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Kazakhstan: Rights Groups Cry Foul In Journalist Rape Case

Kazakh independent journalist Sergei Duvanov has been arrested for allegedly raping or attempting to rape an underage girl. Duvanov, known for articles critical of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, had been due to travel to the Unites States this week to report on Kazakhstan's human rights situation. Observers and members of the political opposition question the timing of the arrest and the truthfulness of the charges.

Prague, 30 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh officials are holding independent journalist Sergei Duvanov on suspicion of raping or attempting to rape an underage girl.

Duvanov was detained on 28 October shortly before he was scheduled to travel to the U.S. to deliver a report on human rights in Kazakhstan.

Officials say Duvanov faces 10 years imprisonment if found guilty. A spokeswoman for the Almaty city Interior Ministry department told journalists: "[Duvanov] is in detention. He is being interrogated. He was placed in preliminary detention center in Qaskelen, Qarasai district. The official accusation against him is 'rape of a juvenile.' The juvenile is a 14-year-old girl. Her surname is Kapelushina and she came to visit [Almaty] with her mom from Qaraghandy."

The 49-year-old Duvanov has denied the allegations. He said in a statement, "I am simply being discredited in the eyes of my Western colleagues in the most dirty and untruthful fashion."

Duvanov is the editor of the weekly bulletin of the International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law and an active member of the Kazakh political opposition.

The story of the alleged abuse is a strange one. Duvanov has admitted that on 27 October he allowed his neighbors -- along with their daughter and one of her friends, both minors -- to use the sauna in his summer house. He said that after the neighbors left, he used the sauna and later lost consciousness after drinking tea that may have contained a drug. The following day, he says, he was awakened by police.

Duvanov is well-known for his criticism of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, including a series of articles on allegations that Nazarbaev and members of his entourage funneled government funds into Swiss bank accounts for personal use.

In July, the Kazakh Committee on National Security opened a criminal investigation of Duvanov. The following month, Duvanov was beaten in an attack. The attack was widely condemned abroad. The U.S. government said it fits "a pattern of harassment of Kazakhstan's independent media." Nazarbayev's office denied any wrongdoing and said the attack was aimed at discrediting Kazakhstan.

Duvanov's supporters say the alleged rape is simply another provocation. They point to what they say are troubling discrepancies in the official sequence of events.

Zhemis Turmaghambetova, the deputy chairwoman of the Kazakh Bureau on Human Rights, tells RFE/RL that officials mistakenly distributed a document they thought was a press release, but which turned out to be a set of instructions from the presidential press service on what to tell journalists. Turmaghambetova says the time stamp on the document indicates it was faxed from the press service some 90 minutes before Duvanov was arrested.

"All this is a provocation. Look at the time written [on the document]. It says 6:48 a.m., when Duvanov was still asleep. He was detained and brought to the police station at 8:00 a.m. So at 6:48 a.m., the instructions [for the press conference] were already prepared. This is provocation planned beforehand."

The presidential press service has declined to give an explanation.

Duvanov's arrest has sparked international reaction.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration of President George W. Bush will continue to press concerns about democracy, human rights and press freedom in Kazakhstan. "I'm sorry to say this string of abuses has continued, the pattern of harassment has continued. We'll have to continue and press our concerns."

The U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. government, has also expressed deep suspicions over the charges, especially the timing of the arrest.

Duvanov was due to fly to the U.S. on 28 October to report on Kazakhstan's human rights situation as a guest of organizations such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and the Open Society Institute in New York.

Peter Zalmayev, a program coordinator at the New-York-based International League for Human Rights in New York, tells RFE/RL: "[Duvanov] was going to leave for the United States on Monday, 28 October, to meet with U.S. officials, including those at the State Department. And I believe these charges are designed to prevent Sergei [Duvanov] from participating in these very important meetings."

Zalmayev rejects the charges against Duvanov, noting that his organization regards the detainee as one of the most prominent journalists in Central Asia. "[Kazakh authorities] have targeted Sergei [Duvanov] and other journalists and activists in the past. They have prevented various individuals from traveling abroad. So this is not the first time. I'm however surprised that this comes almost immediately after this recent brutal attack against Sergei when he was assailed by three unknown individuals [in August] and bound up in a hospital. And we believe that was in retaliation for his articles."

Other international watchdogs -- such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists -- say they have not yet reached a definitive conclusion and have called for a transparent investigation into the matter.

Media groups point to a series of recent attacks against independent media outlets and opposition journalists in Kazakhstan. The office of opposition daily "Delovoe-Obozrenie-Respublica" was firebombed in May after its editor was sent a dog's corpse as a "last warning." The office of "SolDat," another opposition paper, was vandalized and two of its journalists beaten. It's still not clear who was behind those attacks.

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