The Kazakh government denies there is any campaign against opposition groups and journalists in the country, but recent events raise doubts in the minds of many. Several opposition figures have encountered difficulties recently that, taken as individual incidents, could be ascribed to simple bad luck or coincidence. RFE/RL looks at the possibility the incidents are connected.
Prague, 28 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Kazakh government denies there is any campaign against opposition groups and journalists in the country, but recent events raise doubts.
Independent journalist Sergei Duvanov is facing charges of raping a 14-year-old girl, charges Duvanov denies. Another independent journalist, Nuri Muftakh, was run over in the parking lot of a bus station earlier this month. And the leader of Kazakhstan's Communist Party, Serikbolsyn Abdildin, said someone recently tried to poison him.
The International League for Human Rights is scheduled to give Duvanov an award on 9 December. A statement issued by the organization last week gives a fair idea of why Duvanov may have been a target in a campaign to silence government critics: "Sergei Duvanov has been harassed regularly, and last August he was beaten and a cross carved into his chest for his reporting on corruption involving Swiss bank accounts allegedly belonging to [Kazakh] President Nursultan Nazarbaev. In late October, he was arrested on sexual assault charges hours before he was to fly to the United States to speak on press freedom and human rights in Kazakhstan."
On a recent visit to Kazakhstan, OSCE representative Freimut Duve said the pattern of incidents involving Duvanov, including the rape charge, triggers concern that the case may be politically motivated. Duve warned the Kazakh authorities that they bear full responsibility for Duvanov's life while under arrest.
Reporters Without Borders has also expressed concern about Duvanov's case.
In the case of Muftakh, Kazakh authorities say they regard his death after being hit by a bus as an accident. But Erlan Bapi, the editor of the independent newspaper "SolDat," said he spoke with Muftakh just hours before the accident. "Before he [Muftakh] left from [the city of Shymkent] for Almaty, he called the director of a nongovernmental organization in Almaty. He said he would be in Almaty tomorrow morning and he was bringing news that would hit the Kazakh government like a bomb," Bapi said.
Muftakh had been following allegations that Kazakhstan's president had secretly transferred large amounts of money to foreign banks. Earlier this year, Nazarbaev did admit to transferring money, but said the funds were intended for use by the Kazakh government in case of emergency.
Bapi's newspaper has had its share of problems with Kazakh authorities. In fact, "SolDat" is something of a resurrection of "Dat," Bapi's earlier newspaper that was shut down by the authorities several years ago.
Yevgenii Zhovtis, the head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, works with Duvanov and knew Muftakh. Zhovtis's organization has been critical of the Kazakh government for some time, and he told RFE/RL that there have been mysterious deaths among his employees.
Zhovtis said one colleague, Dulat Tulegenov, allegedly "jumped" from a window in the western Kazakh city of Aktyubinsk. Tulegenov's death was listed as a suicide, but Zhovtis said he spoke with Tulegenov just a day before his death and found no indication that anything was amiss. And Zhovtis mentioned another colleague's death, Aleksei Pugaev, the circumstances of which were similar to Muftakh's. "Aleksei Pugaev, who died on 4 January this year, died in strange circumstances. He was hit by a car. They [the police] never found the car. He was hit not far from his home, at night, while he was crossing a wide, well-lit street," Zhovtis said.
Kazakh Communist Party leader Abdildin told RFE/RL that he believes someone tried to poison him earlier this month. "My glass that I usually drink from was in my office [at the parliament building]. I drank from it in the morning [of 15 November] and it was OK. But when I drank from it later that afternoon, I quickly felt very bad. I suddenly felt dizzy and my blood pressure jumped up. Doctors took me to hospital, gave me some medicine, and asked me to stay in the hospital, but I said, 'tomorrow Congress opens.' During the night, my stomach hurt so much that I went back to the doctor," Abdildin said.
Abdildin said he sent the water for analysis but had not received the results of the tests. He compared his tainted drink with the Duvanov case. Duvanov claims he not only did not rape the 14-year-old girl but was in fact incapacitated by a drugged drink at the time of the alleged crime.
As isolated incidents, it would be easy to dismiss these events, but the frequency with which they are happening naturally has led to concern.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher mentioned Kazakhstan's strange sequences of events in October, just after Duvanov was detained. "I'm sorry to say this string of abuses has continued, the pattern of harassment has continued. We'll have to continue to raise and press our concerns," Boucher said.
And press-freedom organizations have released several statements this year questioning the problems independent media are facing. There was a firebombing of one independent newspaper, and threats, one attached to the decapitated body of a dog, have been sent to independent newspaper editors and owners.
(Sultankhan Zhussip and Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)