ketebaev's case, Berik Oshanbaev, vice chairman of the KNB's department in Almaty, said: "A person was detained, and he is the person who ordered the crime. I cannot give more details because the Interior Affairs [police] department in Almaty is investigating the case."

Oshanbaev did not name the suspect, but his comment was an apparent reference to Ketebaev.

On 9 July, a press conference was organized at Almaty's National Press Club by Zauresh Battalova, a member of the parliament's upper chamber, the Senate; Baqytzhan Ketebaev, an editor of the independent TAN-TV channel, a co-founder of "Delovoe obozrenie-respublika" and the brother of Muratbek Ketebaev; and Yevgenii Zhovtis, head of the Kazakh Bureau on Human Rights.

It was reported that on the evening of 8 July, two unknown people approached Muratbek Ketebaev on the street and demanded $8,000 from him, according to an alleged agreement they had settled for the firebombing of the paper's office. Police then arrived and took the three protagonists away.

Baqytzhan Ketebaev said he believes there is a possibility that his brother will be tried, but that the accusations against him are "ridiculous." He reminded the audience that the Kazakh government uses many ways to crack down against the independent media. "In general, attacks against independent mass media in Kazakhstan can be classified into four [categories]: first, when editors of newspapers are brought on trial for alleged law breaking; second, when so-called hooligans break into offices, leaving the dead bodies of dogs or other things; third, when falsified accusations having nothing to do with journalism are built up -- for example, Irina Petrushova was brought on trial and accused of being a Russian citizen [and] she was sentenced to 1 1/2 years, and then amnestied -- fourth, when planned provocations against journalists are organized by special services," Baqytzhan Ketebaev said.

Earlier this month, Petrushova, the editor in chief of "Delovoe obozrenie-respublika," was sentenced for alleged business violations but was released because a judge ruled that the case fell under a wide-ranging amnesty granted last year on the 10th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence. Petrushova's lawyer said the case was politically motivated.

After the 9 July conference, Senator Battalova told RFE/RL that she supports Ketebaev. "I am convinced that this is a lie against Muratbek Ketebaev. I am sure that he has this problem because he and Irina Petrushova were the main people who ran the 'Respublika' newspaper, in which a lot of criticisms against the government were printed. Our regime disliked it," Battalova said.

The paper has widely reported on official corruption in Kazakhstan and published many stories about the prosecution of opposition activists.

Ermurat Bapi, editor in chief of the "SolDat" opposition newspaper, told RFE/RL that he is suspicious about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Ketebaev and his two alleged partners. "This is a provocation. It is clear that it was organized because police appeared immediately. And you know that usually you cannot reach police when needed. Now they try to say that 'Respublika's' office was burned not by some unknown people but by the owners of the newspaper themselves. They want to prove that they provided money to burn the office. You remember that my newspaper was also attacked. Now they say that two drug addicts have confessed that they attacked my newspaper. They want to prove that this is not politically motivated," Bapi said.

Last month, around the same time that "Respublika's" office was attacked, four people broke into "SolDat's" offices. They severely beat two journalists and removed equipment. Later, it was announced that two drug addicts had confessed to robbing the weekly.

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