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Kazakhstan: Opposition Leader Sentenced To Prison

Prague, 2 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A Kazakh court today found opposition leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov guilty of illegally selling state property while governor of Pavlodar Oblast from 1997 to 2001.

The court sentenced him to seven years in prison and ordered him to pay 2 million tenge ($13,000) in fines. The court also barred him from occupying an official position for three years.

Zhaqiyanov has 10 days to appeal the sentence. His lawyers say he will.

The verdict is likely to elicit controversy as Zhaqiyanov is a cofounder of the opposition Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) movement. The movement has been critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, accusing the president of holding money in bank accounts abroad.

Zhaqiyanov is the second founding member of the opposition movement to be jailed in two weeks, fueling suspicion the charges and trials are politically motivated.

Another cofounder, former Energy Minister Mukhtar Abliyazov, was sentenced to six years in jail last month on charges similar to those Zhaqiyanov faced. Since Abliyazov's ruling was given by the Supreme Court, he cannot appeal.

In court today, the audience applauded as Zhaqiyanov entered the room. He greeted the sentence calmly, while supporters immediately began to protest outside the courtroom. One of Zhaqiyanov supporters told RFE/RL: "Truth will remain the truth. We are not blind. It is not 1917. Ghalymzhan [Zhaqiyanov], we are with you. Ghalymzhan, don't give up, we are together. We wish you all the best."

Both opposition leaders maintained their innocence throughout the trials and dismissed charges brought against them as attempts to strangle Kazakhstan's opposition movement.

Totenai Bazarbek, a leader of the Alash nationalist party, agrees. "What is their guilt? They are former officials. They do not tolerate the current [political] system, and they have expressed their opinion. Now they are in prison. This means that the current system is not correct," Bazarbek said.

Western governments and human-rights bodies have expressed concern over the trials, which are widely seen as part of a deteriorating rights situation in the Central Asian country.

A new law on political parties has also drawn international attention and concern. It raises from 3,000 to 50,000 the minimum number of members a party needs to qualify for official re-registration. The law also requires that a party be dissolved if it fails to make it into parliament in two consecutive elections.

Opposition parties and human-rights groups argue the law will result in shutting down all but three of the country's 19 parties.

Last week, the outgoing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ambassador to Kazakhstan, Henrich Haupt, called the law "a serious threat to political pluralism." A few days before, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said both the new law and the trials put at risk democratic progress in Kazakhstan.

(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)