The trial of Yevgeny Zhovtis, one of Kazakhstan's best-known human rights defenders, began today in the village of Bakanas, outside Almaty.
Zhovtis, founding director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, was driving his car through the area on July 26 when he struck and killed a young man.
He faces charges of manslaughter and violating the traffic code. If found guilty, he could receive up to five years in prison.
Human Rights Watch has called for a fair trial for Zhovtis. The international advocacy group and Zhovtis's supporters in Kazakhstan question the way the case has been handled so far.
Rights groups saay the case is an effort to pressure Zhovtis due to his pro-opposition activities.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch noted that Kazakhstan’s government has a record of harassing its critics, and it called on the Kazakh authorities not to use Zhovtis’s case to undermine his human rights work.
Immediately after the accident, a first test showed no alcohol in Zhovtis's blood and a police examination of the scene found that he had no chance to avoid the accident, which occurred when a drunken man reportedly crossed the street in front of Zhovtis's car.
However, Kazakh authorities later ordered a second probe that found alcohol in Zhovtis’s blood. The second probe also concluded that the fatal accident was avoidable.
Kazakh rights groups and government critics fear the authorities are using the case to put pressure on Zhovtis and punish him for his activities.
Aydos Sarym, an independent expert on Kazakh domestic politics, believes the outcome of the trial depends on the government's position.
"Some people recently said that the authorities organized this accident. I personally do not believe that," Sarym says. "However, as far as the trial result is concerned, there are different opinions, but I think that a lot will depend on official Astana’s position. If we talk specifically about Zhovtis’s case, of course, it may be resolved through higher authorities. The process of the trial may have political motives behind it.”
Kazakh authorities deny claims the case is politically motivated.
Kenjabulat Beknazarov, a spokesman for Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that there has been no political inference.
“Zhovtis was in involved in a traffic accident and the Committee of National Security is being blamed for that. It’s absurd," Beknazarov says. "Simply, it’s not acceptable for anyone in sound mind to claim that -- as if the [victim of the accident] had been injected with psychotropic drugs and pushed under the car wheels. It’s completely absurd.”
Experts are closely watching the case. The human rights situation in Kazakhstan has come under increasing scrutiny as the country is poised to take over the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010.
RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service contributed to this report.